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UK Democratic System: Interference by Russia

Volume 792: debated on Monday 2 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the United Kingdom’s democratic system is resilient against Russian interference.

My Lords, the Government are alert to the threat of subversion and other means of seeking to manipulate the electoral process or undermine democratic institutions. They are committed to defending the UK from all forms of malign foreign state interference, whether from Russia or any other state. We have systems in place to defend against electoral fraud at all levels and have seen no successful interference in UK democratic processes, but we are not complacent.

My Lords, there is increasing evidence that there has been interference in 19 elections across Europe and in the United States. That evidence is gathering a head of steam. It shows encouragement of extreme parties across Europe, the funding of them and interference using cyber and other mechanisms to undermine processes. While I am grateful for the reply that there is no complacency from government, I want to hear whether we are going to use sanctions against supporters of Mr Putin who live in this country and make use of it, and whether the Magnitsky Act laws that we have now introduced to deal with money laundering, sanctions and so on will be used. Have any steps been taken to use them? Will we see lists of people who will have sanctions used against them? Will we know which Ministers will handle the Magnitsky Act?

The noble Baroness raises a series of important issues. On the general theme, perhaps I may remind noble Lords of what the Prime Minister said in her post-Salisbury Commons speech. She said that,

“led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people or their money in our country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/3/18; col. 859.]

More specifically on Magnitsky, the noble Baroness will recall that the House recently debated the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, which gives us powers to sanction individuals or entities to promote compliance with international human rights laws. That will allow us to take a range of actions against those suspected of gross human rights abuse such as that committed against Sergei Magnitsky. She will also know that we introduced unexplained wealth orders from the beginning of this year, some of which I understand have already been used where individuals have a standard of living which cannot on the face of it be explained by their declared income. This is an issue that we take seriously. We have introduced a number of other measures, including action taken under other legislation, to bring to justice those who have committed any offence.

My Lords, given the open society in which we live, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House which areas of that society are particularly vulnerable to attacks of this kind and what, if anything, we can do to diminish that danger?

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, outlined a few moments ago the sorts of dangers that are run. Vulnerabilities could include the covert funding of political parties or movements in another country, the hacking or leaking of emails in order to discredit particular individuals or their parties, and the distribution of fake news. After the Salisbury incident the Kremlin put out 30 different stories about how it happened. Fortunately, the Government’s response, explaining that Russia had the means and the motivation, commanded international credibility, as we saw from the diplomatic response to that incident.

My Lords, election law provides for the disqualification of a successful candidate in the event that that candidate is proven to be responsible for serious breaches of election law, and for the setting aside of that election. In a referendum campaign, if there are shown to be serious breaches of election law—for example, through the use of illegal funding from Russia—should not equivalent sanctions apply?

If the noble Lord is suggesting that we should rerun the European referendum, the clear answer is no. I believe we should respect the result of that referendum. Such information as we have indicates that the influence of the Russian so-called bots was fairly minimal and I do not think it accounts for the 1.3 million more people who voted for leave than remain. The Russians may be clever; I do not think they are that clever.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the greatest threats to the resilience of our democracy is having a Government who are split asunder from top to bottom and are being threatened with all sorts of privations when they have to get together at Chequers this weekend to see whether they can thrash out not only an agreement but a White Paper that was promised the best part of a year ago?

Well, I am not sure what sort of elastic the noble Lord is using in order to stretch a Question about resilience against Russian interference into alleged diversions of opinion within one political party. I say very gently to the noble Lord that perhaps his own party is not wholly united on this issue.

I cast noble Lords’ minds back to the tragic events of March last year when a young Muslim woman appeared to pass a dying victim of the terrible events of that day on Westminster Bridge. The image went viral. In fact, it was from a troll Russian account. The damage was done already. Does the Minister not agree that this is a corruption of the outlook of our democracy? Will he not urge that, since some of the cleverest people in the world came together to make these social media giants, they should put their great intellect and large amounts of profit together to help us come up with a solution?

I understand the point my noble friend is making. There is, in fact, within the Cabinet Office, a rapid response unit that monitors news and information, particularly disinformation, and engages with online media. It provides round-the-clock monitoring on breaking news stories, ranging from chemical weapons attacks in Syria to domestic stories relating to the NHS and crime. I believe that this is the right way forward in order to deal with the misinformation my noble friend refers to. I note in passing that in 1688 the Privy Council passed a proclamation banning the spreading of false news—I am not sure whether it is still in force.