(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on his Department’s funding of the Institute for Statecraft’s integrity initiative.
The Institute for Statecraft is an independent UK-based charity whose work seeks to improve governance and enhance national security. It runs a project called the integrity initiative, which is working to counter disinformation overseas by bringing together groups of experts to analyse and discuss the problem posed by Russian disinformation.
The Government are funding this initiative with nearly £2 million this financial year. That funding covers its activity outside the UK and it does not fund any activity within the UK; nor does it fund the management of the integrity initiative’s social media account. Recent reports that Foreign Office funding has been used to support party political activity in the UK are therefore wholly untrue.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the Minister of State for his opening remarks.
Let me make it clear at the outset that I have no interest today in debating the integrity initiative’s purpose of countering the very real threat of interference in western democracies and the spread of disinformation by the Russian state. If a debate needs to happen on how that objective is best pursued, it is best left for another day. The issue before us today is much more simple and fundamental: it is a cardinal rule of public life in our country that official resources should not be used for political purposes, a rule we saw symbolised this very morning when the Prime Minister delivered her statement outside Downing Street with the usual Government coat of arms removed from her lectern because of the political nature of her statement. There is, I am afraid, absolutely no doubt that the publicly funded integrity initiative has broken that rule repeatedly by using its Twitter accounts to disseminate articles attacking the integrity of Conservative and Labour officials, of Conservative peers and, repeatedly, of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
I greatly welcome the Minister’s statement on Monday, in which he totally condemned such behaviour by a publicly funded organisation, and said that not only must it stop, but that he wanted to know
“why on earth it happened in the first place”.
That is doubly important in this case, because the integrity initiative’s use of Twitter as a tool for disseminating information has not been a fringe activity, but is an integral part of its applications for Foreign Office funding over the past two years. Indeed, the budget for its agreed objectives of increasing reporting in the media and expanding the impact of its website and Twitter account amounted to £275,000 in this financial year. In the list of key deliverables it promised the Foreign Office this year, it stated explicitly that one of its instruments of delivery will be its
“600-plus Twitter followers, including influential players”.
In the light of all that, I hope that the Minister of State can answer some more questions to explain, as he put it, why on earth that misuse of public funds has taken place. First, were Foreign Office officials monitoring the integrity initiative’s social media output, given that it was an integral part of the activity for which it was being funded? If so, why did they not flag up concerns to him about the dissemination of personal attacks? If not, why was this misuse of public funds going unchecked? Secondly, does the funding agreement governing the integrity initiative make clear that its use of funds and its public statements must comply with Cabinet Office rules? Finally, if the Government intend to renew that funding for the next financial year, what arrangements and agreements will be put in place to ensure that nothing of this sort ever happens again?
It is a matter of regret, Mr Speaker, that the right hon. Lady did not listen to the answer that I gave a moment ago. Let me explain to the House what has been going on. The Institute for Statecraft was hacked several weeks ago and numerous documents were published and amplified by Kremlin news channels. The Russian state media campaign that followed fits with a wider pattern of Russian disinformation against the UK. This campaign’s objective is clear: it is yet another example of Russian disinformation intended to confuse audiences and discredit an organisation that is working independently to tackle the threat of disinformation. The current Russian disinformation activity is precisely the sort of disinformation that this project is designed to counter. It is regrettable, but perhaps rather unsurprising, that some have been fooled, and have used this to make accusations about British politics in exactly the way hoped for in this malign activity.
While that is going on in the UK, the sort of activity that we do fund is doing its utmost to counter Russian disinformation overseas, which is undermining democracy and its institutions ever more widely across the world. The FCO has given a grant to the Institute for Statecraft this financial year of nearly £2 million. Our agreement, written into the contract with the institute, specifically states that the grant must not be used to support activity intended to influence, or attempt to influence, the UK Parliament, Government or political parties. We have not seen any evidence that the integrity initiative has breached this obligation, and the accusation that Government money has been used for domestic political purposes is utterly unfounded.
