Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 4 days ago)

Lords Chamber
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Statement
The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 8 May.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to the House regarding measures that His Majesty’s Government will take in response to the reckless and dangerous activities of the Russian Government across Europe and now suspected here in the UK.
As was reported on Friday 26 April, five individuals have been charged in connection with an investigation into alleged offences under the National Security Act 2023, as part of a counterterrorism policing investigation. The offences relate to what was widely reported by the media as a suspected arson attack on a Ukraine-linked business in the UK. The Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that the charges relate to alleged
‘hostile activity in the UK in order to benefit a foreign state—namely Russia’.
I pay tribute to our law enforcement agencies for their quick and professional work to ensure these charges were brought. They are the first charges to be brought under the new National Security Act. Measures that this Government brought forward and this House passed are already being used to keep our country safe.
I thank the emergency services who responded to the fire at a commercial property in London where the suspected activity took place. The charges are serious and it is only through good fortune that nobody was hurt. I reassure the House that public safety is of the utmost importance, which is why the law enforcement response has been quick and decisive.
As Members will appreciate, I must not say anything further on this specific case, or any related case, to avoid prejudicing the outcome of ongoing criminal proceedings. I ask the House to respect that and to avoid using the debate to add to speculation about the incident. It is vital that justice runs its course.
However, I wish to highlight to the House a pattern of suspected Russian activity that we are seeing across Europe. This is not the first time that we have uncovered malign activity in the UK that is seemingly linked to Russia in the past year. In September, five Bulgarian nationals were charged with conspiring to commit espionage activities in the UK on behalf of Russia. A sixth individual was later charged and legal proceedings against all six are ongoing.
There is a much broader pattern of Russian malign activities across Europe. These include: plans for sabotage activities against military aid for Ukraine in Germany and in Poland; espionage in Bulgaria and in Italy; cyberattacks and disinformation activities; air space violations; and GPS jamming with impact on civil aviation.
Over a number of years, we have witnessed Russia and its intelligence services engage in yet more open and brazen attempts to undermine our security, harm our people and interfere in our democracies. Such attempts involve Litvinenko, Georgia, Crimea, Salisbury, Ukraine and activities across Europe. Since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, the rhetoric, threats and accusations from Russia have only increased, as Putin seeks to justify the death and destruction that he has brought to the Ukrainian people. These activities bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate campaign by Russia designed to ‘bring the war home’ across Europe, and to undermine our collective resolve to support Ukraine in its fight. It will not work.
As the Prime Minister said in Poland last month, we are at a turning point for European security. With our allies, we will stand firm in the face of Russian threats to the UK and to our way of life. It is why, after Salisbury, we took measures with our partners to make Europe a harder operating environment for Russian intelligence services, including the expulsion of 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers from the UK. It is also why the UK has announced the biggest strengthening of the UK’s national defence in a generation, with a fully funded plan to grow the defence budget to 2.5% of GDP by 2030.
The UK and our allies will not falter in our support for Ukraine, because it is existential to the security of Europe. This is why the Prime Minister has also announced an uplift in UK military aid to Ukraine, bringing it to £3 billion this year, and has committed to that level of support every year until the end of the decade, or longer if it is sadly still required. We have sanctioned more than 1,700 individuals, over 90% of the Russian banking sector, and more than 130 oligarchs and family members, with a combined net worth of £147 billion at the time of the invasion.
As of October, over £22 billion-worth of Russian assets were reported frozen as a result of UK sanctions. These assets can no longer be taken back to Russia to fund Putin’s war machine. We consider Russia’s campaign to undermine our support for Ukraine as unacceptable and it is destined to fail. We must wait for the ongoing criminal cases across Europe, including here in the UK, to conclude, but given these allegations, the Government will not wait to take further action to send a strong deterrence message to Russia and to further reduce the ability of the Russian intelligence services to threaten the UK. That is why today, in conjunction with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, I am announcing a package of measures to make it clear to Russia that we will not tolerate such apparent escalations.
I can tell the House that we will: expel the Russian defence attaché, an undeclared military intelligence officer; remove diplomatic premises status from several Russian-owned properties in the UK, including Seacox House, a Russian-owned property in Sussex, and the trade and defence section in Highgate, which we believe have been used for intelligence purposes; and impose new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas, including capping the length of time that Russian diplomats can spend in the UK.
The measures that we and our international partners have taken in recent years have already made the UK an extremely challenging operating environment for the Russian intelligence services. These further measures will serve only to strengthen our resilience to the Russian threat.
Our NATO allies share our view of Russia’s alleged behaviour, as seen in the North Atlantic Council statement of last week. Russia has failed to provide any explanation of these events. In the coming days, we should expect accusations of Russophobia, conspiracy theories and hysteria from the Russian Government. That is not new and the British people and the British Government will not fall for it and will not be taken for fools by Putin’s bots, trolls and lackeys.
Russia’s explanation was totally inadequate; our response will be resolute and firm.
Our message to Russia is clear: stop this illegal war; withdraw your troops from Ukraine; and cease your malign activities. I commend this Statement to the House”.
17:28
Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, as I have said on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition on a number of occasions, we will always work with the Government on matters of national security. All of us want to protect our country, our people and our democracy, and we will stand with our friends and allies across the world in order to do this. We join the Government in condemning Russian interference and hostile activity here in the UK and throughout Europe. There have been numerous examples of such activity, not least the current cases that we have seen and many others, as outlined by the Home Secretary in his Statement in the other place. We read consistently of such attacks in our newspapers.

