Huge numbers of PR and public affairs firms could be caught up in new anti-spying laws

More than 165,000 PR, public affairs, advertising and management consultants will have to familiarise themselves with a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, under the National Security Bill going through parliament.

(Pic credit: Getty Images)

The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS) means that any “political influence activities within the UK at the direction of a foreign power or entity” will have to be reported to the Government.

FIRS will be a publicly available register with details of “the nature of the activity, its duration and who it is being undertaken for.

It is being introduced in an attempt to counter a rise in the “hostile activities of foreign states” and “deter foreign power use of covert arrangements, activities and proxies”, according to an impact assessment recently released by the Home Office.

People who do not declare their UK political influencing activity for foreign clients will face two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine.

“Persons could be prosecuted if engaged in unregistered activity, even if the activity itself is legitimate,” according to the assessment.

It estimates that more than 165,000 people working in PR, advertising, management consultancy and public affairs will need to “familiarise themselves with the scheme and its requirements to ensure compliance within their organisation”.

In total, some 371,480 people could be affected – with journalists, barristers and charity workers among the other groups falling under the scope of the scheme.

Although the Home Office does not have an “accurate estimate” for the number of people who could be “considered in scope to register”, it suggests there could be 273 registrations initially. It is not known how many PR and public affairs professionals would be within this figure. Those that do have to register can expect to have to pay up to £1,307 a year.

Reputational damage

“There is a risk of negative reputational impacts from inclusion on a public register,” the assessment states.

“Firms or individuals conducting legitimate activities could be concerned about being negatively impacted if there was a widespread, albeit inaccurate, perception that the scheme is a register of illegitimate activity.”

There is also the “potential for discouragement of legitimate activity because of the burden of the scheme and how it is implemented”. This may lead to an economic loss, it adds.

There will be “published guidance and a communications campaign to reduce any potential negative stigma that may be attached to the scheme”. This will “make clear that those who comply with the scheme’s requirements are supporting the transparency and national security objectives of the UK”.

However, the assessment notes that the “chilling effects” of the new system are “unknown and will likely impact each sector differently”. 

Exceptions

FIRS will introduce “additional regulatory burden” by requiring  a large number of businesses to familiarise themselves with the scheme, “with a tiny portion” of employees likely to need to register.

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.

Comms activity “where it is reasonably clear from the communication that it is made at the direction of a foreign principal” will be out of scope of the new laws. However, organisations that are ultimately out of scope will still need to be aware of the FIRS regulations to ensure they are out of scope, both currently and for future activities.

Industry view

While the scheme is welcome as a way to increase transparency, it is important that “nothing is designed in a way that is burdensome for the PR industry or negatively impacts it and the important work it delivers”, according to Jon Gerlis, PR and policy manager at the CIPR.

There is a risk that the register would be associated with nefarious or illegal activities, resulting in improper reporting or the unforeseen consequence of less transparency, he said. 

“This impact assessment raises some serious concerns – we would urge the Government to look at similar existing schemes and do more to reassure the industry and work with us to mitigate them.

Renna Markson, deputy director-general of the PRCA, commented: “Every professional industry has a responsibility to ensure its services are not weaponised by those who seek to harm the UK.”

But she warned: “It is vital, however, that any legislation is carefully considered to avoid unintended consequences. We will review the impact assessment and the views of members before commenting further.”


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