Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, a copy of these regulations were laid before this House on 27 April. They were laid under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, and they came into effect under the “made affirmative” procedure. I say from the outset that this instrument has been considered and not reported by both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
In lock-step with our allies, we continue to develop the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced. These measures are already helping to cripple Mr Putin’s war machine through restricting finance access, targeting his corrupt cronies and cutting them off from the international community, and indeed paralysing the Russian military-industrial complex for years to come.
This new legislation introduces trade sanctions relating to internet services and online media services. Put simply, this allows us to cut off propagandists and organisations spreading the Russian regime’s vicious lies and disinformation online. The Russian Government are conducting an aggressive set of online information operations against Ukraine at times in a transparent but clearly shameful attempt to justify their illegal war on Ukraine. This must be stopped.
Ofcom has already removed the broadcast licence of “Russia Today” on the basis that it is not fit and proper to hold it. However, until the regulations now being debated in your Lordships’ House entered into force, no powers existed in the UK to block access to the same disinformation being spread by way of the website, social media accounts and applications of “Russia Today”. This instrument will ensure that social media services, internet services and app stores will have to take reasonable steps to prevent UK users encountering content produced or uploaded by a person designated for this purpose. Indeed, it will be for Ofcom to enforce this new legislation, and it has been given the power to impose fines on those who fail to comply.
ANO TV-Novosti, the parent organisation for RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, the parent organisation for Sputnik, were designated for the purpose of these measures by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on 4 May 2022. These puppet organisations are demonstrably part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign, as RT’s own editor-in-chief has made clear in the past when she called the network an “information weapon” of the Russian state. These organisations are propaganda arms of the Russian state—as a consequence of both their ownership and of Russian law, which prevents the war being reported objectively and truthfully. Now that third parties are required to restrict access to content pumped out by these designated organisations, this will limit their audience and blunt the effect of their Russian state message of aggression against Ukraine.
To conclude, we will not cease in delivering further sanctions while Mr Putin’s illegal and egregious invasion continues. The ultimate objective is to ensure that Ukraine succeeds. The whole of the UK Government—I also fully acknowledge the support in your Lordships’ House and across all parties—together with our international allies are working to ensure that this happens. Our fight against disinformation and harmful propaganda forms a key component of this. Mr Putin’s war on Ukraine is based on lies. Britain has helped to lead the way in tackling disinformation, and this new legislation enables us to blunt Mr Putin’s weapons of war and hit the shameless propagandists who push out his fake news and narratives. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats support this instrument, having consistently maintained views the Minister has indicated. This is the ninth sets of such regulations that we have scrutinised and supported. The Minister is absolutely right that, as this illegal aggression continues, depressingly, we continue to see horrors inflicted on the people of Ukraine. Therefore, the Government’s response, supported by the Opposition—to use every mechanism to seek to impact on the decision-making of the Putin regime—is to be supported.
There are early signs that the collective imposition of the sanctions from the United Kingdom and our allies is impacting on the Russian economy. We are mindful that many people in Russia are in receipt of the lies and misinformation of the Putin regime, in addition to those around the world, and they are likely to be victims of this. That is why, as President Zelensky has indicated, it adds to the pressure on the Putin regime to come to a diplomatic solution and to cease the violence.
I want to probe just a couple of areas, and then ask the Minister a couple of questions on aspects related to these sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves. First, we have been aware of the European Union sanctions on social media on 2 March, and then the reciprocal decisions by Russia on Instagram determining Meta as an extremist organisation on 11 March and blocking Euronews on 21 March. On 14 April, it registered as foreign agents under its laws 79 NGOs and 131 media outlets. The Putin regime is not only waging war on the people of Ukraine, but it is waging war on free media around the world. It is right, therefore, that the European Union, the United States, Canada and the UK, as the Minister said, work in lock-step.
Will the Minister demonstrate how robust these measures will be, given that there has been a gap between the EU operating its sanctions and the measures before us, and that there is some indication that RT and Sputnik have been successful in working around some of the EU regulations? The Minister has highlighted the designated persons measure, which I support, but we have already seen in respect of the equivalent for those indicated by the European Union the use of proxy sites and other social media platforms to disseminate information. The use of visual content bearing RT logos but not originating from RT, uploaded by users, has been co-ordinated and has an absolute purpose to work around the sanctions. How robust does the Minister consider these measures will be, in the light of what we have seen of RT-hosted material on other platforms around the world? How easy is it for those to be used in the United Kingdom?
Will the Minister confirm that these measures will cover virtual private networks? Use of VPNs and RT content through other countries has increased by 50%. If someone is seeking to access RT, Sputnik or other material from designated persons via a VPN, is that an offence under UK law?
