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Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Volume 631: debated on Thursday 16 November 2017

I beg to move,

That Richard Benyon, Ian Blackford, Caroline Flint, Mr Dominic Grieve, David Hanson, Mr Kevan Jones and Mr Keith Simpson be appointed to the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament under section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013.

Under the terms of section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2013, members of the Intelligence and Security Committee are nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the respective House. The Prime Minister has nominated the members, following the required consultations with the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The House is now being asked to make the appointments in accordance with the Act.

I am delighted to welcome the long overdue reconstitution of this Committee and wish it well with its work. It is nice to see at least two of its members in the Chamber this evening.

I do beg my hon. Friend’s pardon.

I hope that one of the Committee’s early inquiries will be into Russian interference in the UK. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been raising questions about this for the past year, during which the evidence of Russian interference in the American presidential election became credible and compelling. Until recently, the UK Government gave every impression of not wanting to talk about it, but mounting evidence on both sides of the Atlantic of covert Russian propaganda and social media activity, and the role of dark money in our democracy, makes it imperative that the Intelligence and Security Committee looks at this as a matter of urgency. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has already launched an inquiry and the Electoral Commission is conducting investigations into Russian-backed interference in the referendum, including with regard to social media and the funding of the pro-Brexit campaign and its main financial backer, Arron Banks.

The American investigation into alleged collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, led by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, has also now reached Britain. The FBI has named Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, as a person of interest, and Mueller has indicted a former Trump campaign operative, George Papadopoulos, who had meetings in London with a UK-based academic, Josef Mifsud, to discuss the latter obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin. We know that Mr Papadopoulos has had access to British Ministers, and that Professor Mifsud has met the Foreign Secretary, although that was at first denied.

While it is imperative that the Government and their agencies give the fullest help and co-operation to the Culture Committee, the Electoral Commission and the Mueller investigations—although I know this is not his area of responsibility, I would be grateful if the Minister could assure the House that that will be the case, especially as I have been told that the Mueller team was in London recently and was not happy with the co-operation it was receiving from the UK authorities—it is the Intelligence and Security Committee that has much freer and direct access to our intelligence and security services and can question them directly. That is why its reconstitution is so important.

Despite the mounting evidence of recent months, the Foreign Secretary was still insisting last week that he had seen no evidence of Russian interference, but on Monday the Prime Minister said, or at least implied, something very different in her Mansion House speech. She excoriated the Putin regime for hacking, interfering in elections, and spreading fake news to sow discord in western democracies and threaten our international order.

It would be helpful to the Houses of Parliament and the country as a whole if the Government would end this confusion now. Is Britain among the countries that the Prime Minister had in mind when she made her speech? Indeed, it would be rather odd, given the uniquely disruptive impact of the Brexit vote and Putin’s well publicised desire for it, if Britain alone were immune from the Kremlin’s intentions. If the Government will not clear this up, I hope the ISC will. I hope that the ISC will also use its good offices to ensure that the Government and all their agencies give every assistance necessary to the other UK bodies investigating these matters and to Robert Mueller’s team.

Additionally, I urge the ISC to include the issue of dark money and the role of think-tanks in any of its deliberations on this matter. We know that more than £400,000 was donated during the EU referendum to the Democratic Unionist party by the Constitutional Research Council. The CRC has also given money to hard Brexit-supporting MPs, including the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). It was reported last week that the fine the Electoral Commission imposed as a result of the DUP donation resulted from a failure to disclose its source. That is not acceptable.

My right hon. Friend is making a brilliant and forensic speech, and he is to be commended by us all for pursuing this matter over the past year. Does he agree that a priority for the ISC should be to get to the bottom of whether foreign money was donated to the election campaigns and to the referendum campaign? A gap in the law means that the Electoral Commission is not empowered to investigate foreign actors and foreign money, and their influence on our democracy and this House.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Our legal framework is completely outdated for meeting the challenges that we face.

There is a further issue that I hope the Government will address. They have promised to close the loophole in Northern Ireland, where political donations remain secret for historical reasons, but that is completely unacceptable. It is quite clear that Northern Ireland has recently been used as a channel for such donations. The Government, to their credit, have said that they will change the law. Every single party in Northern Ireland— except the DUP, I think—believes that such a change should be retrospective. That would allow us to go back to the time of the referendum so that we would know where the money came from, and we could have full confidence in the integrity of our political and democratic process.

I also urge the ISC to look at the Legatum Institute, its relationship with the Government, and the background of its founder and main funder, Christopher Chandler. It should also consider the activities and funding of political organisations such as Conservative Friends of Russia, now renamed as the Westminster Russia Forum.

