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National Security

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 1 November.

“I would like to make a Statement on national security and safeguarding our democracy. In this new era of global competition, we face constant and concerted efforts to undermine our country and our institutions. A range of actors, including foreign states, are trying to weaken us, to challenge us and to exploit us. We are not alone. It is the burden of liberty shared by democracies around the world. The evidence of that is clear and, sadly, indisputable. Dictatorships are trying to write new rules for a new world. Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine is a terrible example of the growing threat from hostile states to our security. Russia is attacking not just a free people but a free world.

Our integrated review, published last year, makes clear the threat that we are facing. This is not a simple clash of armour but a clash of ideas. Across our society, we are seeing the challenge grow and evolve to pose a strategic threat to the security and prosperity of our nation for many years to come. A generation ago, we had the answer: our technology and our wallets were greater than theirs. Today, technological integration has deepened connections and opened doors into areas of our lives that we once thought closed. Now, as our markets integrate, we need to think about the future of our industry and innovation. Our economic security guarantees our economic sovereignty just as our democratic security guarantees our freedom.

The advanced technologies that our rivals have spent time and money developing have levelled the field and made us more vulnerable. Britain has been on the front line of the defence of liberty for generations. Our agencies and businesses have faced the reality of this danger for decades. Our Parliament and our politics are now no different. Whether as Ministers or shadow Ministers, in committee or when leading a campaign, this is about every party and every Member of the House. We have all heard of the attempts of unfriendly states to influence our politics in recent years and of the actions that the security officers of the House have had to take to defend us. They are not working alone. I want to put on record my admiration and gratitude to those who work hard to keep us safe in the House and around the country, because while others are on the front line of our nation, those of us privileged to be elected—at every level and in every community—are on the front line of our democracy.

I am here to make it clear that the Government are, and always will be, here to protect our freedoms, and none is more precious than the freedom of our nation to determine its own future. That is, after all, what democracy is about. It is the debate in towns and villages—in person and online—of free people in a free country searching for answers to the problems that we all face. As all of us know, it does not always go our way, but it is the freedom to choose that we all defend. We are taking action to address these threats.

Just as our counterterrorism legislation in the early 2000s updated the necessary legal powers that our police and security services needed to tackle the growing threat of terrorism, we are enhancing our ability to defend against hostile states and those acting on their behalf. The National Security Bill, which is currently before the House, will give us the powers we need today for the threats that we face now. It will be the most significant piece of legislation to tackle the incursion of state-based threats to our nation in a century. Those actors threaten not just life but our way of life. We have to work even harder to protect and uphold our freedom and the institutions that defend it. From establishing our Defending Democracy programme in 2019 to the continuous work by the National Cyber Security Centre, we have sought to address that, but we must do more. That is why I can announce to the House that the Prime Minister has asked me to lead a task force to drive forward work to defend the democratic integrity of our country. The task force will work with Parliament, departments, the security and intelligence agencies, the devolved Administrations and the private sector. It will work to better protect the freedoms and institutions we hold dear—institutions such as this very House.

The task force will look at the full range of threats facing our democratic institutions, including the physical threat to Members of this Parliament and those elected to serve across the country, so tragically brought home by the murder of our dear friends Sir David Amess last year and Jo Cox in 2016, and the support on offer through Operation Bridger and by the police. The work of this task force will report into the National Security Council and more details will be set out in the update of the integrated review.

This is not just a task force for this Government. It will be cross-departmental and inter-agency, and I will be inviting cross-party co-operation, because, as I have said, this is not just about Ministers in office, civil servants or advisers across Whitehall. This work is for all of us in this House and those who have asked us to represent their interests. The Government have robust systems in place to protect against cyber threats. We are vigilant in ensuring that these are up to date and meet the challenges of the modern world. The National Cyber Security Centre, government and parliamentary security offer all Members specific advice on protecting personal data and managing online profiles, as well as best-practice guidance. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for agreeing to write to all parliamentarians on that important issue.

