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New scheme targets Foreign Influence on British Politics

foreign influence

The Government has announced a new legislation which will require those acting for a foreign power or entity to declare political influencing activity, criminalising those who do not.

This change is being put in place by the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), which has been introduced to the National Security Bill by government amendment.

Foreign Influence

The bill delivers new measures to protect national security in the UK and modernise existing counter-espionage laws. 

The new scheme aims to tackle covert influence by increasing the transparency of political influencing activity that is executed for a foreign power or entity; helping safeguard UK democratic institutions; and informing the government of the nature, scale, and extent of foreign influence in political affairs.

The government has announced that the public register will exist on a dedicated website for political influence activities. This website will compel individuals to register activity they do in the UK on behalf of a foreign state.

Offenders could up to five years in prison

Individuals will have up to 10 days to register the activity and they must declare who directs them, what they have been told to do and when they were told to do it. Failure to do so will be a criminal offence, with offenders facing a fine or sentence of up to two years in prison.

The government website will also initiate an enhanced tier of registration which will allow the Home Secretary to single out a foreign power or entity and make it a criminal offence for anyone in the UK to engage in an activity for that entity without being registered. 

Each time the government puts this extra measure in place, parliamentary approval will be required. 

Failure to comply with the enhanced tier will induce a fine or up to five years in prison. 

Some exceptions apply, including foreign diplomats and their families, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, and international NGO staff. 

Implementing  the new provisions in the National Security Bill, Tom Tugendhat, Security Minister, said: “Unfortunately, there are people working in secret to undermine the UK’s democracy and cause harm to our citizens.

Strategic Contest

“For years I have advocated for the establishment of a foreign influence registration scheme to deter foreign powers from pursuing their pernicious aims through the covert use of agents and proxies.

“I am delighted that the scheme we are introducing will help ensure our political affairs are protected, whilst embracing open and transparent engagement with foreign governments and entities which we continue to welcome.

Ken McCallum, Director General of the Security Service (MI5), said: “The UK is in a strategic contest with states that seek to undermine our national security, democratic institutions and commercial advantage at an unprecedented scale. We need new, modern tools and powers to defend ourselves, proportionately but firmly.

“The new Foreign Influence Registration Scheme will make it harder – and riskier – to operate covertly”

“Alongside the other vital measures introduced in the National Security Bill, the new Foreign Influence Registration Scheme will make it harder – and riskier – to operate covertly in the UK at the behest of a foreign power. It will also increase openness and transparency around the scale of foreign influence in our political affairs and make it harder for our adversaries to undermine our democracy. The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme is a modern power designed to tackle a modern threat, and I welcome its inclusion in the National Security Bill.”

Final thought

Aimed at those working in the UK for “hostile” states like Russia and China, this new US-style ‘foreign influence’ registration scheme should help curb hostile activity, combat spying and protect sensitive research. Whether that’s by monitoring a suspect’s account in real time, identifying accounts of suspects in UK financial institutions or compelling individuals or entities to provide relevant information, this scheme has the power to make underground political activity illegal. 

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) Unit, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, administers and enforces a similar registration scheme. As of September this year, there were 501 active foreign agents registered with the FARA Unit. 

By following in the footsteps of the US-style scheme, the UK scheme may enable authorities to prosecute those who secretly work for foreign powers but more likely and just as important is to put a chill on lobbyists, former politicians and civil servants working for these governments in the first place.

Image credit: DC Studio / Freepik

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