My second question regards the extraterritorial jurisdiction nature. It is right that the designated persons are overseas entities, but can the designated persons be operating across all groups seeking to use the disinformation tactics of the Putin regime? I mention specifically Wagner Group, one of the arms of which has been sanctioned by the UK as named individuals. That is correct, and the Minister knows I am on record as wanting the Government to go beyond that and have it proscribed as a terrorist organisation. It is active, as are other mercenary groups, as the disseminator of disinformation and misinformation.
Can mercenary groups be designated persons under these matters? I know that the Minister will say that they keep the list of designated persons under review, but I should like him to go beyond that and say that there are no limits under the terms of the legislation on who designated persons could be. It would be regrettable if there were those seeking actively, with resource from the Putin regime working in many countries, to work around sanctions such as these, but they were not included. Can Ofcom police them if they are designated persons who are groups outside the UK? What legislative powers does Ofcom have to work with international partners on policing?
Finally, I ask the Prime Minister—the Minister, although I see I had a Freudian slip into a dream world I have, even if the Conservatives are in power, that someone might be doing a better job than the Prime Minister. Now that I have emphasised that point, Hansard will not be able to correct me.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman is now on record as indicating why we are not in lock-step with one of our allies, Canada, on the sanctioning of Alexander Lebedev. As the Minister will well know, the Canadians have been working extremely closely with the UK and others and the Minister said that we are working in lock-step, but when it comes to the judgment of the Canadians that Alexander Lebedev should be sanctioned, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said,
“it’s not for me to comment on the judgment of a different country”.
What do we believe the Canadian judgment to be and why do we not share it? Alexander Lebedev has been singled out by the Canadians as worthy of being sanctioned. What mechanisms do we have in the United Kingdom to ensure that this individual, sanctioned by one of our closest allies, or any of his family members will not be able to use the United Kingdom to circumvent Canadian sanctions? With those questions, I support the regulations overall.
My Lords, briefly, I support what was just asked about Canada. Canada is not just some other country; it is part of Five Eyes. If Putin sees Five Eyes as split, it is just as bad as the EU being split—even worse, in some ways. There has to be a better argument than Ministers have so far given as to why we have not joined Canada.
It is a long time ago since I spoke on the first sanctions. I praise the Government, because what they have done on sanctions overall has been very good. I have sometimes been surprised about the extent to which they have gone and I want to give praise where praise is due. We can always do more, but it has been a good job so far.
I note that this has been raised before, but I cannot remember the answer. The regulations talk about the UK. Where is the Isle of Man in this? People are using the Isle of Man to get around all kinds of financial things—we have had this with Brexit. For that matter, there are the Channel Islands, but the Isle of Man is in a different geographical situation. Can the Isle of Man be used to subvert sanctions such as these?
My final point is a question that I suspect the Minister cannot answer. I assume Ofcom is being fully supported by GCHQ. To have such a facility as that and not be able to use it would be a complete and utter waste. He does not have to confirm it or not, but I assume it goes without saying that Ofcom has the ability to call on GCHQ for issues relating to the edge of the sanctions.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has just raised an interesting point. Adding to the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, it is conceivable that maybe the overseas territories ought to be in someone’s sights as well. That may be a point for consideration by the Minister.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made a very good point about VPNs. In Russia they use them as a means to get information about what is going on around and about, so that is also helpful. For the record, I have ensured that the global website I have, covering every country in the world, has no content in relation to Russia.
My Lords, I start by saying once again that we are absolutely at one with the Government on their sanctions in relation to holding Putin and his Government to account for their outrageous violation of international law. It breaks multiple treaties and commitments, including the fundamental principles of the UN charter, and it is rightly condemned by all nations. I do not think there can be any space for equivocation when we are faced with this evil that Putin has unleashed.
In relation to these specific sanctions, at lunchtime I had the opportunity to hear from Dame Barbara Woodward, the UK’s representative in New York, in the UN APPG. She highlighted a number of things, and of course the briefing somewhat followed Chatham House rules, but she is absolutely clear on the threat posed by Russia’s campaign of misinformation. It is not only the usual propaganda stuff but things such as this accusation that there are chemical weapons in Ukraine, holding the UN down and deliberately spreading those sorts of stories. That sort of misinformation campaign goes well beyond the propaganda we have seen.
Putin is desperate to silence the truth about his invasion from his own people and the world and is pushing that information out. It is absolutely right that the international community considers how best to curtail this, and therefore the regulations before us are very much a welcome tool. The exact sanctions in relation to online services include blocking certain URLs, ensuring that platforms take precautions over the content they publish and taking steps so that the application stores do not allow certain software to be downloaded. They also allow the Secretary of State to designate persons to whom these online restrictions will apply and give new powers for Ofcom to impose penalties. Each of these provisions is a welcome step in the right direction.
