Bob Seely debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Security Update

Bob Seely Excerpts
Monday 11th September 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but I simply do not accept this slightly over-the-top characterisation of the Government’s approach. We have been consistent. First, we must protect our national interests in relation to China. That is why we passed the legislation that I have outlined, why I banned Huawei from our 5G networks and why we banned Chinese technology from surveillance equipment and other matters.

Secondly, it is important that we align with our allies around the world. I spend a lot of time on this and know that the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Security and others work very closely with nations around the world, particularly but not confined to the Five Eyes, to make sure that we share our understanding of Chinese intent and take co-ordinated action to protect us, not least through the military

It is also the case, though, that we must engage with the Chinese, as we do with many other countries around the world with which we do not share a number of their values. It is not a realistic position to take to say that we should entirely cut off from engagement with China. We should engage with China but be absolutely clear about where we disagree with it and clear-eyed in protecting our national security, which is precisely the approach we are taking.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I cannot wait to be able to discuss the merits of this case, although I understand the situation now. I want to raise a couple of issues with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Government are moving, they have done lots of new things and we are getting more coherence, but I do not understand why they keep thinking that we either bury our heads in the sand or effectively go soft on elements of the relationship with China. We can debate with and engage with China all we like, but we can also do so in an increasingly robust way that answers the threat it presents towards us.

Specifically, the Government keep avoiding the argument about the growing economic dependency that all western nations have on China. That dependency will mean that in the case of war in the Pacific in two or five years’ time, which is what President Xi is planning for—he has said, “We are retaking Taiwan by 2027.”—we will not be in a position to do anything about it without collapsing the global economy. Effectively, in the next few years, our hands will have been tied by economic dependency. Every time I raise that issue, the Government are not even willing to produce an annual statement on it. Please can we take this issue more seriously? It is at the heart of security, and no freedom of action means we have no security.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a genuine honour to take the Procurement Bill through Report stage. As the House will know, this is a major piece of post-Brexit legislation that enables us, for the first time in many decades, to reform our procurement system, to the benefit of contracting authorities, suppliers and taxpayers.

I begin with new clause 15 and amendment 52. We are inserting into the Bill a new clause that allows us to meet the UK’s international obligations on record keeping. We are strengthening record keeping obligations in the Bill to more fully reflect our obligations in both the agreement on Government procurement—the GPA—and the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. They both require records to be kept for a minimum of three years. New clause 15 sets out the obligation on contracting authorities to

“keep such records as the authority considers sufficient to explain a material decision made for the purpose of awarding or entering into a public contract.”

A material decision is one that requires a contracting authority

“to publish or provide a notice, document or other information in relation to the decision”,

or decisions, that are required to be made under the Bill. Records must be kept for three years from award of, or entry into, a contract—or, if the contract is awarded but not entered into, from the date of the decision not to enter into it.

The primary goal of the Bill is to streamline procurement regulations and ensure the overall efficiency of the system, while avoiding overwhelming businesses and contracting authorities with a multitude of rules and regulations—a point that we will no doubt return to this afternoon. As such, and in line with international requirements, the obligations attach only to the award of, and entry into, contracts; they do not apply to the management stage of a contract.

Information on the management of major contracts will of course be put into the public domain, thanks to the Bill’s considerable transparency obligations. That includes information on key performance indicators, such as performance against them; information on amendments to contracts; and information on contract termination, which will require reporting on performance. The time limit already in the Bill on the duty to maintain records of communications with suppliers is being relocated to sit alongside the new record keeping duty. The record keeping requirement is intended to act as a minimum; contracting authorities may of course keep records for longer, and indeed may be required to do so under other legislation.

Government amendments 24 and 25 change the point at which, under clause 52(1), contracting authorities are required to publish key performance indicators. They will no longer have to do so before entering into a public contract. Instead, there will be a requirement to publish them under proposed new subsection (2A) of clause 52. Clause 53, on contract details notices, provides that the details of KPIs will be specified in regulations under clause 95. That is because it is not possible to publish the KPIs before entering into the public contract, as they arise as part of the process of entering into the contract.

Government amendments 19, 20 and 56 make a necessary technical adjustment to ensure that the City of London Corporation is caught by the Bill in respect of its public sector functions, but not its commercial functions. The Bill is intended to apply to local authorities—clause 2 makes it clear that publicly funded bodies are caught by it—but due to its evolution and structure, the corporation does not operate solely as a local authority. It has significant private sector trading activities—for example, it operates private schools and undertakes property management—that are clearly not intended to be caught by the Bill. Unlike district and county councils, being a local authority is not the corporation’s raison d’être; rather, it has some local authority functions bolted on to its wider organisational functions. Without the amendments to clause 2 and schedule 2, there would be a risk of unintended consequences; the Bill would apply to either all the corporation’s activities, including its commercial activities, or none of them, depending on whether the corporation’s balance of income was derived mainly from its trading activities or from public funds in any one year.

Government amendments 21 to 23 resolve a drafting inconsistency between clause 19, which governs the award of contracts following a competitive procedure, and clause 43, which has rules allowing a contracting authority to switch to direct award if no suitable tender was received in a competition. Under clause 19, a tender may be disregarded in a competition if it breaches a procedural requirement set by the contracting authority—for example, if it is submitted late or is over its word count. Abnormally low tenders can also be disregarded, provided the tenderer has advance notification and the chance to respond, pursuant to subsections (4) and (5).

The changes proposed to clause 43 will ensure that only a material breach of procedural requirements will render a tender unsuitable: for example, being 10 words over the set count should not result in an unsuitable tender permitting direct award. Abnormally low tenders cannot be deemed unsuitable unless the supplier has had an opportunity to demonstrate that it will be able to perform the contract for the price offered, as is required under clause 19.

Moving on to amendment 59, paragraph 2(3) of schedule 10 inserts new section 14(5A) into the Defence Reform Act 2014. The DRA, and the Single Source Contract Regulations 2014 made under it, make provision for the pricing of defence contracts to procure goods, works and services that are not let competitively and meet the necessary criteria, including a financial threshold. New section 14(5A) is being introduced to address uncertainty about when an agreement for new goods, works and services should be regarded as an amendment to an existing contract within the scope of the DRA regime, and when it should be regarded as a new contract in its own right. The proposed new subsection currently addresses the situation by identifying two specific categories of existing contract not subject to the DRA regime that, when amended on a non-competed basis to add further goods, works or services, would become subject to that regime.

