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Intelligence and Security Committee: Russia Report

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Russia, published on 21 July.

My Lords, the Government welcome the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia. We have been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies. We will be resolute in defending our country, democracy and values from any such hostile state activity. As set out in the Prime Minister’s Written Ministerial Statement of 21 July, yesterday the Government published a full response, and I commend it to the noble Lord.

My Lords, does the Minister not accept that this report reveals a catalogue of confusion and indifference in dealing with the threats from Russia? Will the Government now task the intelligence agencies with learning from our past failings and producing a plan to tackle interference in our democratic processes and the penetration of British society by Russia? Will the Minister tell us when they will introduce the legislation that has been announced to strengthen our capability to deal with espionage and the illicit dealings of the Russian elite with its agents and enablers in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions there, which no doubt we can return to. On the first point, I do not accept that there is a catastrophic failure, as he puts it. In 2017, the Government implemented the Russia strategy and established the cross-government Russia unit, which brings together diplomatic, intelligence and military capabilities to maximum effect. So far as foreign resources are concerned, illicit money is not welcome in this country.

My Lords, it is no wonder that trust in this Government and the Prime Minister is in decline. On 9 July, the Minister claimed that the Government

“always take proactive action to defend our democracy”—[Official Report, 9/7/20; col. 1213.]

against the threat of Kremlin interference. This report, its blocking and the predictable rejection of justified calls for an inquiry into interference in the EU referendum and the 2017 election show his assurance to have been worthless. My noble friend Lord Foulkes high- lighted the most important of the report’s several recommendations, but the Minister did not fully address his question. I respectfully ask if he can confirm which of the recommendations the Government will implement.

My Lords, the Government have given a very full response to the inquiry. In the short time available, I cannot add further to the details of that response. As for the noble Lord’s question, it is the work of the intelligence and security agencies to assess any new evidence as it emerges; that is a continuing process. Given this long-standing approach, it is not necessary to hold a specific retrospective inquiry. If there were evidence available to be found, it would emerge through our existing processes.

My Lords, as a result of the report, is it not the case that the Minister and the Government are compelled to accept that the Government have been negligent of their responsibility to guard the democratic values of this country, that they delayed the publication of the report with fake news excuses so that it did not feature in the general election, and that the failure to allow a full-scale inquiry into Russian meddling will make it seem that the Government have something to hide?

My Lords, I have said before that I do not accept the noble Lord opposite’s narrative about delay. The intelligence committee has been reformed in this Parliament; it has published the report and the Government have responded to it in detail at the first possible opportunity.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking when he was Secretary-General of NATO, that

“Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with … environmental organizations working against shale gas … to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas”?

Will he agree to look into how much the debate on shale gas in the UK was distorted by Russian interference?

My Lords, my noble friend asks a detailed question; I will undertake to respond to him on that. In general, the threats faced are various, and there is no question that the UK is not fully aware of the efforts of external actors to intervene in our country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the committee in the last Parliament that produced this report. I am pleased to see that it has been recognised as a wake-up call to the Government about the dangers of the covert threat posed by the Russian state. Should there be a single government department responsible for countering hostile state activities in the United Kingdom, whether from Russia or any others, including against the integrity of our democratic processes?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord and his work on the production of the report, which I have welcomed on behalf of the Government. It makes comments and recommendations about the management of activity within government, but I repeat that the Government’s coherent Russia strategy was established in 2017. Obviously, we always keep effective operations under advice.

The report says that while Russia poses a “security threat”, including to democracy, the Government

“took their eye off the ball”,

failing to provide oversight or strategic direction, and had a surprising lack of curiosity over the impact of Russian activities. The report called for enhanced transparency, and the Government promptly suppressed the report. Given that the Government’s responsibility is to keep the country safe, can the Minister reassure the House that the Prime Minister will implement the report’s recommendations?