I just want to pick up a couple of points, particularly the point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker on the role of Ofcom. Can the Minister explain whether any further resources have been allocated for it to carry out these new responsibilities? Have any fines yet been issued? Liaising with other departments, such as GCHQ, will be vital to its ability to carry out these responsibilities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, co-ordination with international allies is vital on these issues as well as others. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what engagement there has been with counterparts on these new powers to ensure that such action is replicated everywhere. Also, what steps are the Foreign Office and other departments taking to work with platforms to ensure the closure of any loopholes that may emerge in respect of disinformation campaigns which may seek to work around these new regulations?
A number of noble Lords have asked about Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Every time we have dealt with such statutory instruments, the Minister has assured us that they do and will apply, and that the department is liaising with both the British Overseas Territories and the Crown dependencies to ensure that. However, we need not only that reassurance but to know that there is constant contact with those territories to ensure that, where difficulties emerge, we can respond to them properly.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised an issue that I was going to raise: the Minister’s assertion that we are in lock-step with our allies. Sadly, that does not always seem to be the case. As the noble Lord said, the latest example of that is our failure to follow Ottawa’s lead, which is extremely worrying, particularly when it comes to the individual the noble Lord mentioned. Alexander Lebedev not only is a former KGB agent but has business interests in the media, particularly the UK media. Of course, he bought the UK’s Evening Standard and Independent newspapers. Ottawa announced these sanctions on Friday, and there was no response. I know the Minister will repeat the mantra that he will not comment on future designations, but that is not the issue here. We need to hear from the Government that they will seek to work in lock-step with our allies. The questions that noble Lords have raised concern not only making effective the sanctions that we impose, and therefore want allies to replicate, but allies imposing sanctions and us becoming the loophole or escape route for some of these individuals. Apart from the mantra that he will not comment on future designations, I want to hear from the Minister that we will ensure that, where our allies impose sanctions, they are effective and that we will do nothing to undermine their ability to hold Putin to account.
On loopholes, in June the St Petersburg International Economic Forum will take place, and it will involve many organisations from around the world. I understand that its mantra will be, “New markets, new opportunities”. I also understand that some 60 or 70 organisations can in one part or another be semi-designated as associated with the United Kingdom, and the intention is that that be used to show that the UK is in play in matters relating to internal Russian trading issues.
The noble Viscount is absolutely right. The real issue here, on our policy of ensuring that Putin cannot act with impunity, is that this Government act with one voice and that all departments—be it the FCDO, the Home Office or the Department for International Trade—act in concert. I hope the Minister can respond to that point.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s short but insightful and timely discussion. I will address the important questions that been raised. If there are questions that I do not cover specifically, I will flag them and write to noble Lords in the usual way.
First and foremost, on that final point, the Government work across government but also with key sectors. We also work with British companies so that they fully understand the impact of the sanctions being imposed, because challenges are being felt far and wide because of them.
Equally, I say from the outset to the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Purvis and Lord Rooker, that we absolutely have to work in lock-step. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is fully aware of my view as the FCDO Minister responsible for sanctions that the most effective sanctions are those where we work in absolute lock-step with our key partners—the likes of Canada, the US and the European Union. I assure all noble Lords that we have regular and frequent conversations about the designations we will make, but equally about the designations that other jurisdictions are making, to ensure that any semblance of difference can be addressed quickly and in an expedited form. Indeed, the measures we have had to introduce over the last few months reflect the Government’s desire to ensure that our own regime and framework reflect our ability to act, and quickly. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for recognising that. As all noble Lords will recognise, there is a need for agility to act very quickly.
While I cannot give assurance beyond what I normally state about future designations, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that nothing, or no one, is out of our consideration for any designations of individuals or organisations. It would be speculative to go into any further detail, but we are looking at this in terms of ensuring that our sanctions team is extensively resourced and of working very closely with our allies in this respect. We have directly sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and more than 100 businesses since Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This is constant. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that the number of designations and the information I see, and the fact that we are having our ninth or 10th debate on specific issues in this respect, reflect the Government really focusing on the priorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about the Crown dependencies, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the OTs. In all instances, our legislation has direct impact in the Crown dependencies and the OTs. There is an exception in two OTs—Bermuda and Gibraltar—where an Order in Council cannot be issued and they legislate for themselves, but they have been legislating to effect anything introduced in the UK jurisdictions elsewhere. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working very closely with all our Crown dependency Governments, as well as the OT Administrations and Governments, to ensure they follow the UK Government’s lead. The Order in Council allows us to act decisively when it comes to the OTs.