A third such category of contract not currently addressed by proposed section 14(5) has subsequently come to light. That category covers a single source contract that was below the financial threshold set by the SSCRs that is subsequently amended to add new goods, works and services that take it above that threshold. Amendment 59 will ensure that such contracts are brought within the regulation-making power. A hypothetical example would be a contract that was let competitively for £6 million a few years ago and was not subject to the regulations, where proposed section 14(5) and section 14(3)(b) —which excludes contracts let through competitions—did not apply, and a single source amendment was subsequently placed a few years later for £10 million of new work. That kind of amendment is referred to in section 14(5), and under the proposed new regulations, it would be treated as a new contract for the purposes of the regulations. Under the current wording of schedule 10, the agreement covering the new work would fall under the regulations.

Amendments 38, 32, 36, 37, 39 to 51, 57 and 58 significantly strengthen the exclusions and debarment provisions for exclusion on national security grounds. As the Bill stands, placing a supplier on the debarment list on national security grounds will make it excludable from all contracts within the scope of the Bill. That means that the supplier will be identified as posing a threat to the national security of the UK, but contracting authorities will have discretion as to whether they exclude the supplier in each particular procurement. Having engaged with colleagues in the House and reflected on their concerns, I can confirm that the Government are content to further strengthen those provisions. The new amendments will enable a Minister of the Crown to take a stronger approach in response to a specific risk profile of a particular supplier and make targeted decisions about whether the debarment should be mandatory for particular types of contracts, depending on the nature of the risk.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I thank the Minister for the work he has been doing on the Bill, and for listening to colleagues—there is more work to be done, but we are certainly moving in the right direction. There is an issue about dual use stuff: we are talking about national security, but for technology such as cellular modules in Government cars that may or may not be being used by competitor nations to listen in to conversations, it is not just a narrow definition that we should be worried about, but a rather more expansive definition of some of the risks posed by that technology and where it is placed in either very specific national security contexts or, more broadly, among things that are critical to our national infrastructure.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and for the constructive dialogue that we have had while preparing for today’s debate. As he hopefully knows from what we have already said on this subject—he will hear it again in what I am about to say—the structure that we are putting in place will be able to make exactly that sort of assessment.

If a supplier poses an unacceptable risk in relation to certain goods, such as network communications equipment, the Minister will be able to enter on the debarment list that that supplier is an excluded supplier for contracts for the supply or support of that type of equipment, but that will not necessarily mean that the supplier will be excluded from all other types of contract. Similarly, the entry may also—or as an alternative—stipulate that the supplier is excluded from contracts relating to certain locations or sites, or contracts let by certain contracting authorities. That removes discretion from contracting authorities regarding exclusions where a supplier poses a threat for particular contracts, thereby reducing the risk of a supplier being allowed to participate in a procurement when they should not be.

By allowing this type of targeted and proportionate approach, we can direct that suppliers must be excluded where the risks are unacceptable, and allow contracting authorities to make appropriate choices where a risk is manageable—for example, if a supplier is providing pencils or plastic furniture. We think that approach to national security exclusions is both proportionate and robust, and will allow us to effectively counter the risk posed by some suppliers, including those that many in this House are concerned about.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and I thank him for his constructive engagement with me and the Minister for the Cabinet Office on this issue. We understand and hear his concerns about sensitive and non-sensitive sites—not least, we understand his view that the definition could incorporate a broader range of assets, where information gleaned on the movement of officials and politicians could be detrimental to our national security. We will continue to work on that issue with him, both in today’s debate and in the Lords debate that will follow it. I am sure that we can reach a sensible conclusion that will be to his satisfaction.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

If I remember correctly, in January, the security services took apart a UK Government vehicle because data was being transferred via a Chinese cellular module, a Chinese eSIM. We do not know who was in that car—whether it was the Defence Secretary or the Prime Minister. Evidence from a separate Tesla car scandal suggests that it would be possible for Chinese engineers to record private conversations using cellular modules. Just out of curiosity—I suspect I know the answer—are we ever going to get an update on what happened to that car and what was happening with it?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend will know that I am not in a position to comment on matters of national security, but he will have heard me say in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) that we understand the view that the definition in the Bill could incorporate a broader range of assets, where information is gleaned on the movement of officials and politicians that could be detrimental to national security.

Amendment 34 will commit a Minister of the Crown to keep suppliers under review for potential investigation for debarment on national security grounds. We recognise that proactive consideration of suppliers will be highly advantageous in minimising the risk of suppliers who pose a threat to our national security being awarded public contracts. The amendment will therefore commit Ministers to proactively consider a new debarment investigation where there is evidence of risk, so that the Government can act effectively and on time.

I am also pleased to announce that the Government will be creating a new specialist unit with dedicated resources within the Cabinet Office to take on and manage this new approach. That new national security unit for procurement will regularly monitor Government supply chains and review pertinent information to determine which suppliers should be investigated for debarment on national security grounds. The unit will be able to draw on the full range of expertise within government and access the latest intelligence, including that from Five Eyes partners. It will be able to respond swiftly to emerging threats. The unit will also carry out investigations of suppliers for potential debarment, which will be overseen by a committee. Following the outcome of an investigation, the committee will make recommendations to the Minister as to whether the supplier should be added to the debarment list. The final decision will be made by the Minister.

--- Later in debate ---
I conclude with a final question to the Minister: can he assure the House that companies owned by individuals linked to repression, detention and extreme human rights abuses will not be given access to Government contracts?
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), and I think that some of the things she said will be echoed on the Government Benches.

I want to speak, in the time I have, to new clauses 1, 13 and 16, and I will try to theme them. Before I do so, I want to thank the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for his excellent work on the Bill. People moan about Parliament, but we have a Government bringing forward this legislation and Back-Bench MPs from across the House trying to shape it for the betterment of the nation. There is a lot of good in the Bill and I thank the Minister for listening, as he has clearly and obviously done.

I want to talk about the strategic, political and human rights ramifications of supply chain dependency. I thank the Government for their excellent work and the fact that they are moving on this. We will have a national procurement centre, which will look at high-risk firms not only from China but potentially elsewhere. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on their really good work on this.

