Clause 3 - Assisting a foreign intelligence service

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:15 am ar 12 Gorffennaf 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:15, 12 Gorffennaf 2022

I beg to move, amendment 49, in clause 3, page 3, line 30, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert

“activities which are prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Government amendments 1 to 4.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On the face of it, the offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service in the UK or, in the case of UK persons, anywhere else is long overdue. Under the Bill, the offence is rightly a serious one and is capable of seeing a person in prison for 14 years.

We have tabled the amendment to push the Government on whether they have got the scope of the offence right, to ensure that we do not catch people who were not intended to be caught. In particular, is there not a danger that, as drafted, the offence punishes behaviour that might actually be consistent with, or even positively beneficial to, UK interests? That may come about because, as the Minister explained, we no longer have the concept of enemy services and also because of the very limited scope of the prejudice test.

What does “assisting” mean? It means assisting a foreign intelligence service in carrying out “UK-related activities”. Where those activities are outside the UK, it is only an offence to assist that service as a UK person if those activities are

“prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom”.

However, where those activities are in the UK, there is no need for those activities to be prejudicial at all—any conduct which assists those activities is very likely criminal. I can well understand that a clear ban on assisting any conduct that supports Foreign Intelligence Service activities is attractive, but I will give another hypothetical example, which is much more dangerous than my earlier one, because it does not come from any briefing—I have had to make it up myself, so let us see how it goes.

What if the Estonian intelligence services, for example, believe that a member of their embassy staff in London is providing information to the Russians? They ask an Estonian student who lives in the same apartment block as that staff member to allow access to her apartment to undertake eavesdropping, or they ask her to undertake some monitoring, such as noting times of arrival or departure. That activity by the Estonian intelligence services, or by that student on their behalf, seems positively consistent with UK interests, but as drafted, it would amount to a serious criminal offence under clause 3.

The clause is so widely drafted that I worry that lots of people involved in setting up and facilitating a future meeting between the head of MI6 and the CIA might be in danger of committing an offence, whether they pick him up at the airport, provide him with a hotel room or serve him breakfast. I very much look forward to being reassured that that is not the case.

The amendment would ensure that, as with activities outside the UK, conduct here would have to be intended to support activities adverse to UK interests, or to be such that a person ought reasonably to know that it would possibly assist activities adverse to UK interests. There might be different ways of fixing this potential problem—perhaps a different hurdle can be used to assess “in the UK” activities, such as “inconsistent with UK interests.”

On the Government’s amendments, why do the Government intend to turn the relevant provision into a defence, which then puts the burden on the person accused? The explanatory notes talk of clarifying that it is a defence, but that seems a very deliberate change of mind by the Government, especially if one reads the explanatory notes, which say that clause 3(7)

“sets out exceptions to the offence to ensure that legitimate conduct that is within the UK’s interests is not caught withing the offence.”

That is what the explanatory notes say about the original drafting of the Bill, so it is not clear why the Government have had a change of heart, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Llafur, North Durham 10:30, 12 Gorffennaf 2022

I understand the thrust of the clause, but I would like some clarification on the definition of assisting a foreign power. I have one historical example, although I think it might not work. Eddie Chapman— Agent Zigzag from the second world war—was working for both sides. He was a UK agent and a Nazi agent. He got an Iron Cross for his misinformation work. In that case, he was not assisting a foreign power, because he was given dud information, but what about the case of a UK-based foreign diplomat who is working against us and supporting his or her nation, but is also then feeding information to us? It could be argued that that individual is working against our interests, because they are working on behalf of that other nation, but separately they might be the source of information. What would happen to that individual?

Gordievsky is a good example; he was in the Russian embassy in London for many years, feeding a lot of vital information to the UK, but his daily activities would have been prejudicial to the UK’s interests. How would the clause apply to individuals like that? Would they be separated out because of their benefit to us, although certain activities they are conducting would not be of benefit? I give just two historical examples, but there might be others in the future. Where would those individuals fall under the provisions in the clause?

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As we have heard, the clause introduces a new espionage offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service. A person commits an offence if that person

“engages in conduct of any kind, and…intends that conduct to materially assist a foreign intelligence service in carrying out UK-related activities.”

Once again, we are broadly supportive of the clause. As highlighted by the Government’s own integrated review in 2021, threats to Government Departments, national infrastructure, British business and private individuals are growing and becoming ever more complex as states become more assertive in advancing their aims. The clause goes a long way towards updating the threat posed by modern-day espionage and the changes are long overdue. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 Russia report stated:

“The current legislation enabling action against foreign spies is acknowledged to be weak. In particular, the Official Secrets Acts are out of date—crucially, it is not illegal to be a foreign agent in this country.”

Nevertheless, it is important that the Government clarify a number of different aspects of the clause. I highlight two recommendations from the Law Commission’s 2020 review of the Official Secrets Act. Recommendation 12.5 stated:

“In any new statute to replace the Official Secrets Act 1911, the requirement that the defendant’s conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power should continue to be objectively determined. There should be no requirement to prove that the defendant personally knew or believed that his or her conduct had such capability.”

Will the Minister confirm that that requirement is compatible with the new offence established in clause 3?

The Law Commission also highlighted the danger of an individual unknowingly assisting a foreign intelligence service and then still being charged and convicted with the same offence as an individual who actively sought to assist a foreign intelligence service. This defence is currently accounted for in the Official Secrets Act 1989, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham discussed. I appreciate that that Act is not being updated by this legislation, but the principle still stands. The Law Commission’s recommendation 12.24 stated:

“The ‘defence’, currently contained in section 1(5) of the Official Secrets Act 1989, of not knowing and having no reasonable grounds to believe that the material disclosed related to security or intelligence, should continue to apply.”