I say once again to the right hon. Lady that no Foreign Office funding is used for the initiative’s UK domestic activity. She can look at me as aghast as she likes, but the money that comes from the Foreign Office is used for activity overseas, and she should accept that as the—[Interruption.] If she does not accept it, she should say in terms what she is accusing me of, because that would be a breach of the forms of the House.
It would clearly be concerning if any Foreign Office money was being used for party political activities, so I welcome the Minister’s reassurances. Will he confirm that an investigation has been launched to see what has happened, and that when a proper, independent investigation has come to proper conclusions, he will take action on them?
Perhaps one of the accurate things that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said was that when I was interviewed on Radio 4 and this matter was sprung on me, I said that I would look into it straightaway, and I did. I have established the facts and I am satisfied that our money does not go towards funding any kind of UK domestic activity.
Mr Speaker, I have been accused of speaking rubbish by the hon. Lady. She should mark her words carefully before she bellows untruths at me across the House.
Order. Nobody should bellow across the House from either side. I know that the right hon. Minister of State is very well able to look after himself. The word “rubbish” is sadly used relatively frequently in the House, and it is certainly not unparliamentary. It is a matter of taste rather than of order. I am glad to see the right hon. Minister of State breaking out into a smile. It would be more seemly if colleagues would conduct these exchanges in a slightly more restrained fashion. To that end, I now look in hope—possibly in anticipation—to Mr Stephen Gethins.
I wish to put on record that a number of FCO-funded non-governmental organisations do extraordinary work in the most difficult circumstances. Before I came to this place, I worked in the south Caucasus and the western Balkans, where many of those organisations do that extraordinary work. They deserve our support for doing that but, more than anything else, they need to know that the Foreign Office has full openness and transparency. Our most powerful tool against any Russian misinformation is respect for the rule of law, the democratic process and, critically, transparency; we owe that to those working in these organisations. The Minister will be well aware of many people who work in very difficult circumstances and find themselves at the hard edge of Russian disinformation campaigns.
We need to have confidence in our democratic process. There should be no undermining of politicians, be they Labour, Scottish National party or Conservative, or of anybody else. What further steps will the Minister take to ensure that impartiality and integrity goes to the very heart of all funding that comes from the Foreign Office? I hope that he will consider the tone of the question I am putting to him, and will agree with me that those who are doing difficult work in difficult conflict environments deserve the full support of this House, and to know that the Foreign Office has their back.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for both what he asked and the tone in which he asked it. He has experience of these issues and I share in pretty well everything that he just said. The integrity initiative, in its activity abroad, endeavours to deliver exactly that sort of transparency to counter fake news and disinformation, in the way that I think the hon. Gentleman and all of us would hope. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said in her opening remarks that she would support that sort of activity.
What is more, this charity is incorporated in Scotland, so it is subject to the Scottish Charity Regulator, and that kind of non-partisan activity is required. Within the UK, the charity does some automatic retweeting of stories that relate to Russia. Of course, on some occasions that includes mentions of the right hon. Leader of the Opposition; equally, there could be mention of a Conservative, as indeed has happened on many occasions. It has been judged to be no more than non-partisan repetition of stories that relate to Russia.
I am reassured to know that we are taking on Russian misinformation. I am right to be, aren’t I?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is right to be. The whole House should appreciate that this is an ever-increasing challenge, and one that we need to meet in the cyber field, as we do in the information field. That is what we are doing.
In a united way.
The right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position “in a united way”—yes, and she could add to that unity by recognising the truth of what I have said, instead of denying it in her normal way.
I’m not a gentleman. I have never been a gentleman.
The Minister said that the Institute for Statecraft was hacked several weeks ago. Will he clarify for the House whether that hacking extended to the Twitter account of the integrity initiative, which has been retweeting articles that are undoubtedly critical of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and the Opposition’s policy?
The answer is that I do not know, but if information is on a Twitter account, it is publicly available anyway. It is the information that was not publicly available that was hacked, and I deplore that hack. That is what is now being used by Russian-inspired sources to create the sort of encounters we are witnessing here today.