However, my criticism is that while the Bill is a start, the new clauses that I am speaking to would allow us to go further, and I want to explain why that is. We urgently need to understand the UK’s economic dependence on systemic threats or competitors—namely China, but not only China—and the political, economic and ethical ramifications and risks of that dependency. Not to do so is to betray our national interests. I am concerned at the lack of urgency on this issue, which has become significantly more pressing in the last five years. I thank the Government for focusing more on it, but more needs to be done. I think we are at the starting gate. The reality is that we have high levels of dependency and they are increasing, not decreasing.

Here are some facts. First, as an act of state policy, China is aiming to become less dependent on others, while encouraging others to be more dependent on it. It is decoupling from us, but making sure that we are coupled to it. The Made in China 2025 plan had the goal of raising the domestic content of China’s core components and materials to 70% by 2025. In 2020, it set a goal to become largely self-sufficient in technology by 2035. At the same time, the belt and road initiative means that China is now the largest lender to developing countries and is effectively encouraging debt dependency, which we have talked about in the past. President Xi, at the seventh session of the Chinese Communist party’s finance and economy committee, said that China must develop “killer technologies” to strengthen the

“global supply chain’s dependence on China”.

So this is not a case of, “Gosh, is this happening?” It is stated policy. We do not need to debate whether it is happening; we are being told by the leader of the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist party that it is.

China is already the largest importer to the UK and many other countries. We import more than 50% of our supplies from China in 229 categories of goods. Some 57 of those categories are in sectors critical to the UK’s national security. I therefore agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was saying only a few minutes ago. It is difficult to say what is strategic and what is not. In the US, it might be agricultural production. Here it might be the details of 20 million people on the DWP’s databanks. The 57 categories of goods cover communications, energy, healthcare, transport, critical manufacturing, emergency services, agriculture, Government facilities and information technology.

I do not care that we are 85% dependent on China for plastic Christmas trees—although, I do worry about the environmental impact—but I do care that we are 96% dependent on China for phenylacetic acid, which is a basic building block for many drugs; 83% dependent for TV receivers and decoders; and 68% dependent for laptops. China controls near 90% of rare earth processing, which we are now beginning to worry about. And the point about solar panels was well made.

I asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday about having an annual statement on dependency, not just on China but on states in general. He said that one was not needed. With great respect to the Foreign Secretary, I profoundly disagree. We argued during the passage of the National Security and Investment Act 2021 that we need an annual statement of dependency. New clause 13 is about establishing an understanding of the nature of our extreme dependency. I did a report with the Henry Jackson Society a couple of years ago. We found that although we are the least dependent of all the Five Eyes nations, we still have a critical dependency on China in 230 areas of our industry, manufacturing, information technology and so on.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Just to add to my hon. Friend’s list, as we move to electric vehicles we are about to make ourselves even more dependent. Even battery factories in China are turning themselves into car factories selling to the UK.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I agree completely and I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. I would not even like that dependency on our allies. Would I like that level of dependency on the United States? No. On Australia? No. But to have that level of dependency on a Communist dictatorship that is investing massively in AI and big data to spy on their own people and increasingly on us as never before, to threaten peace in the Pacific, and to have a stated aim of dominating while freeing itself from dependency on the west, is really an extraordinarily dangerous position for us to find ourselves in.

We know that Chinese Communist party companies such as Huawei actively seek to gain a monopoly position by systematically destroying economic rivals. That is not fair trade; it is trade as a weapon for a Communist party dictatorship. It did it with Huawei, undercutting and deliberately destroying rivals on price through cheap subsidies. It is now doing the same with cellular modules, seeking to dominate and take control of the market. It does that through IP theft, economic espionage, subsidy, access to super-cheap finance, shared technology and other forms of state support.

Companies such as Quectel and Fibocom—the manufacturers of cellular modules—will, like Huawei, claim to be private. They are not. Nothing is private, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, in a Communist state. It was profoundly depressing for me, a couple of years ago, to hear two former senior Conservative Ministers, who should know better, say that Huawei was a private company. That is a rather more serious way of accidentally misleading the House than whether somebody ate cake or not, but that is another matter.

What are the dangers? We know that the Chinese leadership see themselves as being in competition with the west. Why? Because they tell us. A 2013 “Document No. 9” concludes that western constitutional democracy and universal values were a fundamental threat to the PRC. Of course our values are a threat to dictatorships. Our values are always a threat to communists. Earlier this year, a work report delivered to the National People’s Congress set out the belief that

“external attempts to supress and contain China are escalating”,

and the term “self-reliance” appeared multiple times. Again, the idea is to create dependency on China for us, while at the same time freeing China from dependency.

What is the worst-case scenario? Frankly, it has happened in Russia, so we should at least be alive to the idea that the worst-case scenario may be happening in the Pacific.

President Xi has told his army to be ready to re-take Taiwan by 2027. As I said, let us please stop pretending that dictators do not mean what they say, because they have a depressing habit of meaning what they say. I wish they did not; I wish they would overpromise and underdeliver, but they tend to do what they promise.

Either the UK is militarily involved or it is not. Either way, an assault on Taiwan, either by slow strangulation—a sort of Berlin scenario—or direct invasion, would profoundly alter the state of the world. We would have to put on the mother of all sanctions. The minute we do that, we will risk not only a global economic meltdown, but an economic meltdown probably worse than covid. It will strain to breaking point our relationship with the United States, the European Union and Australia—and not just our relationship but the interdependent relationships.

I am not saying that will happen—although, I think we are heading in that direction—or that we should stop trading with China; I am saying that it makes a great deal of common sense, frankly, to know what our levels of dependency are. That is why I would love the Minister to commit to at least developing an understanding of what our trade dependency is.

There is another reason to be concerned about supply chains: what is happening in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, which other Members have rightly mentioned. A 2022 UN report found serious human rights violations in the region. They seem to be about the most significant human rights abuses currently happening in the world, whether we use the “G” word or not—genocide. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps alone produces 8% of the world’s cotton. China overall produces 20% of the world’s supply of cotton. Effectively, this is a new slave trade in cotton, as shocking as that sounds. It is not happening 200 hundred years, in the 19th century, in the southern United States; it is happening now, in the early 21st century, in Chinese-controlled central Asia.

