Skip to main content

Intelligence: Russia

Volume 818: debated on Monday 31 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to introduce legislation “to provide the intelligence agencies with the tools they need to tackle the intelligence challenges posed by Russia”, as called for by the Intelligence and Security Committee in its the Annual Report for 2019-2021 (HC 877).

My Lords, I am very pleased to confirm that, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, the Government are committed to bringing forward new legislation to counter state threats and ensure that our world-class security services and law enforcement agencies continue to have the tools that they need to tackle the evolving threat and any challenging or hostile activities by any state.

My Lords, in that case, where is the Bill? This is a question of priorities. We have a number of badly drafted, long Bills before the House at present, but this is a question of national security. It is two and a half years since the ISC Russia report was published and the Prime Minister has dragged his feet ever since. Can the Minister assure us that the links of the Russian elite to the UK, to which the report refers, and its links to political parties are not part of the cause of the delay, given the amount of Russian-origin money which has flowed into Conservative Party finances?

I can absolutely assure the noble Lord of two things. The Bill will be state agnostic and linked to the actions of whichever state or actor is trying to perpetrate evil against this country; it will not be country specific. On the delay, this area of law is complex and some of this legislation has not been updated in over a century, so we must make sure that we both bring it up to date and future-proof it.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Reserve Forces review 2030. Providing access to skills and tools was at the heart of the Question. The Reserve Forces review 2030 is all about trying to access civilian skills through the medium of the reserve to support the Government. Given the relationship between the intelligence agencies and defence intelligence, does my noble friend not think that, if we were better at this, we could use the reserve to provide the very skills we are calling for to counter the Russian threat?

My noble friend homes in on a very important point, which is that we must use all the skills and tools in our armour to counteract whichever threat we are facing. That is why it is so important that this Bill comes forward to allow us to use those skills and tools.

My Lords, does the Minister think that President Putin is going to treat seriously any threats from Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, when we are continuing to give hundreds of Russian oligarchs golden visas to enable them to get British citizenship and, perhaps even eventually, membership of the House of Lords? Is this not a total farce?

My Lords, in terms of people being a threat to this country, the noble Lord talked about, as I have often done, the funny money that might be swirling around—

I think he kind of talked about both: visas and money coming into this country. He will know from legislation that I brought in previously that, through unexplained wealth orders and things like that, we are doing everything we can to stop the flow of illicit finance in this country. I cannot comment further on golden visas, except to say that we are very, very careful about the visas we issue and the people we let into this country.

My Lords, speaking of legislation that has not appeared, will the Minister acknowledge, as other Ministers have, that the Bill providing for a public register of the beneficial owners of property in the UK has been ready to go for weeks but has not yet been introduced in this House? Will she also confirm that the intelligence services have no hope of dealing with what is known as the London laundromat until that Bill becomes law, when civic society across the globe and activists can assist the intelligence services in getting to the bottom of these chains of ownership that lead, in the end, to oligarchs and kleptocrats?

The noble Baroness illustrates some of the complexities around state activity. She is absolutely right—I recall her being involved in the Bill—and the Government have made a start on this. We have things such as unexplained wealth orders in place, and we will be bringing forward legislation to deal with the various threats that are impeding the rule of law and our economy.

My Lords, in the 2020 report the committee found that until recently, the Government had badly underestimated the response required to the Russian threat and were still playing catch-up. Shockingly, that same report also found that the UK was clearly a target, but that no one within government was prepared to take responsibility for the defence of the UK’s democratic processes. Therefore, can the Minister reassure the House that whatever legislation the Government are proposing will deal with those specific points, and that they will move quickly to deal with this and the other issues that noble Lords have raised today?

I most certainly can reassure noble Lords that we will be looking at all legislative possibilities to deal with the various issues that the noble Lord, the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have raised today.

The Foreign Secretary pledges “nowhere to hide” for Putin’s oligarchs, but they are “hiding in plain sight” in their London mansions. In 2018, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said that the London laundromat of corrupt, Kremlin-connected assets

“has implications for national security.”

That was nearly four years ago. Do we have to wait until its chairman, Tom Tugendhat, becomes Prime Minister, as he wants to do, before action is taken?

As far as I am aware, there is no vacancy for the post of Prime Minister, but there is ongoing work to implement the recommendations as soon as practicable. I note at this stage that the majority of the recommendations do not actually need legislation, but we are getting on with them and great progress is being made.

My Lords, might not the current threat from Russia be diminished if Ukraine could be persuaded to adopt a neutral stance like that of Finland?

My Lords, have the Government ever considered the use of compulsory purchase orders when ownership of property is being deliberately concealed?

The noble Lord makes an appealing point but the situation is far more complex than that. Particularly with the unexplained wealth orders legislation that I brought through a couple of years ago, it is not as easy as just compulsorily purchasing houses.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the House of Lords member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. These reports are done in huge detail, with huge inputs from people who know a lot about this. Particularly in the case of the Russian report, it took a very long time for it even to be taken note of by the Prime Minister. Can the Minister ensure that reports such as that—other reports are on their way—are actioned rapidly and moved forward, rather than being effectively sidelined?

I agree with the noble Lord’s point. Ongoing work is being done to implement the recommendations in the report, many of which do not need legislation. However, the noble Lord makes an absolutely valid point.

My Lords, the weekend papers were full of reports saying that the Government were threatening to sanction members of Putin’s inner circle if he went ahead and invaded Ukraine. However, given that he has invaded Crimea, assassinated his opponents here in the UK and looted Russia’s economy, thereby impoverishing the poor Russian citizens, why have the Government not considered doing this anyway?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I am not party to some of the discussions going on in the FCDO and elsewhere, but he highlights the point that we have a major problem with regard to the influence here.

My Lords, the reason why Putin and his ilk do not worry too much about economic sanctions is that much of their wealth is laundered over here. The Minister referred to the unexplained wealth orders legislation. Can she explain why there have been few, if any, successful prosecutions?

There have been some, and as I have explained to the House, it is quite complex and sometimes these things are very difficult to secure. There is more work to be done.