We also remind everyone that we remain absolutely at one with the Government with respect to Ukraine and that should there be any change of government in the near future, there will be no change of policy at all. It is important for us all to recognise—and continue to recognise—that the defence of the UK starts in Ukraine, against the illegal invasion by Russia, but that there are also challenges and threats to our homeland security, so we support the measures that the Home Secretary outlined a few days ago in his Statement. It is in this spirit of cross-party support that I will make a number of further points and ask some questions of the Government.

Notwithstanding recent changes to the law, there remain questions about illicit Russian finance. Can the Minister reassure us about the priority that the Government are giving to this? What are the latest figures he has available that he can share with us about the amount of illicit Russian finance that the Government believe there to be and how much has so far been seized? As I say, there is continuing concern that we could and should be doing more.

Can the Minister outline what diplomatic response the Government expect from Russia? The Home Secretary said:

“We will always ensure that we protect our ability to have lines of communication with Russia … Routes for de-escalation”


and so on

“are very important … We will seek to maintain”

those lines

“even while we take these decisive actions”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/24; col. 587.]

We all agree with that, so can the Minister say anything further on any diplomatic response one way or the other, notwithstanding the obvious difficulties with respect to that?

On the question of seizing Russian assets to fund reconstruction in Ukraine, a policy that the Government have said they support in principle, has this policy been progressed in any way? In the United States, more than 70 individuals have been charged with sanctions evasion and huge amounts of assets seized. Can the Minister give an equivalent figure for the UK? It is my understanding that no one has been charged. If so, can he explain whether any cases are ongoing and, if not, why not? It is also the case that we have still not had a full update on the scale of risks from golden visas. When can we expect that from the Government?

Finally, there can be no doubt that from Iranian-sponsored “kidnap and kill” threats to attacks on so-called dissidents, the repression of Hong Kong protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, Salisbury and many other examples on home soil in the UK, we have witnessed a fundamental shift in the threat landscape. State actors are targeting us in our own country, sometimes with the co-operation of serious and organised crime. Even in this Parliament, a parliamentary aide and more alleged spies have been charged, as we have recently seen in our papers, although with respect to China. How are the Government responding to this increased threat and supporting the amazing work of our police and intelligence agencies, which we all recognise?