There are many other things coming out of the Xinjiang province that tell the story of using forced labour, as both Opposition and Government Members have eloquently spoken about. There is forensic technology available, which we could be using in this country, that can pinpoint the region of origin for items tainted by modern slavery, such as cotton. When it comes to new clause 60, on eradicating slavery and human trafficking in supply chains, I ask the Government to set an example by saying that we will, at the very least, commit—a good Government word—to bringing in that forensic technology within a period of time. That would enable us to understand whether western companies are using slave cotton—an incredibly horrible phrase to use in this age—in their manufactured goods.

Finally, we have spoken about Chinese surveillance technology, and I speak again in support of new clause 1. We have got to get this stuff out of the country for a start. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green says, with all the dual-use capabilities and new styles of conflict, not just in conventional military but in data domination, it is really difficult nowadays to say where security starts and finishes.

In summation, we need to understand, as a critical matter of national importance, our supply chain dependency on any country, but specifically China. I implore the Government to use the Bill, even at this late stage, to bring in a statement of dependency so that we can begin to understand and to take measures to work out not how to stop trading with China, but how to trade more safely. That way, if we need to take sanctions in future, and for the health of our relationship with that superpower, we can begin to work out how to diversify our supply chains in future and, at the same time, do something about the horrors happening in Xinjiang.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I rise to speak to my new clause 12 on the protection of subcontractors’ payments under construction contracts. As the explanatory statement describes, the new clause

“ring-fences moneys due to subcontractors in construction supply chains through mandating the use of project bank accounts and ensuring that retention moneys are safeguarded in a separate and independent account.”

--- Later in debate ---
Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend is, of course, right. He and I and others in this place who have been sanctioned in China and beyond have drawn attention to how effectively respectable global British companies are becoming complicit in the suffocation of the democratic principles, freedoms, liberties and rule of law that we all take for granted, and they need to answer for it. Are they on the side of the rule of law, of international freedoms and liberties in all the areas we have described, or have they thrown in their lot for a mess of pottage—or whatever we want to call it—with the Chinese Communist Government, notwithstanding their complete abrogation of any pretence to democratic accountability and freedoms for the individuals who not only happen to live within its borders but against whom they are increasingly able to extend their tentacles globally, not least in this country?

Hikvision and Dalua are both subject to China’s National Intelligence Law, which stipulates that

“any organisation or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law”.

The law also permits authorities to detain or criminally punish those who “obstruct” intelligence activities. The presence of vendors who are subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign Government which conflict with UK law may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect networks from unauthorised access or interference.

In the UK, Uyghur people face a sustained campaign of transnational repression in the form of threats, harassment, cyberattacks, and online and in-person surveillance. LBC and the Financial Times have recently reported instances of Uyghur people seeking refuge in the UK being offered thousands of pounds a month and blackmailed by Chinese security officers to spy on Uyghur advocates. In that context, the Government must take seriously the threat posed by the presence of this equipment to British national security and the safety of exiled and dissident populations seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. Without urgent action, the UK risks facilitating a system of surveillance designed to extend Chinese domestic policy across borders.

The evidence, which is presented by reputable sources such as IVPM, Axios, The Intercept, The Guardian and the BBC, is deeply troubling. These and other reports paint a harrowing picture of the situation in Xinjiang and provide substantial evidence of Hikvision’s involvement. IVPM’s investigation reveals that Hikvision, a leading provider of surveillance technology, has actively contributed to the surveillance state in Xinjiang, where more than a million Uyghurs are estimated to be held in what we now know to be internment camps. Hikvision’s technology is reportedly used to monitor and control the Uyghur population, facilitating its repression. Worse, it is credibly accused of constructing the surveillance state in Xinjiang in close partnership with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a report corroborated by The Guardian, which published leaked documents outlining Hikvision’s close collaboration with Chinese authorities in developing and implementing surveillance technologies in Xinjiang. The evidence suggests a concerted effort by Hikvision to profit from this oppression.

Axios, in its comprehensive reporting, explains that Hikvision’s surveillance cameras are integrated with sophisticated artificial intelligence systems to track, profile and identify individuals in Xinjiang. Let me be clear: this technology is trained to recognise Uyghur-looking faces with a view to profiling them, flagging them when they are doing things of which the Chinese Government do not approve, and then facilitating their persecution through mass surveillance and control with the aim of suppressing their cultural, religious, and political freedoms.

The scale and sophistication of Hikvision’s surveillance technology exacerbate the already dire human rights situation in the region. The Intercept’s exposé provides damning evidence that Hikvision’s technology has been directly used in the internment camps, enabling the Chinese Government to monitor and suppress the Uyghur population. One source revealed that Hikvision’s cameras were installed throughout the camps, capturing every move and expression of the detainees. This raises alarming questions about the company’s complicity in the perpetration of human rights abuses that our own Government have described as

“torture…on an industrial scale”.

The evidence leaves no room for doubt. Hikvision’s involvement in the surveillance and control of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang is deeply troubling, and, even without the security concerns so ably highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, would warrant the company’s removal from our supply chains, consistent with our modern-day slavery commitments. We cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of millions of innocent people, and help those who persecute them fill their pockets with public money.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I have a genuine question for my hon. Friend, who is making a brilliant speech, and for the Minister. Given Hikvision’s frankly repugnant role in the ethnically based oppression of an entire people, why on earth is it not covered by our Modern Slavery Act 2015 and how did we let such a repugnant company into this country under any guise?

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend poses a very good question. Whether it is on moral grounds, on the basis of what this House has voted for in the past or on the basis of legislation that is topical in many areas around modern day slavery at the moment, we should not be anywhere near that company or similar companies. Our Government, our public bodies and our procurement agencies need to take much more notice of what Governments do and say. Much more must be done, and urgently so.

