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Foreign Interference: Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to investigate reports that Christine Lee obtained amendments to the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 on the behalf of the government of China.

My Lords, in a Statement in the other place on 17 January, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary explained:

“the parliamentary authorities, following careful … discussion with MI5, issued an alert to Members of Parliament—MPs and peers—alerting them about specific individuals involved in … political interference.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/1/22; col. 23.]

It is concerning that someone who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party has targeted British parliamentarians. However, I know that noble Lords will understand that I cannot comment in detail on the work of our Security Service.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply, but, given the seriousness of the claim that someone now publicly identified by MI5 as a Chinese Communist Party agent, operating across the two Houses of Parliament, successfully subverted our legislative programme by persuading Members of your Lordships’ House to table amendments to an Act of Parliament, can the Government at least please say what action they would take to establish whether this actually occurred, who it involved and what range of disciplinary action they will consider? Does she agree with me that, through its sanctions on individual parliamentarians and now the alleged manipulation of our statute book, the Chinese Communist Party has shown itself willingly and brazenly to attack our Parliament? Does she agree that we should leave nothing off the table in instituting a broad-based inquiry, including the intrusion into Select Committees of witnesses with links to hostile foreign powers? Does she also agree that we should strenuously defend the integrity of this institution and indeed our democracy?

I agree with much of the sentiment of what the noble Lord is saying. He will understand that what I can say today is limited, but I will address what HMG are doing to tackle these types of threats. The Cabinet Office is leading on this, and it co-ordinates the Government’s overall response to countering state threats. We are making the UK and its overseas interests safer by strengthening our ability to deter, withstand, respond to and recover from state threats. We are looking to deliver a step change in our approach to them. Our current review of the countering state threats strategy aims not only to strengthen our defences and manage the risk to the UK but to take a much more assertive and creative approach to the international arena to defend our strategic advantages over our adversaries. I have to stop there because I have to stop short of intelligence matters.

My Lords, one understands that, but, when inquiries are complete, will the Government make a Statement, not necessarily going into details but saying whether there is substance in these allegations?

I do not know about that because that is pre-empting any investigation that may go on—but, as my noble friend knows, I am always very willing to say what I can say at the Dispatch Box to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, the Minister has just said to this Chamber that what we have witnessed and seen is a state threat to our country and its institutions. I would respectfully say to her that it is a little bit more than concerning—it is a really worrying development. In a Statement in the other place, the Minister said that the person had acted covertly and is involved in “political interference activities” in the UK, and investigations, including with MI5, are ongoing. Allegations have also been made that Ministers did not respond to warnings they were given. Can the Minister reassure this House that the results of the ongoing investigation will be reported to Parliament and Parliament will be an opportunity to debate it, and that that will be done quickly—as soon as possible?

I hope that the noble Lord will be assured that I will report what I can report to this House, and in a timely manner.

My Lords, the Minister referred to these “types of threat”. The question from my noble friend Lord Alton was about a specific individual. These “types of threat” seems to suggest that something more systematic within Parliament may be seeking to undermine our institutions. What work are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that parliamentarians can be supported in our work so that we are not vulnerable to those who seek to undermine our democracy?

I can confirm to the noble Baroness that the Home Office, together with the police and Crown Prosecution Service, have for some time been working on potential measures to help manage the risks posed by this type of activity.

My Lords, this is an egregious incident but a far from isolated one. China has a strategy and campaign plan for remaking the international order to suit itself. All the UK seems to have is a list of often mutually exclusive aspirations set out in the integrated review. When will the Government develop a coherent strategy for their approach to China, as recommended by your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee in its recent report?

I can say to the noble and gallant Lord that we are making the UK and its overseas interests safer by strengthening our ability to deter, withstand, respond to and recover from state threats. Clearly, we have legislation coming forward to that end. In March 2020, we publicly confirmed the existence of the joint state threats assessment team, which was established to monitor and improve our understanding of state threats.

My Lords, the resilience of Parliament is of fundamental importance to our democracy, but this is now the third named individual about whose subversion activities parliamentarians have been informed. However, the Government seem to be operating on a reactive basis. Would not it be better for the resilience of Parliament if the Government facilitated regular proactive briefings to senior parliamentarians and committee chairs in particular, so that we are aware of subversive activities—whether the activities of Chinese individuals or, as Chatham House indicated before China, the very proactive work of Russians and those from former Soviet Union countries?