This is one of the fundamental questions of our democracy today, so the co-ordination of that effort across government is of extreme importance. I wonder whether the Minister could say a little about that. We must not be found lacking in our response as we defend our hard-won freedoms, and that co-ordinated effort must be at the heart of it.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, I associate myself with many of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I agree with what he said. These Benches also welcome the Statement repeat and support the Government’s actions. I too pay tribute to the security and intelligence services, which remain vigilant in keeping us safe from foreign malign activity. It is of course a very serious matter when we have to take action against so-called diplomats—those who are abusing not only the protections that diplomatic conventions afford them but their position within the United Kingdom—but actions have been necessary.

I note that the Home Secretary indicated in the Statement that this was the first legislation under the National Security Act on which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and I, along with my noble friend and others, worked closely with the Minister. He was very open and worked on a cross-party basis. When it comes to national security and keeping our country safe, we are of the view—I think the Minister agrees—that this is not a partisan issue, no matter what the Prime Minister may have said this week. I pay tribute to the Minister for his work on that, and it is rewarding to see that the measures we put in place on a cross-party basis have been activated. That demonstrates to any country around the world that government and Parliament are united in ensuring that our people will be safe.

As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, indicated, we should of course expect a tit-for-tat response. What advice are His Majesty’s Government giving to the wide network of UK journalists and other nationals still operating in Russia in the genuine field of culture, trade and people-to-people relations? I have said repeatedly that our concern is not with the people-to-people relations between the UK and Russia but with the Putin regime. What vigilance will they therefore have to have, and what advice are the Government giving?

Concerning the wider issues on sanctions and assets, as indicated in the Statement, I think I have spoken to almost all the sanctions that Parliament has approved and that the Government have put in place. We support them all, of course, but unfortunately there are certain areas that are vulnerable to sanctions circumvention. What actions will the Government now take on those who are actively circumventing the sanctions cited within the Statement? This includes, for example, shadow fleets that ship the oil exports from Russia, which means that Russia is continuing to make a profit out of the war. It means those within metal trading and within the financial relationships that the UK has with the Gulf. When it comes to the assets, the Statement indicated that the £22 billion of assets that we have frozen is from October. That is six months ago so, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked, what is the live figure of the assets?

The Home Secretary said in response to questions in the House of Commons that

“no one has seized or liquidated Russian assets”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/5/24; col. 588.]

But we know that that is not the case, and not just within those that Ukraine has. What is the exact legal blockage to the UK seizing assets that we have frozen? The Foreign Secretary replied to me in this Chamber a number of weeks ago that he was frustrated with the delays. What are the delays and why have the Government not presented legislation? If legislation is required to be passed, I am certain that the Front Benches will be supportive of that move and that it can be expedited through Parliament.

I was reading this week that the EU now has mechanisms in place to charge the interest of those frozen assets, with an estimate of up to €8 billion. One estimate of the £20 billion frozen by the UK Government could mean, depending on how it is invested, that it could accrue interest of up to £1 billion over this year. Why is that not being seized for immediate use?

Can the Minister confirm to me that the mechanisms the Government have put in place to allow for frozen assets to be sold to UK businesses or individuals can never be used for them to make a profit out of any frozen assets? I understand that the mechanisms will allow bodies to buy a frozen asset but not to sell it until it is unfrozen. But it could accrue interest, so I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate that that could never be the case.

Finally, given that we are likely to see further actions from the Putin regime—we see today’s very worrying news from the Georgian Parliament and we see it in the Balkans—and, as the noble Lord said, from the China regime, now is the time for the Government to give proactive briefings to Opposition Front Benches on likely or possible future threats. We had that when we were tackling the Daesh problem but we need it now when it comes to China and Russia, and I hope the Minister can respond positively to that point.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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I thank both noble Lords for their remarks. I will briefly outline a few highlights, as it were, from the Statement given by the Home Secretary last week, because it has been a few days and we need to tease out and probe a few important points. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary pointed out in the other place that the Prime Minister said in Poland last month that we are at a “turning point” for European security. With our allies, we will stand firm in the face of the Russian threat to the UK and our way of life—it is worth restating that for the record.