It is incumbent on the House to call for a comprehensive investigation into Hikvision’s activities and its complicity in the suspected atrocities against the Uyghurs. We must work alongside our international partners to hold Hikvision and the Chinese Government accountable for their actions. Most importantly, we should use the purchasing power that we have as a Government and the interest we have in public bodies to disincentivise companies from behaving in the way Hikvision has towards the Uyghurs. At the moment, we are not merely failing to hold these companies to account; we are actually making them richer. The Government’s decision to remove Chinese state-owned surveillance at sensitive sites is welcome, but not sufficient. The widespread use of Hikvision equipment by police forces, hospitals and local councils risks providing malign states—

Oral Answers to Questions

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 22nd March 2023

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Actually, this Government are a strong supporter of Scotland’s North sea oil and gas industry. It is the economically illiterate policy of, I think, almost all Opposition parties to prohibit any new exploration of fossil fuels in the North sea, which would have us pay billions of pounds to foreign energy companies and then ship that energy here, with twice the carbon emissions. It is a completely absurd policy that is bad for our security and bad for our economy, and that is why we are better off with the Conservatives in charge.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Q7. The Island has been getting a better deal in recent years. I thank the Prime Minister for that, because before he was the Prime Minister, he worked with me in different roles when he was in government to make that happen, and I am grateful. However, the Island remains the only sizeable island in the UK without a fixed link and separated from the mainland by sea that does not receive a funding uplift to support local government services. This injustice has been ongoing now for 50 years. All the evidence shows that it costs more to provide local services on an island than on the mainland. Will the Prime Minister work with me and his Ministers to overcome this injustice this year?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued campaigning on behalf of his constituents. It was a pleasure to spend many happy childhood holidays on the Island, and I enjoyed visiting him more recently there as well. Isle of Wight Council will benefit from a 10% increase in its funding in cash terms for the next financial year and has been awarded an additional £1 million in recognition of the unique circumstances of the Island, as my hon. Friend points out, but I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the Minister for local government—the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley)—to carry on the good work that he and I started, and to make sure that his local constituents get the support that they need.

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to respond to a question about a clause in the Bill, for which I thank my hon. Friend. We are thinking through the Lords amendments, and there will be further time to discuss them in Committee. Anything that is added to the Bill must be deliverable and workable. I stress that the Bill already contains much-enhanced provisions to ensure we can prevent inappropriate suppliers from coming into our production chain, not just as primes at the top level but right through the supply chain. For example, we will be able to debar companies for misconduct or illegality. We are taking far more powers than we had under the old EU regime, which should be welcomed by all Members of this House.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way, but then I must make progress.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend was making a point about ethics, so I will make a point about dependency. Do the Government accept that they have purchasing power to reduce our dependency on authoritarian states, and do they accept there are lessons to be learned from the Ukrainian war, our economic and energy dependence on Russia and our economic dependence on China? Will they accept an amendment, tabled by me or by others, so that, as well as having ethics at the heart of this Bill, we can discuss how to reduce our dependency on states that seek to harm us, be it Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, etc.?

Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would welcome the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend about any amendment he might table, and we would, of course, look at it seriously. I recognise the general point that this country has realised, as have all our friends, through covid and subsequently that it is incredibly important to understand our supply chains and to understand where our procurement comes from. The Bill will help us do that by enabling us to look through the entire supply chain—not just the top level, but deep inside—to make certain that we are able to stop suppliers that are effectively in misconduct, and to make certain that resilience is part of our thought process in procurement. I believe all those valuable assets are incorporated in this Bill, but I am more than happy to have further discussions with my hon. Friend.

I hope the House will forgive me if I make a little progress. Running through this Bill is a theme of greater transparency. Through the Bill, we will deliver world-leading standards of transparency in public procurement. It covers contracts awarded across the public sector, including by central and local government, arm’s length bodies, education authorities and health authorities. It also covers contracts awarded by publicly funded housing associations and by companies in the water, energy and transport sectors.

Health and Social Care Update

Bob Seely Excerpts
Thursday 22nd September 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Prime Minister set out during the summer that she intends to make sure that there are mental health practitioners available in local GP practices and in schools.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I welcome the Minister’s priorities on GP appointments, pharmacies and dentistry, which are important for Islanders. May I make her aware of the specific needs of what her Department calls “unavoidably small hospitals”? We have 12 in England and Wales, covering 20 mainly Conservative constituencies, of which St Mary’s is the most isolated. We have done good work on improving funding, but there is more to be done to ensure fairness and equality. So will she or her Ministers meet me and other right hon. and hon. Members to discuss what more can be done to ensure support for these small hospitals, which are so important for our communities?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I believe it is in the Isle of Wight where we have a particularly difficult challenge as many patients are still in hospital who do not need to be there. I know we have asked the local NHS to start working with the council on how we can get that discharge going, and I know how important it is to make sure that the hospital can function readily.

Foreign Lobbying

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 25th May 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered foreign lobbying in the UK.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela.

I am going to use this debate on foreign lobbying to lobby the Government. They have published their National Security Bill, and the foreign lobbying registration element is still being written and decided upon. It is great that that is there, and it is great that we have the chance—I hope—to influence the Government. I thank the Minister very much for taking the time to be here.

I am going to argue three points. First, we need a substantially improved lobbying law—in fact, lobbying laws. What we have is arguably no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. Secondly, there is a specific problem with foreign lobbying, which has been getting worse over the past decade. Indeed, the problems that we have had with lobbying arguably go back some 20 years at least. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for the theorists of war and conflict, in this era there is a blurred line between espionage, agent recruitment and covert, malign, unhealthy, unethical influence, and overt lobbying. One should see those not as being separate, but as being, effectively, on a continuum from dark to light, and perhaps quite an unhealthy continuum with respect to some elements.

To ensure the health of our democracy, we need a stronger and more transparent system, and I want to use my speech to make suggestions for the Government’s National Security Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the Government are still committed to having a substantive—I hope—and broad foreign agent registration process in the Bill. By that, I mean a registration process that involves not only those people who work within a narrow definition of lobbying, but a broader definition, which, in our era, should include the lawyers, the public relations people, the strategists and the enablers not only for foreign states—that is another critical element—but for the formal and informal proxies such as oligarchs, major corporations and broadcasting entities that are obviously linked to those states, especially when they are effectively one-party states with a different and non-democratic tradition.

Primarily, I am talking about Russia—in the past three months, the situation with Russia has changed from light to dark—as well as China, Iran and their proxies. Some in this country argue that such measures should cover countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is an ally—a close ally—but which does a great deal of lobbying in this country, as do other friendly states.

There is also a debate about how we treat people and about whether we should have one set of standards or a sliding scale. Do I think that Oleg Deripaska should be treated in the same way as New Zealand’s tourist board? No. It would be welcome to have a light regulatory process for foreign entities such as Sweden’s trade authority or New Zealand’s tourist board, but for a Russian oligarch—many of whom have been sanctioned, so this is slightly hypothetical—or a firm such as Huawei, we should insist on much higher standards.