It is naive to think that foreign intelligence services advertise who they are and what they are planning to do with any information they are given by someone or in any engagement they may have. The duping of individuals is a somewhat common tool in espionage tradecraft. Let us say that an overseas business research company commissions a UK national to explain how the UK’s parliamentary processes work, but it transpires that the business research company was working for a foreign intelligence service. Under clause 3, could the UK national still be tried for assisting a foreign intelligence service?

We welcome the exemptions in subsection (7) that create an appropriate space for democratic obligations and diplomacy to take place, especially as the Bill makes no distinction between countries that are our allies and those that are hostile and seek to undermine the UK’s interests. However, I also note that the offence is explicit about the definition of a foreign intelligence service. On first reading, I had concerns that where someone is sharing information with a former member of intelligence services, the definition might not extend to criminalising that conduct. As the old saying goes, once a KGB officer, always a KGB officer.

However, given that the definition included in subsection (9) outlines that “foreign intelligence service” means

“any person whose functions include carrying out intelligence activities for or on behalf of a foreign power”,

I understand that anyone sharing information with former KGB officers, for example, would be committing an offence. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the case.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

That was a range of great examples, and I will do my best to address them. The whole purpose of the clause is to provide our world-class intelligence agencies and law enforcement with the tools to respond appropriately to activity conducted in and against the UK by foreign intelligence services that wish to cause us harm. Although the Government understand and appreciate the intention behind the amendment, we propose to reject it.

The distinction between activities taking place inside the UK and those taking place overseas was deliberate. For activity taking place overseas, clause 3(4) requires the conduct to be

“prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom.”

That is to ensure that we target the most harmful activity overseas that has an appropriate link to the UK. For activity taking place inside the UK, there is currently no requirement for the activity to be prejudicial to the safety or interests of the UK. However, taking into account the defence in clause 3(7), foreign intelligence service activity carried out in the UK without even informal agreement or assent is inherently prejudicial to the UK’s safety or interests. Having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt why that activity is prejudicial risks creating a high evidential threshold that could, as we try to meet it, potentially compound the damage caused.

Clause 3(4)(a) has been drafted to ensure that the offence can prevent a wide range of activities from occurring and prevent threats from developing. Any legitimate activity would be covered by the three elements of the defence in clause 3(7), so there are appropriate safeguards in place. If a foreign intelligence service carried out activity in the UK and its conduct did not fall under clause 3(7), we must be able to call it out for what it is and prevent further harm from being caused. The current construction of clause 3(4) allow us to do exactly that, and the amendment risks reducing the operational utility of the clause as a whole.

We cannot allow the UK to become a hotbed for foreign intelligence services running covert and deceptive operations. I understand the examples that have been given, and I am looking into some of them, but the reality is that we need to be in a position to protect the intelligence services and give them an opportunity to go out there and deal with these people and the threats we face. As I have said, we have three protections throughout the whole Bill. We are coming up with lots of examples, but by answering each of them specifically, we will just provide our enemies and state threats with ways to work around the offence.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but it is important to work through hypothetical examples so that we can understand the scope of the Bill. I absolutely get his explanation as to why there is a distinction between activity inside and outside the UK, and he briefly mentioned the idea of a friendly foreign intelligence service—in my example, the Estonian intelligence service—having permission to engage in the activities that I described. That may well be the solution. I will take away what the Minister has said. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I beg to move Government amendment 1, in clause 3, page 4, leave out line 1 and insert—

“In proceedings for an offence under this section it is a defence to show that the person engaged”.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Ceidwadwyr, North Wiltshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 2 to 4.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The amendment clarifies that clause 3(7) contains a defence, rather than an exception, because it may be unclear which of the two it is as currently drafted. In doing so, two changes must be made to the clause. One will insert new wording to show that clause 3(7) is a defence, and the other will insert subsection (7A), which states that the defendant must adduce some evidence to establish that a matter in clause 3(7) is satisfied. The prosecution will then be required to prove that it is not met beyond a reasonable doubt.

We tabled the amendments to provide clarity to the operational community and to make absolutely clear the intention behind the offence. Clarifying that clause 3(7) is a defence places an evidential burden on the defendant to adduce evidence that one of the three conditions in subsection (7) applies to them. If someone raises a defence under subsection (7), the prosecution will need to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the defence does not apply.

There are three separate elements to subsection (7). If it is an exception, the prosecution would be required to prove in all cases beyond reasonable doubt that none of the three elements applies. That would potentially be challenging to evidence, given the wide range of circumstances under which the matters in the clause may arise. In effect, the prosecution would have to prove a negative. Where an offence is believed to have been committed and a prosecution is pursued, subsection (7) being an exception would mean that all three conditions would need to be shown not to apply in each case that is brought forward for prosecution. That is not our intention, and the amendment will mean that defendants must raise a defence under subsection (7), and the prosecution must then prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it does not apply.

We have worked closely with our operational partners, law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service on this amendment to provide greater clarity about the scope of clause 3. By tabling this amendment to subsection (7), we can more clearly represent the policy intention behind clause 3 as a whole.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I have the Minister’s explanation. We considered the implications of Government amendments 1 to 4 earlier, and on that basis we are satisfied.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendments made: 2, in clause 3, page 4, line 8, leave out “is” and insert “was”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 3, in clause 3, page 4, line 10, leave out “is” and insert “was”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Amendment 4, in clause 3, page 4, line 10, at end insert—

“(7A) A person is taken to have shown a matter mentioned in subsection (7) if—

(a) sufficient evidence of the matter is adduced to raise an issue with respect to it, and

(b) the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.” —

This amendment provides that a defendant bears an evidential burden in relation to the defence in clause 3(7).

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.