Finally, it is important to end by underlining that tackling these threats means providing the protection that defends our democratic institutions and the liberties that we cherish so dearly, because the point of security is not to lock us down but to liberate. My job as Security Minister of this great United Kingdom is to give us all the security to live our lives freely, and to debate and choose our future, guarded by the laws and freedoms of our nation. That is my guiding principle. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, we welcome the Statement delivered yesterday by the Minister for Security. It is the first job of any Government to keep our country safe. Our national security faces constantly evolving and more sophisticated threats from hostile states and extremist organisations, with activity on and off our own soil, including cyber threats. The aim of these acts is to rewrite the world which we live in, to undermine democracy and to reduce hard-fought-for freedoms for people around the world.

I thank our security services for their work and all those who keep us safe, including those who safeguard the work of this House, to whom we are immensely grateful. We welcome the announcement of the task force that the Government have made and will engage fully with Ministers to support its work on a cross-party basis. The Statement yesterday announced the launch of the task force. When can we expect more detail on its work and when is it expected to become operational? Will it include specialist streams looking at physical threats, cybersecurity and the interplay between these two areas?

I welcome the recognition that this is a whole-UK effort in which we are all united. Have discussions yet started with the devolved Assemblies about taking this work forward? Crucially, how will Members of both Houses be updated on the work of the task force, with appropriate regard to the secure nature of its remit? Will Ministers consider discussing the role of the Intelligence and Security Committee in providing oversight of the task force with the current committee chair?

The Statement focuses on protecting our democratic institutions. We cannot talk about those issues without honouring our friends and colleagues, Jo Cox and Sir David Amess, who served their country and are dearly missed. Will Ministers work closely with Members from both Houses when considering the threats that our democracy faces on the front line, here in London and across the country?

We welcome the tone of the Statement and the cross- party debate with which it was received yesterday in the House of Commons. However, it would be remiss not to reflect on some other serious concerns that have arisen over the past weeks and months. The former Prime Minister—two Prime Ministers ago, rather—took a trip during the height of the Skripal crisis and met a former KGB agent without officials present. He did not declare the meeting and has not given an account of what was discussed. Can the Minister confirm whether the former Prime Minister took his personal phone, which he continued to use while in the highest office, on that trip?

The current Prime Minister reappointed the Home Secretary only six days after she resigned over a security lapse and a breach of the Ministerial Code. She has now confirmed that this was not a one-off incident. Despite multiple attempts to get clarity, we have still not had a clear answer to serious allegations that the Home Secretary might also have been involved in a leak to the Daily Telegraph while in post as Attorney-General. Do Ministers and, crucially, the Prime Minister recognise the damage done to our national security when Cabinet Ministers themselves fail to take appropriate action on these issues?

Before I finish on the activities of hostile states in the United Kingdom, I ask: how can it be possible that we read in our papers about so-called Chinese police stations in multiple locations across the UK? When did this come to light? When were Ministers made aware of it? What action and investigations have been taken by, for example, Scottish authorities against the site in Glasgow? Has equivalent action been taken against the two known sites in Hendon and Croydon? What investigation is the Government undertaking with the relevant services to locate whether there are any other unknown operational stations?

Following the outrageous incident outside the Manchester consulate earlier this month, what support is being given to those who might feel unsafe in communities across the United Kingdom? Are efforts under way to investigate whether one of the stations exists in Manchester or, indeed, elsewhere? It is shocking that this activity could take place on UK soil. I think that Members of this House, and indeed the country, will want reassurance from the Government about how this came to light, what the implications are for national security and what the Government intend to do about it. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to the work of this task force.

My Lords, as a former senior police officer with more than 30 years’ experience, I am acutely aware of the issues of national security, both physical and cyber threats. I welcome the appointment of the right honourable Tom Tugendhat MP as Minster of State for Security. He has a long and distinguished record in this area. He is clearly and quite rightly concerned about the threats facing Members of Parliament, those who work with us and the country as a whole from extremists and hostile foreign states.