Let me say by way of background that we know that, around the world, Governments and their proxies make extensive use of overt lobbying and influence campaigns. There is nothing inherently illegal about that, although some might consider it unethical. However, a number of hostile states—including, but not limited to, China and Russia—have utilised lobbying as part of their operations against our national interest. Arguably nowadays, covert influence is part and parcel of hybrid forms of conflict. Indeed, in both Russian and Chinese doctrine, hybrid conflict is specifically talked about in terms of military and non-military tools. In Russian doctrine, the first characteristic of modern contemporary conflict is the linkage of military effect with non-military effect, be that information politics, economics or suchlike, of which overt and covert malign lobbying are very much part.

I am glad that the Government have said that this is a problem. In 2019, they declared they would reduce the threat posed by hostile state activity in the UK; that is great.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I ask my hon. Friend to explain what he means by covert influence? Does he mean intelligence agents using the cover of being lobbyists, or something else?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

That is a good question; I am not sure I can define it. It is possible to define the outcome, which is trying to influence events in an unethical, potentially illegal way, while not doing so overtly—for instance, by the Russian intelligence service, the GRU. It is apparently not illegal for someone to be a PR person for the GRU. If they were given secret documents, it would be illegal.

Do I think a definition of covert influence should just be somebody working for what they believe to be a foreign state intelligence agency? No, I think it is much broader than that. It would cover people such as Russian oligarchs and Chinese corporations. The issue is that, in a one-party state, it is difficult to make a distinction between state entities, and significant and powerful individuals, who are using covert, non-declared forms of influence to project either their own power, or their own and state power. That is the issue.

I used to hate definitions, and then I did a PhD and found that definitions are rather useful, because one has to decide what one is talking about. One thing I thought was slightly disappointing, though maybe understandable, occurred when the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs looked at the National Security and Investment Bill. We put forward a suggestion for a definition of national security, which the Government did not want to include. A definition of some of these things would be highly valuable. I would certainly welcome attempts by the Government in that regard. In fact, I may do it myself, so I thank my hon. Friend for the question.

The Government said they would adopt a form of foreign agent registration, by looking at

“like-minded international partners’ legislation.”

The two most important, by some distance, are the Foreign Agents Registration Act process in the United States, and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act in Australia. FARA, in the US, came in in 1938 as a result of covert Nazi lobbying, and was very timely, three years before the US entry into the war. In 2018, the Australians adopted their own foreign influence transparency scheme, largely because of the role of Chinese covert influence in Australia. That has been well documented by the author Clive Hamilton, in his book “Silent Invasion”, which I recommend.

In the US alone, foreign agents spent nearly $1 billion a year over a three-year period influencing the US Government. In the US, it is big business, and I suggest it is also big business in the UK.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. On the point of how clearly to define lobbying and influence, I can briefly give an example. In 2019, I wrote to the then chair of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is now the Northern Ireland Secretary, raising concerns about a gentleman called Ehud Sheleg, who at the time was treasurer of the Conservative party. I raised concerns around national security and permissible donations, because of Mr Sheleg’s very close connections to Russia; his father-in-law was a pro-Kremlin politician in Ukraine at the time. The right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth chose to reply by threatening to sue me for libel. I would welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) regarding that response.

Last week, The New York Times revealed that Mr Sheleg had made a large donation to the Conservative party, which was connected to a gift he said he had received from his father-in-law that had bounced around five or six different bank accounts in Europe before landing in Mr Sheleg’s account. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that somebody like Mr Sheleg would meet the threshold for being registered as a foreign agent, even at the time that he was treasurer of the Conservative party?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman raises a valuable point. I am not sure I can argue the details of that because I do not know enough about the individual case. Simply put, if that individual is deemed to be an informal agent of influence, he should be on a registration process. But that is a big if—if he is deemed to be. The question is, who would deem it?

There is a wider question. Would any Government willingly put China as one of those states that are using covert influence? They absolutely should do, but perhaps several years ago they would not have done so, because any Government, including new Labour, would wish to curry favour with China.

On the wider point about questionable behaviour, there are a number of Members of the House of Lords whose behaviour has frankly been questionable, and that is, I am afraid, on both sides of the House. There is a very well known and senior former new Labour Minister who set himself up as a strategist in order to avoid, frankly, giving up almost any information at all on who his clients are. Considering that that person was also a senior EU Commissioner, he was one of the most powerful people in the land, and he was conducting, probably—I do not know, because we know so little about his business—very powerful, high-level and discreet lobbying, including for Russian clients. There is also a former Labour Attorney General who has taken time out of the House of Lords primarily to give legal advice, seemingly to Russian state or proxy interests.

Is that healthy? Should those people be in Parliament? No. There are, unfortunately, Conservative Ministers who have also behaved, frankly, shamefully, including people who have advised Deripaska. What on earth these individuals are doing and why on earth we allow any of them in Parliament I do not know. I do not say, “Everything we do is fine and everything you do is rubbish,” because that is pitiful and embarrassing. This is a political class problem, not an issue with one particular party. That is the only thing I would say on that. I should probably crack on and make some progress, Dame Angela.

In the UK, no FARA-like legislation exists. The closest thing we have to it is the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Which was brought in by the coalition Government. It made some progress, but not enough. It brought in a mandatory register for written and oral questions to Ministers and permanent secretaries by so-called consultant lobbyists. That said, the definition of consultant lobbyists is very narrow. In addition, the Act does not differentiate between clients and those represented, or between foreign and domestic clients.

Thus, a UK entity—be it a peer, a PR company, a finance house or a law firm offering a one-stop shop to oligarchs and other companies—can act on behalf of a foreign entity without that foreign entity being registered. To my mind, that is highly questionable. We know that hostile states are engaged in covert and overt lobbying activities. Most recently, and slightly embarrassingly for the Member concerned, we found out that our secret agencies were discussing one particular case of a Chinese lady working for a Member of Parliament—we all know which one that is.