On the actions we have taken, as is well understood, we have expelled the Russian defence attaché, who was an undeclared military intelligence officer. We will remove diplomatic premises status from several Russian properties in the UK, including Seacox Heath, which is a Russian-owned property in Sussex, and the trade and defence section in Highgate. We believe they have been used for intelligence purposes. We are imposing new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas, including capping the length of time Russian diplomats can spend in the UK.

As reported on Friday 26 April, five individuals have been charged in connection with an investigation into alleged offences under the National Security Act, which both noble Lords referred to. They rather pre-empted what I was going to say, because I obviously want to thank all noble Lords who were involved in the successful passage of what is proving to be critical legislation. It is a good example of working together, and it gives me an opportunity to thank the security services. This rather proves the point that there is co-ordinating action on behalf of the security services, the police, other government agencies and of course the Home Office, in dealing with the threats we all face. I am grateful to all the people who work so hard on our behalf in those various organisations.

I will go into the sanctions in a moment, but first I will repeat the headlines that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary mentioned in his speech. We have sanctioned over 1,700 individuals, over 90% of the Russian banking sector and over 130 oligarchs and family members, with a combined net worth of around £147 billion at the time of the invasion. As of October— I am not sure I can improve on an October figure at this point—over £22 billion of Russian assets were reported frozen as a result of UK sanctions. Those assets can no longer be taken back to Russia to fund the Putin war machine. Obviously, we consider Russia’s campaign to undermine our support unacceptable and destined to fail.

On the individuals who have been charged in connection with the investigation, and with others related to other countries that have subsequently occurred, the Crown Prosecution Service, in relation to the 26 April individuals, has confirmed that the charges relate to alleged hostile activity in the UK in order to benefit a foreign state—namely, Russia. Beyond that, I obviously cannot say very much, particularly as regards ongoing investigations.

Both noble Lords asked about illicit finance. We have swiftly implemented the strongest set of economic sanctions ever imposed against a G20 country. We have frozen over £22 billion of Russian assets under the sanctions regime, as I said, and the UK alone has sanctioned 2,000 individuals and entities under the Russian sanctions regime, over 1,700 of which have been sanctioned since Putin’s invasion. We have set up the combating kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency to target corrupt elites and their assets in the UK, ensuring that there is nowhere for this dirty Russian money to hide. The combating kleptocracy cell—CKC—can account for over 150 disruptions since the invasion of Ukraine, all of which demonstrably removed or reduced a criminal threat facing the UK.

I will digress briefly. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about golden visas. That scheme was closed in February 2022, following the recommendation of the Intelligence and Security Committee to review our approach to it. I have no further information about publication or anything else yet.

Returning to sanctions and what we are doing to enforce them in the UK, we are obviously committed to ensuring that they are robustly enforced and that potential breaches are investigated. Illustrating the co-ordinated approach, departments from across HMG—including the FCDO, the Treasury, OFSI, HMRC, the Home Office, DfT and the National Crime Agency—work together and with UK companies to ensure that sanctions are enforced. In August 2023, for example, HMRC fined a UK company £1 million in relation to the unlicensed trade of goods in breach of Russia sanctions. OFSI published an enforcement notice against Wise Payments Ltd, an FCA-regulated company, for breaching Russia sanctions by making funds available to a company owned or controlled by a designated person. So, firms should carefully consider what steps are appropriate to manage their sanctions risk exposure and take steps fully to address that risk. The Government have committed £50 million to support a new economic deterrence initiative to further boost our diplomatic and economic tools and improve sanctions implementation enforcement, as well as tackling sanctions evasion across the trade, transport and financial sectors.

On our collaboration with our international partners, we work closely with the G7, particularly the EU and the US, and we have stepped up our engagement with a range of third countries to highlight circumvention risk—the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, alluded to this—and support them to tackle this issue. That includes joint diplomatic outreach to countries where we see spikes in the trade of sanctioned goods with Russia. We are particularly focused on the goods published in the CHP list.

