Skip to main content

Legislation to Counter State Threats: Government Consultation

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 13 May 2021

I am today publishing the consultation on the Government’s legislative proposals to counter the evolving and full range of state threats posed to the United Kingdom.

The threat from hostile activity by states is a growing, diversifying and evolving one. States are becoming increasingly assertive in how they advance their own objectives and undermine our own. Unlike terrorists, whose methods rely on grabbing the public’s attention, states conducting hostile activity against us will seek to operate in the shadows and remain hidden. While sometimes acts are conducted in broad daylight or through obvious propaganda channels, many of the myriad forms that state threats take will not always be visible: for example, espionage, political interference, sabotage, electoral interference, disinformation, cyber operations and intellectual property theft. Though these acts fall short of open conflict, the consequences for our democracy, economic security and prosperity are real. We continue to face this very real and serious threat from those who seek to undermine and destabilise our country to pursue their own agendas.

In addition, the global landscape has changed significantly since comprehensive legislation was last passed in this area. New technologies and their widespread commercial availability, have created new opportunities and vectors for attack, lowering the cost and risk to states to conduct espionage. There are also a number of current and future trends that impact on both the threat and our response, including the covid-19 global pandemic, advances in data and technical innovation, and the increasing use of information operations that aim to sow discord, attempt to interfere in democracy, and disrupt the fabric of society.

There is a significant volume of work ongoing within Government to counter state threats and we are making the UK safer by strengthening our ability to deter, withstand and respond to it. This work includes bringing into force a new power under schedule 3 to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 and avowing the Joint State Threats Assessment Team to better understand the threat and inform the Government’s response. However, there remains a compelling case for new legislation to help address the threat. Now is the time to comprehensively update existing laws and bring forward new powers.

At their core the legislative proposals in the consultation seek to do three things:

Modernise existing counter espionage laws to reflect the modern threat and modern legislative standards;

Create new offences, tools and powers to detect, deter and disrupt hostile activity in and targeted at the UK;

Improve our ability to protect official data and ensure the associated offences reflect the greater ease at which significant harm can be done.

The legislative proposals in this consultation have been developed through extensive review of current legislative provisions and collaboration with security and intelligence agencies and policy departments at the forefront of tackling state threats in the UK today. These proposals, which are intentionally designed to be country and actor agnostic, include:

Reform of the Official Secrets Acts 1911,1920 and 1939—these Acts contain the core espionage offences which have failed to keep pace with the threat and modern legal standards;

Reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989—which governs the law around the unauthorised disclosure of official material and its onward disclosure; and

The creation of a foreign influence registration scheme—an important new tool to help combat espionage, interference, and to protect research in sensitive subject areas, as well as to provide a greater awareness of foreign influence currently being exerted in the UK.

The consultation also considers whether there is the case for new tools and powers to criminalise other harmful activity conducted by, and on behalf of states.

I have asked my officials to engage with parliamentarians, Committees and key industry, research and media sectors to ensure as many views as possible can be heard and considered to inform final policy legislative proposals. The Home Office will work in close partnership to consult with the devolved Executives given the clear applicability to the entire United Kingdom.

The input received through this consultation will help shape the tools and powers to ensure they are comprehensive, effective, workable and balance the protection of national security with the important rights and values we all enjoy in the UK.

This country is fortunate to have the best security services in the world. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them, just as I do with our police, and I am committed to ensuring that they have the tools in place to keep this country safe, disrupt hostile activity and punish those who conduct hostile acts against the UK.

Next steps

I will arrange for a copy of the consultation document to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The deadline for responses to the consultation is 22 July 2021, following which I will update the House and publish the Government’s response to the consultation.