It is regrettable that other members of the Government, past and present, appear not to have taken national security as seriously as the Member for Tonbridge and Malling is doing now. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, the last but one Prime Minister had a meeting with a former member of the Russian KGB when he was Foreign Secretary, on his own, in a foreign country, without reference to officials. The previous Prime Minister had her phone hacked; and the current, and second but one, Home Secretary—the same person—used her own mobile phone to receive and transmit restricted documents. Does the Minister agree that the actions of senior members of his own party have damaged, rather than promoted, national security?

We on these Benches agree that the Security Minister’s initiative is welcome, if not overdue, and we agree that this must be a united effort involving all of us, working with our security and intelligence agencies and the police. Having visited both MI6, where representatives of MI5 were also present, and GCHQ, I know that we have outstanding security and intelligence services, but without Members of this and the other place taking security seriously—particularly members of the Government, not least Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries—their efforts will be undermined.

As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said in the House this week, it is not just the potential for leaks of our own highly sensitive information, as there is a risk that our security partners in other countries will not share vital intelligence with us because they fear that our security is not tight enough. Can the Minister confirm that from now on members of the Government will set an example by their own behaviour in relation to protecting national security, rather than providing counterexamples that jeopardise national security?

It is not only democracy that is at stake if hostile foreign Governments seek to influence or disrupt the democratic process, but the security of each and every citizen and the economic well-being of every business and industry in the UK. I am glad that an adult has been put in charge of this task force; I just hope that those who he is surrounded by will do as they are told.

We have a wealth of experience on these Benches, including privy counsellors and former members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who I am sure will be only too willing to help and support the Minister with these issues.

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that the first duty of the Government is the protection and security of the nation. I also echo both noble Lords’ praise for our security services, which I also have some experience of and which I think are magnificent and first-rate.

As regards the questions on the task force, I think it makes sense for me to read out what my right honourable friend the Security Minister said yesterday, because I think it answers all the questions in full:

“The taskforce will work with Parliament, Departments, the security and intelligence agencies, the devolved Administrations and the private sector. It will work to better protect the freedoms and institutions we hold dear—institutions such as this very House.

The taskforce will look at the full range of threats”—

I add “including cyber”—

“facing our democratic institutions, including the physical threat to Members of this Parliament and those elected to serve across the country”,

as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out,

“so tragically brought home by the murder of our dear friends Sir David Amess last year and Jo Cox in 2016, and the support on offer through Operation Bridger and by the police. The work of this Taskforce will report into the National Security Council and more details will be set out in the update of the integrated review”,

so unfortunately I cannot answer his question about timing.

My right honourable friend in the other place went on to say:

“This is not just a taskforce for this Government. It will be cross-departmental and inter-agency, and I will be inviting cross-party co-operation, because, as I have said, this is not just about Ministers in office, civil servants or advisers across Whitehall. This work is for all of us in this House and those who have asked us to represent their interests.”—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/22; col. 791.]

I do not think I could agree more.

I will go on to the more specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the meeting that the former Prime Minister had in Italy with Lebedev. When he was Foreign Secretary, he declared his visit to Italy, which was published under the usual transparency requirements. At the Liaison Committee on 6 July, he committed to follow up in writing, which he did on 26 July.

Both noble Lords asked about the case of the Home Secretary. I am afraid I am going to repeat an answer given by my noble friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office earlier. The Home Secretary has provided a detailed account of the steps that she took in her letter to the HASC. For national security reasons, we are not commenting on allegations about the then Foreign Secretary’s phone.

Going back to the integrated review, I say that it makes sense to remind the House that it concluded that China poses a

“systemic challenge … to our security, prosperity and values—and those of our allies and partners”,

and that the Chinese authorities adopt a whole-of-state approach in which businesses and individuals are forced by law to co-operate. We know that the Chinese authorities are actively seeking to gain our cutting-edge tech, AI, advanced research and product development. We are working to protect our national security and ensure that the UK is resilient.

The noble Lord specifically asked about the recent rather troubling stories about undeclared Chinese police stations in the UK. The reports are being taken seriously, and they are concerning. Any foreign country operating on UK soil must abide by UK law. The protection of people in the UK is of the utmost importance. For example, any attempt illegally to repatriate any individual will not be tolerated. As noble Lords would expect, Home Office officials are working closely with FCDO, DLUHC and other government departments to ensure that the UK is a safe and welcoming place for those who choose to settle here. I cannot go beyond that at this point.