I come now to my final and perhaps most important point: the relationship between our intelligence and security services and those of our closest ally, America; and the relationship of each with their respective Government. President Trump is at war with his intelligence community. He has made it abundantly clear that he would sooner believe Putin than his own intelligence and security professionals. That is shocking, but it would be even more worrying for us if that breakdown in relations were mirrored here and had a negative impact on the vital work of our agencies and the extent of their co-operation with their US counterparts.

When the news website BuzzFeed ran a series of articles recently about unexplained Russia-related deaths in Britain, its head of investigations, Heidi Blake, was inundated with American intelligence sources complaining that they did not think their British counterparts were taking these incidents seriously. If that is true, it is extremely worrying.

Until recently, British Ministers have gone out of their way to avoid talking about Russian interference. They might have been worried about doing anything that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of the EU referendum result or embarrass President Trump, from whom they hope to get a trade deal to save them from the Brexit disaster.

I hope the ISC, now that it will finally be reconstituted, will be able to reassure itself and this Parliament that our intelligence and security services continue to act freely within the law, unhampered by any narrow political concerns of Ministers, and that their vital co-operation with their US counterparts has not been affected by the breakdown between the latter and their President. This issue goes to the heart of the security and integrity of our democracy and political system, and I wish the members of the Committee well in their important work ahead.

I want briefly to add to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s to-do list, because it is important that there should be a rapid study—with conclusions brought to the House, when appropriate—of what is a rapidly emerging 21st century propaganda operation for which a playbook emerged during the elections in Europe and in America, and in our recent referendum campaign. That involves some reasonably sophisticated techniques in fabricating division and discord on social media platforms such as Twitter, which are then imported into social media networks such as Facebook, with significant—often dark—money behind them, to spread messages that are quite simply not true.

The impact of that is often to undermine democracy, and we in the mother of Parliaments have a particular duty to ensure that the new techniques are fully exposed and that commensurate action is taken against them. We have talked about the gaps in our laws, and we must make sure that the disinfectant of sunlight shines right the way through the elections we have had so that those laws can be fixed.

I speak not only as a former member of the ISC, but as someone who was involved in the 1980s in trying to counter what were called active measures—the use by the Soviet Union of agents of influence and organisations to try to have an impact on British public opinion. The difference between then and now is that it was then quite easy to expose who was behind the influence operations, but now that is much harder because the internet allows concealment.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main antidotes to the concerns expressed in this debate is that the intelligence agencies, and particularly the new technological arm of GCHQ that deals with the internet, should work to expose who is behind the messages that are coming through? We cannot stop messages getting through, but we can neutralise them by showing up their provenance.

The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. There are well-sourced reports that there have been at least two briefings about Russian interference to the Prime Minister, if not the Cabinet. It is not clear what action was taken in response, but it is now quite clear that dark forces have new techniques. We recognise their fingerprints in some of the referendums and elections that have played out in our country and elsewhere, but let us be under no illusion that their job is not done. They will continue to try to influence debates in this House because they want to change the political environment in which we debate the terms of Brexit, for example. The faster the ISC can do its work and expose, in an appropriate way, what is truly going on, the better for all of us.

With the leave of the House, I will respond to the debate.

Needless to say, the topics chosen for discussion by any Committee are not a matter for me or any of Her Majesty’s Ministers. However, the first point to make is that the Government recognise the need to protect the reliability and objectivity of information, which is an essential component of democracy. That is why Her Majesty’s Government are working with the industry to ensure that high-quality online news media have a sustainable future, and that so-called fake news is not commercially incentivised. It is important to make the point that significant work is being done on that.

On the points about alleged electoral abuse, there has much talk for some time about Russian interference in democratic processes both in the United Kingdom and overseas. In response, the United Kingdom has been proactive. It has actively engaged international partners and civil society to tackle the Kremlin’s use of disinformation and propaganda. However, it is the United Kingdom’s very robust, free, wide-ranging, vibrant and varied media landscape that is our key defence against disinformation. To date, as has been said, we have not seen evidence of successful interference in democratic processes in the United Kingdom. Naturally, we would take robust action should there be evidence of such interference.

If there are any other points on which Members think I can be of further assistance, they should feel free to write to me, and I will certainly see to it that inquiries are made of the relevant Departments. Interesting points have been made in these contributions, and I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of the deliberations of this important Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Public Accounts Commission


That Mr Richard Bacon, Jack Brereton, Mr Nicholas Brown, Martyn Day, Clive Efford, Julian Knight and Sir Edward Leigh be appointed, and that James Cartlidge and Ian Murray be discharged as members of the Public Accounts Commission under section 2(2)(c) of the National Audit Act 1983.—(Michael Ellis.)