In recent months, we have sent joint delegations to the UAE, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Armenia, as well as having senior bilateral engagement with Turkey and Serbia, to highlight these risks and offer technical support. We have funded technical support sessions delivered by UK legal experts to business and government contacts in Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to improve understanding of and compliance with the UK sanctions measures and regime. These efforts are paying off: a number of countries have announced concrete measures to reduce the risk of sanctioned goods reaching Russia. The latest trade data indicates a downward trend in direct exports of these items to Russia from countries of interest, including some that I mentioned.

On why we have yet to seize Russia’s assets, we remain committed to exploring all lawful routes to using Russian sovereign assets in support of Ukraine. We continue to drive ambition within the G7, which has agreed to consider this issue collectively. We continue to work at pace ahead of the G7 leaders’ summit. I commit to keeping the House updated on significant developments as appropriate. While G7 discussions continue, the UK has taken a number of steps domestically. We were the first to introduce legislation explicitly enabling us to keep sanctions in place until Russia pays for the damage it has caused. We are establishing a route by which sanctioned individuals can donate frozen funds for Ukrainian reconstruction, and we have introduced new powers to compel sanctioned individuals and entities to disclose assets they hold in the UK.

With noble Lords’ indulgence, I will address a slightly broader question which I have perhaps not been asked entirely: how we are combating Russia’s war economy. We have banned all known items found on the battlefield in Ukraine. We have banned dual-use and critical industry, aviation, defence and security goods. We have published a common high-priority items list—a list of 50 battlefield items that are important for Russia’s war effort—helping businesses identify the most critical items to focus their efforts on. This is degrading Russia’s military and high-tech industries. Production of the next-generation airborne early-warning and control aircraft has stalled due to a lack of foreign components, including semiconductors. Russia is therefore turning to other countries to supply these goods. We see reports of that in the newspapers, but I reassure noble Lords that the UK is very much leading on this work and delivering results.

On the tit-for-tat arrangement mentioned by both noble Lords, I of course cannot account for what Russia may or may not do. Regarding advice to UK residents, journalists and other interested parties in Russia, I have not looked at the recent Foreign Office advice, but I am sure it has been kept very much up to date on a regular basis. But obviously, I caution all journalists operating in Russia to be aware of the case of Evan Gershkovich, whom the Russians really should have released by now.

I think I have answered all the questions. I cannot commit to proactive briefings now, but I will certainly bear in mind what the noble Lord said and make sure it is understood in the department.

17:48
Lord Swire Portrait Lord Swire (Con)
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Will my noble friend the Minister clarify whether the UK is able to act unilaterally on sequestered Russian assets and does not have to operate within the G7 framework, or whether we have to act collectively? Secondly, with that in mind and given the involvement of the UK, can the Minister update the House on the progress of the sale of Chelsea and the £2.5 billion, which is much needed? We should not fool ourselves: the situation in Ukraine is extremely serious now. It needs all the help we can give, both materiel and, obviously, financial assistance. We need to move a little quicker than perhaps we have in the past.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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On the first part of my noble friend’s question, I do not know the precise answer to whether or not we can act unilaterally. I imagine that that is the case, but I would question whether it would have much utility. By definition, the threat is a global one and the co-ordinated response will be much more significant if we take it with our allies and friends than if we go it alone.

As for Chelsea, I cannot comment. I know that discussions are ongoing, but I do not know where they are.

Lord Austin of Dudley Portrait Lord Austin of Dudley (Non-Afl)
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Could the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to secure the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a British citizen incarcerated by Putin on trumped-up charges?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am afraid that I do not have information on that. I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Pickles Portrait Lord Pickles (Con)
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My Lords, on using Russian assets, there still remains the appalling war crime of 19,600 children who have been abducted by the Putin regime from their families in Ukraine, who have had no contact with them—and so far only 388 have been returned. Could we not offer help to those families, first, to trace where their children are and, secondly, in the form of financial help to get them back?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend raises a poignant and pertinent issue. Of course, our sympathies go to the parents of those children. Is there much else that I can say? I am afraid that I do not think that there is, as regards financial help. I hear what my noble friend says, and it is obviously something that I shall take back to the department. I do not know whether it is an appropriate thing for the Home Office to deal with, but I shall make some more investigations and happily report back.