For the first time, agencies taking part in UK political influencing activity for foreign clients must declare this business, or face two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.
This rule, referred to as the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), is progressing through parliament as part of new measures to “protect our national security and modernise existing counter-espionage laws to tackle covert influence”.
FIRS is intended to make the extent and nature of foreign influence in UK politics more transparent, also helping to “safeguard UK democratic institutions”.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat said: “Unfortunately, there are people working in secret to undermine the UK’s democracy and cause harm to our citizens.
“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, while 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: “We need new, modern tools and powers to defend ourselves, proportionately but firmly.
“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.”
The scheme will be two-tiered, with the primary tier requiring declaration of political influencing arrangements from both the involved UK organisation and foreign entity before any activity is carried out.
Exceptions will be made for those working for a foreign power in their official capacity, those with diplomatic immunity, those who provide legal services, those working for news publishers and those in an arrangement to which the UK government, or someone acting for or on behalf of the Crown, is party.
The additional tier will allow the Home Secretary to make it an offence for any kind of undeclared activity to take place between certain foreign powers/entities and anyone in the UK, in cases “where necessary to protect the safety or interests of the UK” and “to enable the UK to respond to emerging threats from any foreign power”.
The penalty for a second-tier offence is up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.