Noble Lords asked whether there was a culture of Ministers using personal phones for official business. No, there is not. There are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of electronic communications within government. Ministers receive support and expert advice to help them meet their obligations in the most appropriate and secure fashion. Again, as my noble friend answered in the previous Question, government devices should, as far as practicable, be used for government business. The guidance does not rule out the use of different forms of electronic communications, however.

Our allies are obviously aware of what has happened here, but I remind noble Lords that we do take a leading role on the global stage in countering state threats. We will continue to work closely with like-minded allies and partners to defend UK interests and the international rules-based system from hostile activity. Unfortunately, as I have already stated, I cannot comment on details of any discussions where commenting publicly on threats to the UK would give an unnecessary advantage to our adversaries. I hope that answers noble Lords’ questions as fully as I am able.

My Lords, the scope of this new task force is, of course, enormous, since nowadays almost every aspect of connection and influence is being weaponised, including education, culture and issues far outside the normal security scope and outside the range of intelligence and cyberattack. We are subject, in this country, every hour of the day, to a bombardment of fake news and distortion, penetrating every aspect of our society and clearly covering our own debates. They say that the best form of defence is attack. Can the Minister assure us that this task force will also look at ways of returning in kind some of the material that pours out, in particular from the CCP in China, attacking not just democracy but our form of democracy and claiming, rather ironically, that China’s form is more precise and more effective than ours? Can he assure us that we have a full intellectual force ready to challenge the arguments at their roots in order to refute the kind of poison that is daring to try to demoralise and undermine our society?

I am pleased to be able to reassure my noble friend that I can. I am going to give a long answer, for which I hope the House will be forgiving, because this is important. In 2019, we established the defending democracy programme. It is a cross-government programme, with an overarching objective to safeguard elections and referendums related to democratic processes in the UK. It focuses on delivering four outcomes. Elections are secured through the protection of their physical personnel and cyber infrastructure; the safety of elected representatives, parliamentarians, voters, candidates, campaigners and poll workers is protected; the regulation of political campaigning must be robust; the impact of disinformation, misinformation and wider information operations is mitigated and minimised.

There is also, as part of that work, the DCMS Counter Disinformation Unit, which leads the operational and policy response for countering disinformation across HMG. That has included responding to acute information incidents such as the Ukrainian conflict, Covid-19 and general elections. When false narratives are identified, the CDU co-ordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response. This could involve direct rebuttal on social media or awareness-raising campaigns to promote the facts. Obviously, I cannot go into—and I do not necessarily know—what other sorts of action we take overseas, but that is certainly what we are doing here, and it is fairly robust.

My Lords, I really welcome the Statement and the very full answers that the Minister has given. It is very encouraging. However, when the Statement refers to protection that defends our democratic institutions, it is not just external threats: there are internal threats that weaken our defences, such as putting draft legislation into Parliament that threatens to breach international law. If we uphold the rule of law, we cannot continue to do that. Will the Minister give a commitment that the Government will not do this, as they did in the overseas operations Bill, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and so on? Just to encourage him, I suggest that a reading of President Steinmeier’s speech on 28 October to the German people sets in a very good context how a Government might approach some of the threats and the wider challenges that we face.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that suggestion; I will read that speech, which to date I have not. He invites me to stray into areas where I would prefer not to go. There are differences of opinion when it comes to these laws; I will leave it there.

My Lords, the daily and repeated Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure are evidence of the importance of this to our national security. Is the Minister aware of the two week-old report of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy about critical national infrastructure, which is scathing about the Government’s ability to protect it? It specifically identifies a lack of leadership, an absence of co-ordination among government departments and the disbanding of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. In short, it calls on the Prime Minister to

“get a much better grip on … national security”.

When will we see the long-awaited national resilience strategy?