This is the first time I have come across an accusation from a Labour party spokesperson that retweeting a New Statesman article was a smear against Labour. Despite the fact that the Government’s financial support has nothing to do with the institute’s UK activities, will my right hon. Friend reassure Members that if any evidence is found that the institute is involved in efforts to discredit the Labour party, he would unequivocally condemn such behaviour?
Yes. If our funding were being used for that, then yes, I would condemn it, and the contract would be withdrawn. [Interruption.] I hear again from a Labour Front Bencher an accusation, which I have categorically denied today, that Foreign Office funding is paying for UK Twitter activity and the management of the institute’s account. I say to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who has been shouting at me from the Front Bench, that he should withdraw that accusation, because I have spoken in honesty to the House, and he should recognise that.
Russia has been pushing the boundaries with its international interference and disruption, and we have seen incidents such as Salisbury and what is happening in Ukraine. Our defences against cyber-attack will be depleted if we leave the European Union, so will the Minister tell the House what plans have been drawn up to increase the skills and resources required to counter future cyber-attacks?
We are one of the leaders in cyber-defence; indeed, we assist other countries in learning the techniques necessary to protect against the sort of hacking that we are discussing in part today. I am confident, and I have enormous confidence in the professional competence of our officials in defending this country from cyber-attacks and malign cyber-activity.
How sure are we that the Russians were behind this hack? If we are sure, what are we going to do by way of response?
One of the responses is, of course, to counter in the sort of way that we are doing in the House today. Unfortunately, I do not have as many allies across the Chamber as I would like to have in so doing. We know the origin of the attack because it takes exactly the same pattern that we have seen in previous attacks.
The Russians are engaged in hybrid cyber-warfare against our country and many others. We seem to play by different rules from theirs. What are we doing to counter the nefarious activities of the Russian propaganda channel RT and of Sputnik?
We do indeed play by the rules, because we have integrity in upholding the rule of law and acting within the confines of our own law. Some might say that that puts us at a disadvantage, because other people break the rules to try to get the better of us, but we have strong cyber-defences. The kind of activity that the integrity initiative undertakes is designed to counter the sort of activity to which the hon. Gentleman rightly refers. It saddens and dismays me that I do not have the full support of those on the Opposition Front Bench in defending what we are doing.
I welcome the absolute clarity of the Minister’s statement and his refutation of the allegations. I also welcome the work of the Institute for Statecraft. Does the Minister agree that we need to double down on that work, because as the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has shown, the reality is that Russian disinformation is a danger to our democracy and our very way of life? We should not fall into Russian traps and aid the sort of paranoia that we have seen in the coverage of this matter in the likes of The Canary and that type of publication.
I fully agree. We should not be taken for a sucker. If we allow malign forces to divide us and try to rule over us, that is what will have happened to us. Again, I urge the Front Benchers of Her Majesty’s Opposition to appreciate that this is a proper part of government activity—within the rules, according to a contract—and it behoves them to accept the assurances that have been so clearly and openly given today.
On the allegations of Russian influence, is the Minister aware of concerns about some activities of peers in the House of Lords who are representing Russian companies, including Lord Truscott, who is the remunerated chairman of the advisory board of Russian Gold Fund, which is a private equity investment fund about which it is possible to find out precisely nothing, including who is investing in it and where the money is going?
It is not for me to comment on the propriety or otherwise of any Member of the House of Lords. It has its own standards and rules, and it is for that House to apply those rules as it sees fit.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the robust way in which he has answered these questions. Will he ensure that the Institute for Statecraft reviews its editorial policy so that we counter Russian fake news and disinformation and so that it does not fall foul of criticising UK politicians?