Cultivating legal and overt, but also questionable and illicit, relationships with serving and retired politicians, civil servants—we often overlook them, but they, not MPs, are the policy experts and policy wonks—academic institutions, think-tanks and regulatory bodies, and using power and influence through an enabling class of finance and legal firms, buys power. Most repugnantly and obviously, this has been practised through the use of lawfare: intimidating legal actions designed to silence those who have attempted to look into, for example, Putin’s oligarchs. There are people here who have spoken out very eloquently on that issue.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report highlighted the role of lobbying in the Kremlin’s subversive activities. We know from The Guardian’s leak of secret Russian documents that there was an attempt to influence the UK and US. We have had testimony from Bill Browder, talking about Russia indirectly employing public relations firms and helping Russian individuals to avoid EU sanctions. We have had the excellent book and work from Edward Lucas, who has argued much the same. We have also had this from the former Secret Intelligence Service agent Christopher Steele, who said that lobbyists are used to penetrate “British political and business life”.

None of this is ethical. We know about some of it not because we have good laws in this country to protect us, but because of the work of FARA—the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States. The only reason that we found out about the extensive lobbying done by one Member of the House of Lords, Lord Barker, on behalf of Deripaska—

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I remind everyone who will be contributing to the debate that the rules say that if you are going to identify a Member of the House of Commons or indeed the Lords—not necessarily by name—you have to have informed them in advance. Has the hon. Member done so?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I have not done so, so I should be much more circumspect.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I know this is a very difficult area. May I ask those who are speaking in the debate—not only the hon. Gentleman—to bear those rules in mind when they make their speeches?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

You are right, Dame Angela. Thank you very much for correcting me. I shall be a bit more obtuse about—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

Obtuse and obscure.

Together with lawyers, accountants, estate agents, public relations professionals and other enablers, lobbyists have formed a buffer around these people. I know that the case with Russia is clearly changing very dramatically—it has been rather forced on us by conflict—but China is another important case that concerns me. I say that as someone who knows that the Government are moving in the right direction, and who is incredibly grateful for the work that the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary have done in this area.

It concerns me greatly that we have not yet made the link between China and Russia. The west has economic dependency on both, be it through trade or energy. Both those countries have dictators for life, and we know that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so do we really think that President Xi will turn out to be better than President Putin? I would be sceptical. Both covet territory outside their control, both have aggressively rearmed and, perhaps most importantly, both propagandise their people against us and are shaping their people for war in the information and narrative space. China is more sophisticated and richer, and it arguably treats some of its people, especially its Muslim people, worse. It is a rising power, whereas Russia is a declining power, but there are too many similarities between them to claim that China is not Russia. It is a more sophisticated version and, as people such as Clive Hamilton argue, many of its covert activities are just more sophisticated versions of the same thing.

Like the Kremlin, the Chinese Communist party uses state, non-state and quasi-state actors through the United Front Work Department and “cultural and ‘friendship’ associations”. It is alleged to spend some $10 billion a year on external propaganda efforts. The Chinese state also makes use—perhaps more than Russia does—of quasi-state entities, and Huawei is a case in point. It has provided trips, sports tickets and donations to all-party parliamentary groups, and has employed a former head of GCHQ and a former UK chief information officer. It has also used several lobbying firms, and has employed a former head of Ofcom and even a former head of the Foreign Office.

In September 2019, Huawei gave £150,000 to Jesus College, Cambridge, which later produced a White Paper that was favourable to Huawei’s inclusion in the UK’s 5G network. It has done many other things; what I have mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. What concerns me is that, while this was happening, Ministers whom I respect very much were arguing that Huawei was a private entity—a private firm. I do not expect Ministers to be geniuses, but that situation was uncomfortable.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the point about higher education selling its soul to the Chinese Communist party, surely it is not just the Government’s role to regulate their engagement with foreign actors. It is also for other entities in the country, such as higher education.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

The hon. Member makes a very important and valuable point. Cambridge University’s relationship with China is very unhealthy, and Professor Stephen Toope’s leadership of Cambridge has been pretty depressing and questionable. He is not here to defend himself, so I will be careful what I say, but I note that the more woke Cambridge has become, the more it seems to have sold itself to the Chinese state, which I do not think is necessarily a defence of the values that it should be standing up for.

I think that higher education would say it needs clear guidance from the Government. On the foreign agent registration process, it would be excellent if the Government had something to say on the need for universities to register and to explain why they are taking on some students, because we have had Chinese military students coming to study PhDs in sensitive dual-use areas. We need to question that to ensure that we are doing the right thing and that we are not aiding countries to develop technologies that will be used against us.

I will wrap up in the next five minutes, because I am aware that I have taken a long time—my apologies.

We need to improve lobbying laws. I suggest to the Government—I will write separately, but the Minister has the study I produced for them two years ago—five major reforms to tackle the issue of foreign lobbying in the UK, which I hope would create better law and a better National Security Bill when it comes up.

First, we must create laws to compel individuals and entities that lobby in the UK on behalf of hostile states and their proxies to record their activities on a national register. I hope the Minister will take this on board in the constructive way that it is intended. Consultant lobbyists are important, but they are only one part of the problem, as many of us know. Hostile or potentially adversarial states make use of non-lobbyist individuals and entities—cultural entities, educational entities, public relations consultants, research firms, reputation managers, law firms and banks. If someone does work that impacts on policymaking or the political world, they need to be registered. In this day and age we need a broad, not narrow, understanding of what that means for the public good, and for the honesty, integrity and transparency of the political system, which we all want to see improved and strengthened. Nobody wants to sleazify our political, economic or legal system, so we need a belt-and-braces approach, while understanding that the demands we put on the New Zealand tourism board would probably be very different from those we place on a foreign entity, such as Huawei or the Confucius institutes. I note that the normally rather left-wing country, Sweden, has banned Confucius institutes. Should we?

Secondly, we should create laws to force foreign Governments and their proxies to disclose when they spend money on political activities in the UK. Thirdly, we should create laws to bar foreign Governments and their proxies from providing political, financial and other support during election periods. As at least two hon. Members have said, there is a question mark about donations, and I know from previous debates that people with dual nationality are an issue. That debate is obviously not going to go away.

Fourthly, we should create laws to compel foreign Governments and their proxies to label and disclose materials and campaigns undertaken in the UK, including online, not only during election periods but more generally outside election periods, so that we know where advertising is coming from. People should be able to see those messages, which are perfectly legal, but they should understand their provenance. Fifthly, I would make those laws enforceable by significant criminal penalty, so that people who break the law and do not uphold high standards have an expectation that the punishment will be a bit more than a slap on the wrist.