My Lords, I cannot answer that specifically. I have seen that report and have read a variety of newspaper reports with mounting alarm, as I am sure the noble Lord has. I think the task force will address a good deal of the noble Lord’s concerns, and I look forward to hearing what it has to say.

My Lords, I echo the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, but in relation to the report of this House’s risk committee, in which we found that there were real, critical vulnerabilities in our critical national infrastructure. The urgency of the Government producing the resilience report cannot be overstated. It is surely time for the Government to recognise that the front lines of battles that we face now are no longer in other countries but in our computers, our water systems and our electricity systems. They need to be taken really seriously.

I thank my noble friend for that question. I am afraid I will again answer at some length, because the subject of cyber resilience is at the heart of what he, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Browne, asked me. The current state of UK resilience to cyberattack is an interesting subject, and we are making significant progress in bolstering the UK’s resilience. We stop hundreds of thousands of attacks up stream while bolstering preparedness and helping UK institutions and organisations better understand the nature of cyber threats, risks and vulnerabilities down stream.

Despite this, there remain serious gaps in the nation’s defences, as both noble Lords have pointed out, and the collective resilience-building effort must continue apace. Poor organisational practices, processes and systems, and a lack of awareness of risks and mitigations, all contribute to attacks getting through. Taking some practical and cost-effective steps, such as improving the use of account authentication, could have prevented a lot of damage. I could go on, but at this point I reiterate my praise for the work of the security services. I have seen some of their work in this area, and it is incredible.

Is it not a threat to national security to have a Home Secretary who uses inflammatory, racist language and dehumanises thousands of traumatised asylum seekers?

My Lords, following on from the excellent question by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, I ask the Minister to look again at some of the threats to national security coming from serious organised crime and cybercrime, and the way in which provincial police forces are responding. He touched on this briefly, but what more can the Government do to improve capacity and expertise among those provincial police forces?

I thank my noble friend for that question. As he says, I think I have already partially answered it. The NCSC has helped UK institutions and organisations better understand the nature of cyber threats, risks and vulnerabilities. It has helped them to take action to secure systems and services that society depends on. It stops attacks up stream, as I pointed out. It would be wrong to go into more operational factors, but I hope my noble friend is reassured that much work is being done in that area.

My Lords, I welcome the creation of the task force, but I fear I have to return to the issue of the Home Secretary. Had it not been for the fact that the Home Secretary inadvertently sent the email to someone whom she did not intend to send it to, we would never have known anything about this. Since the Home Secretary has ministerial responsibility for MI5, what do these facts do other than undermine her authority in the event that she finds similar instances in the ministry for which she is responsible?

I am going to disappoint the noble Lord. I can say only what I said earlier: the Home Secretary has provided a detailed account of the steps she took, in her letter to the HASC. I am unable to comment further.

My Lords, there are many definitions of threats to national security. The Minister is right to point to some of the differences between, for example, the more immediate threats posed by Russia and the longer-term strategic threats posed by China. My noble friend Lord Browne has already referred to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy’s recent report on critical national infrastructure. It is a very good report and very pertinent to this question. Will the Minister assure the House that in the progress of this task force, which I support, it will also liaise with the same committee—of which I am a member—as we have just launched an inquiry into ransomware, which has aspects which directly relate to national security?

I agree with the noble Viscount—it absolutely does have aspects which relate to national security. I go back to what I said earlier when I quoted my honourable friend in the other House. This is not just a task force for the Government. It will be cross-departmental and inter-agency and he will be inviting cross-party co-operation. The noble Viscount makes a strong case for his committee’s involvement in that area.

The reports of unofficial Chinese police stations in the UK and other allied nations are deeply alarming and have rightly been roundly condemned by the Security Minister. If the reports prove to be accurate, and these are not immediately disbanded, is there not a very strong case for co-ordinated action across our allies to impose sanctions on the Chinese Government for doing this?

The noble Lord is right to point out that these reports apply not just to the UK. I believe that one suspected institution of this type has already been closed down overseas. I think he makes a strong case, but I do not know the progress of the investigation, so I cannot comment as to how they might be shut down.