I am very happy to say yes. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that when it comes to challenging officials on any issue, I do so very robustly, to establish the highest standards of activity in everything the Foreign Office does. Therefore, in response to this situation, I have certainly been grilling officials to find out exactly what is happening. I have asked them to engage with the Institute for Statecraft to look at its editorial policy to ensure that there is, and will remain, an absolutely clear division between its domestic activity under its charitable rules and any overseas activity that we fund and is subject to the contract we have.
I completely support any attempts to deal with misinformation campaigns, whether they originate from Russia, Saudi Arabia, the hard right in the United States of America or Syria—or, for that matter, in Catalonia last year. I want to make sure that a project such as this really works, but it will not have the confidence of the whole nation unless we are able to see some changes in the way in which it operates in this case. I would have more confidence if the Government were to engage in the kind of investigation that is ongoing in the United States of America into Russian involvement in democratic process in this country. Why can we not have that investigation?
Again, that is an area where there is an enormous amount of work going on in the Government. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We have seen all sorts of social media activity and we have seen completely verified activity of Russian intervention in democratic processes, such as the election in Montenegro and perhaps the referendum in Catalonia. That is in addition to the full spectrum of activity that we are specifically discussing in this urgent question.
Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Government are still not in favour of expelling the Russian Federation from the Council of Europe? The Russian Federation is in breach of all its international obligations, yet the Government are not doing what they could do, which is to expel it from the Council of Europe.
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but a matter of that sort is for the Council of Europe and I know that the parliamentary representatives are discussing it. Russia has not paid its dues and this question is being discussed regularly.
May I just observe that the Minister seems to be rather affronted by the anger felt on this side of the House, particularly by my Front-Bench colleagues, on this issue? He really need not; he ought to be sharing in that anger. Does he think that the investigation that he has undertaken so far is sufficient, or does he plan any further inquiry into this matter? Does he think he has done enough?
No, I do not share in the anger because the accusations that are being made are misplaced and have been categorically denied. Right hon. Ladies and Gentlemen in particular should accept the assurance on that basis.
I am delighted that the Foreign Office is spending money trying to counter the disinformation and fake news that is coming not just from Russia but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, from all over the world. What comments has the Minister given to this organisation to impress upon it that its domestic use of its Twitter account, whether right or wrong, may be undermining what it is trying to do internationally?
I actually think that that is a perfectly fair question about whether the domestic activity of the organisation somehow taints the legitimate and Foreign Office-funded international activity. What I resent very deeply is Members of this House not accepting the assurances given that Foreign Office funding does not pay for that domestic activity. In the organisation’s defence, I think that all it does is to forward from already open website articles anything that happens to mention Russia. It is deemed to have done so on a non-partisan basis, so in as much as it may occasionally mention the Leader of the Opposition, it could also mention anyone on the Conservative side. That distinction ought to be accepted and understood, particularly by Opposition Front Benchers. I have undertaken to conduct exactly that sort of review, because it is important that our activity is clear, distinct and not in any way muddled with the sort of activity that the hon. Gentleman is describing.
Will the Minister clarify when the Foreign Office became aware that the account had been hacked? Was it before or after the press coverage?
I suspect, although I am partly speculating, that the Foreign Office probably knew fairly quickly. The matter did not necessarily come to Ministers straightaway, probably because it was not deemed to be that serious. Unfortunately, these things happen all too frequently at the moment.
According to documents that the company itself has filed with Companies House, one of the directors describes his own occupation as “senior civil servant”. Now, it may be that that is his former rather than his present occupation, but a simple glance at his career indicates that he has held a number of senior and presumably sensitive posts within both Her Majesty’s Government and NATO. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government were aware, until now, that this individual held that directorship? Were the Government involved in any way in nominating or recommending him for that position? And what approval of authorisation, if any, did the individual require before he became a director of what is, as the Minister has said, is an independent company limited by guarantee?
It was very cheeky of the hon. Gentleman to ask three questions, but I am sure the Minister will respond.
I believe that I would be right in saying that perhaps the reason for this is that NATO is also a funder of this activity. Therefore, I imagine that the name to which the hon. Gentleman refers has a connection with NATO. However, should this be inaccurate, I will of course write to him straightaway.