My Lords, repeating the allegation that the Government suppressed a report that is not a government report does not make that allegation true. I repeat that the report has been published and the Government have responded in detail at the first possible opportunity. As for taking their eye off the ball, the Government have long recognised that there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies. That is why, to repeat what I said earlier, the Government implemented the Russia strategy in 2017.

My Lords, in the final 72 hours before the EU referendum in June 2016 there was extensive, disguised, unregulated and targeted digital campaign messaging. Ministers ignored this. Why? This occurred again last year, with shadowy Brexit-supporting groups spending hundreds of thousands of pounds and then disappearing. Ministers ignored this. Why? Given the detailed recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner more than a year ago, and now of both Commons and Lords Select Committees, that those responsible and paying for such political digital messages must be made to identify themselves, why have Ministers dragged their feet?

My Lords, Ministers have not dragged their feet, and issues of electoral integrity are very much under consideration, as the noble Lord knows. Action will be taken in the course of this Parliament. On his central question, we have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.

Does the Minister agree that no one should be permitted to interfere in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom? For example, Jean-Claude Juncker had to be restrained by David Cameron from interfering in the 2016 referendum. As for Russian interference in the referendum, was the Minister influenced by a Russian, or did he manage to make up his own mind?

My Lords, I was not influenced by any Russians. My noble friend touches on something which I beg your Lordships—and have done before—to hold in their mind. The decision to leave Europe was taken by millions upon millions of our fellow countrymen—twice. The result was not hatched in some dacha in Moscow.

Whatever else this report tells us, it seems clear that the United Kingdom’s democratic processes and political system are unacceptably vulnerable to malign Russian influence. It is further evidence that we live in an age when we cannot properly differentiate between war and peace. Many countries exist in a perpetual state of unarmed conflict with other countries, when mendacious activity below the level of formal warfare is the norm.

In the context of this year’s integrated review of diplomacy, defence and security, what reassurance can the Minister offer that the country has developed, or is developing, the capability not just to mitigate the effects of malign foreign activity, but deter them? An effective deterrent strategy must of course be based on the credibility of capability and the willingness to use it.

My Lords, I am not going to comment on operational matters, but the noble and gallant Lord obviously touches on important questions, which are firmly on the agenda and in the purview of the Government.

My Lords, further to the question by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, does the Minister agree it is time the Government stopped passing round the job of defending our democracy from Russian disinformation campaigns like a hot potato, which has clearly been happening despite the 2017 Russia strategy, and make it clear who within government has responsibility for protecting the UK from hostile interference? Furthermore, Government should insist that the social media companies agree a protocol for decisive and quick action to remove foreign political influence and fake news from their platforms.

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a range of important matters, and I do not deny the importance of any of them. The Government keep all these factors in mind and are watchful. As I have said before, all our agencies are constantly assessing and seeking to deter the threats posed by hostile state activity.

The Minister must understand that he does himself and the Government no favours by continuing to disrespect the House in the manner with which he answers—or fails to answer—questions. The Government and the noble Lord have repeatedly told us there is no evidence of “successful” interference in elections or referendums, but that is not the point. The evidence received by your Lordships’ Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, and indeed the ISC report, made it clear that Russian disinformation is designed not necessarily to produce a particular result but to undermine faith in democratic institutions and democracy itself. That is wider and more insidious. Do the Government accept this is a real and present danger, and what will they do about it?

My Lords, again I am not commenting on the Government’s operational activities. I repeat that we have seen no evidence of successful interference, and we assess any new evidence as it emerges.

My Lords, I would like to raise a point from the report that some Members of your Lordships’ House are, perhaps, influencers in this Russian debate. I am banned from going to Russia, but I have been to various meetings with Members of both Houses, and I regret to say that some noble Lords seem to be defending the indefensible—namely, the Putin regime. Could my noble friend ensure there is a closer investigation into one or two links that people have with the Putin regime?

My Lords, all Members of the House will have noted the comments in the committee report in relation to your Lordships’ House. It is extremely important that we should all be on our guard against the activities of the Putin regime. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance, has written to the appropriate committee of the House on the recommendations made in the report.