Boris Johnson announces new law to stop foreign spies and biggest overhaul of foreign policy 'since the Cold War'

Legislation to ‘disrupt hostile state activity’ was promised by Theresa May but shelved because of Brexit logjam

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
,Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 19 December 2019 12:46
Queen's Speech: Her Majesty announces her government will 'stand firm against those who threaten the values of the United Kingdom'

New treason laws, enforced registration for “foreign agents” and toughened powers under the Official Secrets Act are being considered by the government.

Measures announced in the Queen’s Speech were framed as a response to the Salisbury novichok attack, but advocates for the historical crime of treason have focused on British Isis fighters.

Boris Johnson told parliament that the proposals were “developed to tackle hostile activity conducted by foreign states”.

Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the prospect of new treason laws, and questioned how “traitors” would be classified.

Liberty said the proposals were a “serious cause for concern. Creating new criminal offences is rarely justified and existing laws already define hostile state activity extremely broadly,” added advocacy director Clare Collier.

“Attempts to reform the Official Secrets Act are likely to increase secrecy and unjustifiably clamp down on freedom of speech.

“Any government is right to take threats to people’s safety seriously, but these proposals are likely to be a further attempt to increase state power while reducing accountability.”

A Downing Street document said the planned suite of espionage laws would “bring together new and modernised powers, giving our security services the legal authority they need”.

“The government is considering whether to follow allies in adopting a form of foreign agent registration, updating the Official Secrets Acts for the 21st century, as well as the case for updating treason laws,” it added.

Ministers are looking at “like-minded international partners’ legislation”, like the US Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Dating from the Second World War, it requires anyone acting in a “political or quasi-political capacity” – such as lobbyists and consultants – to disclose their relationship with any foreign government.

Russia has used its version of the same law to target critical journalists and human rights activists.

Australia also introduced a similar law to battle soft spying, such as influence operations and financial hacking.

Legislation designed to shut legal loopholes believed to allow hostile powers to operate in the UK was first unveiled by Theresa May but shelved due to Brexit.

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The Queen’s Speech document said change was needed to make the UK “a harder environment for adversaries to operate in” and to “deal more effectively with the espionage threat.

The legislation will also “look to apply certain offences extraterritorially in order to protect our assets overseas”.

“This work is delivering on a commitment made by the former prime minister in the wake of the Salisbury attack,” the document said.

Separately, the prime minister has announced an intention to “re-set our foreign policy in 2020 through an integrated security, defence and foreign policy review that I will lead”.

Little detail has so far been provided, but Mr Johnson said: “This will be the most radical reassessment of our place in our world since the end of the Cold War, covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development.”

The last prime minister promised to get tough on Russia’s shadowy GRU-military intelligence service after the Salisbury novichok attack more than 18 months ago.

Security chiefs were left frustrated when the crackdown was delayed because of the parliamentary logjam caused by the Brexit impasse.

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