In the end, this is about trust. In a recent parliamentary question to do with public money to fund social media ads to promote the Brexit deal, I asked the Government whether they would place the contents of these ads in the Library for us all to see. Unfortunately, this request was declined. Does the Minister agree that, to ensure public trust and transparency, the content and audiences of any ads paid for by public money should be published centrally as a matter of course?
The Foreign Office funding for the Integrity Initiative does not really pay for advertisements, so that is not really relevant to today’s urgent question. May I just refer to the earlier question regarding when we knew about the hack? We first knew about it on 23 November.
The Minister is burying his head in the sand. The fact is that this organisation has received more than £2 million of public money in just over 18 months, and it is a matter of fact that it has been engaging in a smear campaign against the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party. It has also taken credit for derailing the appointment of Pedro Banos as the director of Homeland Security in Spain. This is a democratic outrage, and will the Minister therefore agree to an independent inquiry into the activities of this organisation?
I have said this on many occasions this morning: what the hon. Gentleman says about domestic activity—smearing the Leader of the Opposition —is utterly untrue.
Will the Minister now make it clear when he knew, how long the institute was hacked and what he has done about it?
I have sort of answered all those questions already this morning. I first knew about this when there was a report in the Sunday papers. I answered a question sprung on me on the “Today” programme at 7 o’clock yesterday, after which I sought all the facts, which have equipped me truthfully to answer this urgent question today.
Does it not concern the Minister that the internal checks within the FCO have led it to sending cheques for £2 million to a derelict mill in Scotland as an address for this charity?
Well, that is not the cleverest of questions. The charity was incorporated in Scotland. Most of its activities are in the UK and all payments are channelled properly to where they belong.
Will the Minister tell us a bit more about the Foreign Office’s counter-disinformation and media development team—what its objectives, resourcing and budget are and whether it has operational interface with the integrity initiative?
This question this morning is primarily about the integrity initiative. We carry out a lot of activity. Indeed, it is linked with our cyber-facilities in the UK Government, so, across Whitehall, there is all sorts of counter-disinformation activities. This is managed by our strategic fund—the conflict, stability and security fund—so increasingly across Whitehall, we are having to be alert and equipped to counter cyber-attacks and disinformation.
The Government should be doing much more to counter Russian disinformation in Britain and in the west. In particular, may I ask the Minister to comment on the activities of RT, which cannot be regarded as a serious news organisation? It is a wholly owned Kremlin propaganda channel, which has engaged in dishonest campaigns to undermine our democracy. Does he agree that it is a channel that mainstream politicians should not have anything to do with, and will he contact his counterparts at DCMS and ask them to encourage Ofcom to review the channel’s licence?
It is a rare moment of early festive good cheer that I can find myself wholly in agreement with the hon. Gentleman, which is not something that always happens across the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right about the extent to which Russia Today is an obvious mouthpiece for the Kremlin. It distorts information; it spreads disinformation; and it has quite a few useful idiots who it puts in front of the camera, and we should identify those so-called useful idiots and make sure that none of them is ever in our midst.
I agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that we should scrutinise all instances of public bodies in receipt of public funds, yet the fact remains that the integrity initiative has criticised all political parties, including my own, when they have fallen foul—inadvertently or not— of the Russian disinformation narrative trap. I am a wee bit concerned that we fall into a trap where we are exposing the plethora of, some would say, Putin-Verstehers in grey suits in all political parties. I understand that the origin of much of the information discussed today emerged as a result of a hack perpetrated by actors of a dubious origin. Will the Minister enlighten the House further on the circumstances of that hack, and will he bring a report back to the Floor of the House?
Obviously, when I referred to my “Today” programme interview, it was on Monday, rather than yesterday. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that we are having an investigation into the hacking. It is continuing. We cannot attribute it with certainty to an absolutely specific source, but it does fit in with the wider pattern that I mentioned earlier, and therefore, of course, we have our well-founded suspicions.