My Lords, I think that the fact it was the Speaker who was alerted to this means that various agencies are working together to identify threats and bring them not only to my department’s attention but, obviously, to that of the Lord Speaker and Parliament. That work is ongoing, some of which I can discuss and some I cannot, but it is ongoing work.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that Miss Lee, as a naturalised British citizen, will not be allowed to leave the UK, so that she can appear before a parliamentary inquiry and give evidence, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool?

Can the Minister assure the House that any Member of your Lordships’ House found guilty of using their position to aid and abet a hostile nation committing what the Foreign Secretary has called “genocide” against the Uighurs in Xinjiang will be expelled from this House?

My Lords, that would be a very serious matter indeed, were that to transpire. As she will know, we have a number of mechanisms in place, should that be the case, to carry out some of the heaviest sanctions, including expulsion.

My Lords, should the Liberal Democrats not be particularly expert on the question of Russian agents and spies, because it was a Liberal Democrat MP who had a research assistant who was accused of being a Russian agent? When questioned about it, he said, “Oh, I knew she was a Russian spy; she wouldn’t have slept with me otherwise”.

I must confess that I have never heard that tale, but what this confirms is that we all need to be very vigilant and careful about who attempts to influence us in this place, particularly when we are bringing legislation forward. I cannot really comment on my noble friend’s tale.

My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the Minister’s answers, and I am really puzzled as to why she cannot give an affirmative answer to my noble friend Lord Alton’s question on whether the Government and government agencies are investigating whether there is any substance to Miss Lee’s assertions that she has used her influence in relation to Members of this House.

My Lords, I am really surprised that there is not much more outrage about this. It was reported years ago that this woman was giving huge amounts of money to a Front-Bencher of one of the parties. She has been hanging around No. 10 and was given an award by the Government. She has given money to the Lib Dems as well—she has been showering money all over the place, it seems—and she claims that she was influencing legislation in your Lordships’ House. Surely, we need a really wide-ranging inquiry to find out exactly what has been going on and to make sure that this can never happen again.

My Lords, the noble Lord has cited lots of allegations. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I cannot comment at this point. I have to leave it there.

My Lords, a number of questions have focused on preventing further similar cases. Does the Minister agree that the only way we can prevent similar instances is if we stop individuals and companies being able to donate large amounts of money to political parties and individuals? That way, people will know that politics cannot be bought.

My Lords, what representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Chinese Government about this affair?

I say to the noble and gallant Lord that where serious matters are brought to our attention, we do not hesitate to bring them up with foreign states.

My Lords, the ISC’s Russia report referred explicitly to infiltration of political parties. When are the Government going to take further action in response to that report? They have been remarkably slow in publishing it and then in following it up.

This may not be a question that the Minister can possibly answer, but I am going to raise it so that the House can consider it. Are the relevant rules about Parliament sufficient to prevent improper involvement and influence?

I am most grateful that the noble and learned Lord has asked that question because I think we should all ask ourselves that when bringing forward matters from lobby groups and elsewhere, to ensure that there is propriety in what we do. I am talking particularly about financial propriety and the sources of that lobbying. There is possibly more to be done in this area.

My Lords, I have some sympathy for the Minister in the circumstances she has been dealing with, but given, as has already been mentioned, that the Intelligence and Security Committee made recommendations in relation to Russian activity—and given the present context, particularly Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine—is it not time that these recommendations were implemented?

My Lords, I am sure that those responses, and implementation of the recommendations that the Government agree with, will be forthcoming.

My Lords, the Intelligence and Security Committee is presently conducting an inquiry into national security issues relating to China. Will the Minister or other Ministers be able to answer these questions in the context of the Intelligence and Security Committee?

My Lords, the noble Lord has strayed way beyond my purview for today, but I will certainly speak to colleagues who might be able to give better answers to noble Lords, certainly on the ISC.

My Lords, following on from my noble and learned friend Lord Judge’s question, I understand the outrage in your Lordships’ House in this case, but can the Minister tell the House who adjudicates the line between political interference and the legitimate lobbying that all embassies do in London?

I am sure the noble Lord is well placed to answer that question, but he wants me to do so. Sometimes it is a matter of judgment on what we do, how we do it and the transparency with which we do it. In different contexts, those can be different.