It is clear the threat from hostile states is a growing, diversifying and evolving one, manifesting itself in several different forms. I am unsettled that our espionage laws date back to 1911 and I know my ministerial colleagues are concerned that they do not account for how threats to our national security have changed over time.
The UK’s espionage legislation is contained within the Official Secrets Act 1911, 1920 and 1939. While the Government has already taken steps to strengthen our ability to deter, withstand and respond to hostile state activity, including through Schedule 3 to the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 which grants an examining officer at UK ports and the border area several powers when a person appears to be involved in espionage on behalf of a foreign government, I do think there is more that can be done to ensure our laws are fit for the 21st century.
It is welcome that the Government has introduced legislation, through the new National Security Bill, which aims to deter, detect and disrupt state actors who seek to harm the UK. The Bill seeks to reform existing espionage legislation to provide effective protection to tackle modern threats and bring in new offences to tackle state-backed sabotage, interference, the theft of trade secrets and assisting a foreign intelligence service. Crucially, it will also, for the first time, make it an offence to be an undeclared foreign spy working in the UK.
Furthermore, a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme will be introduced, requiring individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign governments to deter and disrupt state threats activity in the UK. This sits alongside new civil measures which could be used as a tool of last resort where prosecution of a hostile actor is not possible.
I would like to be very clear that the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I am committed to protecting the rights and values we all hold dear. There have been a number of reports that the legislation will treat journalists like spies. This is incorrect and I can assure you that the media will continue to be free to hold ministers to account. I simply would not support legislation that limits or erodes press freedom.
The threat of hostile activity from states targeting the UK’s democracy, economy and values is ever evolving and we need to stay one step ahead. I am confident that the new National Security Bill will keep pace with the changing threat and will keep our country safe by making the UK an even harder target for those states who seek to conduct hostile acts.