I thank noble Lords again for their strong support of the Government’s position. As I acknowledged in my opening remarks, I am grateful in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, for their strong support for the Government’s position, both in and outside the Chamber. As I have done previously, I will continue to update them as required and appropriate to ensure that they are fully up to speed with the Government’s position and the future actions that we will take.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the important issue of VPNs and asked whether this was an offence under UK law. It is not as it applies in the UK and the EU. The issue is cutting off the information at the source of spread—that is, the ISPs and social media companies. The measures we and our partners have been taking act on the providers, not the individual users, of the internet. In our view, it is not appropriate to place the offence on individuals who may be using VPNs. That said, VPNs have been used as a tool to circumvent, as the noble Lord mentioned, but our position is that this is not unique to the UK; we are talking to our partners to see how, as Russia continues with its approach on misinformation, we can work in a more co-ordinated fashion.
A question was asked about how robust the sanctions that are being applied are—that is, whether they are being bypassed or applied. We are confident that our regime is robust. One of the key reasons why we designated parent companies in these regulations is to prevent RT and Russian agencies bypassing the restrictions by changing the name of the company that owns a particular entity. We have acted at the parent level rather than towards any organisation.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about Ofcom’s resourcing and support. Noble Lords also asked whether there have been any fines. As far as my understanding goes, no fines have been issued as yet but our colleagues in DCMS have engaged extensively with Ofcom in taking on this responsibility and ensuring that it has all the resources it requires and the necessary capability. I am sure that noble Lords recognise that Ofcom is an outstanding independent regulator and will be able to work with other agencies and institutions where necessary. It is also important, when we look at other jurisdictions, that we look at how regulators talk to each other about the various steps they are taking.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about the Wagner Group. As I have said previously in debates in your Lordships’ House, we are fully aware of its activities, particularly its mercenary activities in various parts of the world. I am keen to meet the noble Lord to see how we can work more closely on these issues. As I said, without speculating, it is important that we work in a much more co-ordinated fashion. Where gaps have been identified, because we have moved quicker than our allies or vice versa, we must look to address them.
I assure noble Lords that we also engage with the platforms directly. DCMS and Ofcom have been in regular contact with the organisations and associations to which the regulations apply.
I believe that I have covered the questions that were raised with me directly. I acknowledge and thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins. When we passed similar regulations in the Chamber—last week, I believe—he raised ensuring that designated bodies scrutinise the legislation in advance of regulations being passed or brought forward. I followed up on that specifically, which is why I mentioned it right at the head of my introduction.
I am grateful to the Minister for responding. I question two aspects. One regards VPNs. I understand entirely the point the Minister made, which is sensible, but he will be aware that, as I mentioned, although we do not seek to extend the criminalisation to users, there seems to be evidence, with the increase in traffic, that designated persons under our law will be able legally to upload information to providers in another country where a VPN user would be able to designate and have free access to anything from RT or Sputnik. My question was about the companies that offer VPN services, not the users; I would be happy for the Minister to write to me on that point.
My second point regards working with Canada. The points that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I raised are significant. Alexander Lebedev is now a Schedule 1 person under the Canadian Special Economic Measures Act. This means that, under Canadian law, it is an offence for anybody to provide financial or related services to, or for the benefit of, that designated person. I want to know whether this means that any family member of Alexander Lebedev who provides any financial interactions with him will not be breaking UK law but will be against the spirit of the Canadian law. That is of great significance for our relationship with Canada.
My Lords, I will just take this opportunity briefly to address VPNs. VPNs are a two-way street: a VPN can also enable information from outside Russia to get into Russia to enable those Russians who wish to understand what on earth is going on better to do so. That may be somewhere in the mix, but this is a rhetorical question; the Minister does not need to respond.
The noble Viscount partly answered my point on VPNs. He is quite right that they are used as an important tool and we are working with key organisations on this. What is very different with the BBC World Service, for example, is that it reports independently of government and autonomously. However, the use of VPNs has a benefit. That is why I suggested to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we could perhaps meet to address some of these issues.
As to the noble Lord’s other question, I have gone as far as I can at this time. Our responsibility is for what applies in the United Kingdom. In the designations we have made we have acted to ensure that, where we identify family members who may be involved—in this case we looked directly at the family members of Mr Putin, for example—they are individuals who we look at very closely and designate as appropriate. As I said, we continue to look at all situations concerning individuals and organisations, and will keep this under review. We are also mindful of the actions our allies are taking. With that, I once again thank noble Lords for their contributions and their continued support of the Government’s position.