There is a further series of options; they include the following. Should we have a one-tier or one-size-fits-all regime? Should we have a weak, moderate or strong regime? Should we have a two-tier system that either requires nothing of some foreign entities or has a low bar for the sort of information that is required? We have a laissez-faire approach, which is not entirely unhealthy; it is good for our economy. I recognise that we want people to be free to set up in business, and set up what they are doing in this country. My suggestions are not about creating layers of bureaucracy for the Swedish food producers association or the New Zealand tourism board, but every time Huawei hires a lobbyist, we should know. Every time Huawei approaches a Member of the House of Lords or the House of Commons, we should know. If people want to do work for these people, we should know.

People complain about MPs, but I do not think MPs are necessarily the biggest problem—I am not trying to do a mea culpa for us all. The biggest problem is the law firms and people with significant legal and financial power, who do not exist in as transparent a world as we do. Although clearly some of the most outrageous and obvious—how should one say it?—lapses of judgment are often seen in the political world, real power is also influenced by civil servants and Spads. It used to be influenced by the European Commission, though clearly no more in this country, and it is also influenced by significant legal and finance firms. If they are impacting, via lobbying, the business of politics and policy in this country, they should be covered.

I will give one example: Huawei. There is a case to argue that Huawei did not do that much direct lobbying for much of its existence in this country, but that it worked through BT, which effectively became the Huawei spokesman in this country and Huawei’s chief defender. BT may say, “It is rather more complicated than that,” but Huawei was, arguably, effectively influencing UK policy through UK firms that were in business with and economically aligned to Huawei. I think that became a significant problem in the last few years. I am delighted to have played a modest role in the campaign to ensure that Huawei was not part of the 5G network, which was absolutely the right decision. I thank the Government for listening to me and other Members on that issue, and indeed the US Administration as well.

To sum up—I thank hon. Members for giving me a little more time than I said I would take; my apologies—we need to substantially improve lobbying laws, because the laws we have are genuinely not fit for purpose. Do we really want to have these endless lobbying scandals in our legal and political culture, which come around like a carousel every few months, every couple of years? We have the chance to do something better; I very much hope that the National Security Bill will tighten that up. The Minister has been generous enough to say that she is sympathetic towards these arguments, and I thank her.

Within the domestic lobbying framework, there is a specific issue with foreign lobbying. As I said at the beginning, it is important to understand that, whether we think it and see it or not, other states see this action as part of a hybrid conflict model. It is almost the first line of attack—to try to shape our opinions, to try to separate us from the US and to try to get a narrative and message into our economic, legal, political and informational debates in this country. We want a free society, but we need to understand that we have to protect that free society. At the very least, people need to know where some of the messages and campaigns come from.

In this era, there is a battle between open and closed societies. We have seen that most recently from the Ukraine war, but we might see it in the future from China in a Taiwan war, or a confrontation with the wider world. We need to do what we can to defend the open society. The way we best do that is by ensuring transparency, honesty and integrity in our political system. Ensuring that we have strong and fair laws over lobbying and foreign lobbying is one of the critical ways we can do that.

--- Later in debate ---
Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is good to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela. As I sum up on behalf of my party, I cannot help but feel that this is a very British debate. I am unsure whether anyone here is particularly opposed to better rules for those lobbying on behalf of foreign Governments. The evidence—which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has alluded to on many occasions, not only in Westminster Hall but in the main Chamber—that it has damaged the fabric of our society, and of the national security risk, has been clear.

I fully expect the Minister to rise to their feet, acknowledge the issue and the pertinence of the rhetoric deployed by all of us here today, declare that something must be done, and, if they will forgive me, then do absolutely nothing about it. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but this type of action has been trailed for quite some time without any evidence that we are any closer to either the stricter regulation of lobbying or any sort of foreign agent registration.

Now, that is not to denigrate the quality of any of the contributions made here today—from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Rhondda and, indeed, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). We did at least agree, I think, on the issues of higher education across these islands. I would say to the higher education sector that it must not only look in the mirror and reflect on what it sees in its relationship with the Communist party of China, but change what it sees.

On my party’s position, our ask is simple: the UK Government must follow the example set by ourcolleagues in the Scottish Government and create a fit-for-purpose lobbying register to improve transparency and accountability. The Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016 came into full operation in 2018 and was designed to improve transparency of face-to-face lobbying contact between organisations and Members of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Government—including Scottish Law Officers and junior Scottish Ministers—special advisers, and the permanent secretary of the Scottish Government. Transparency International has called on the UK Government to replicate that and set up a comprehensive lobbying register for the United Kingdom Parliament that includes relevant information, and for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments be replaced by a statutory body with sufficient authority and resources to regulate all that goes on here.

Members who pay attention to such things will know that my parliamentary group wrote to the Government’s anti-corruption tsar, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), asking him to rapidly reform lobbying rules following the second invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. When that secondary invasion began in February, as some Members have already intimated, we had a dismal roll-call—I will not mention any by name, Dame Angela—of the assorted MPs, Lords, former MPs, former civil servants, and the like, who had sold their expertise to firms linked to the Russian state. While it was certainly the most dismal example, anyone who had been paying attention—quite a few of them are in this room right now—had been warning about the dangers of allowing that sort of activity to go on unchecked.

I think the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) mentioned the Russia report, but it is vital that we do not get somehow embarrassed about bringing it up. The findings of this report, from a cross-party Committee with a Conservative majority, were clear: the arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers—individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the United Kingdom. Yet nothing—absolutely hee-haw, as I say in my part of the world—was done to implement it.

The biggest fear, especially when we are about to listen to a Minister smother—forgive me—an attempt at a proper legal framework for lobbyists with kindness, is that if we are unable to take full responsibility for those who lobby on behalf of a hostile regime such as the Russian Federation, then I wonder, really, who is going to take responsibility when this sort of thing happens again and again. Because we not just talking about Russia, as many here have alluded to today; plenty of people in debate have mentioned “communist” China. The resources and the global reach of Chinese Communist party-linked companies simply dwarf that of those from the Russian Federation. It might not be the most agreeable thing to say, but I think that one of them happens to be the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which the UK led in setting up. While China is not necessarily a hostile state—I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Strangford—we certainly know that it is a hostile, anti-democratic economic and political competitor.

My biggest worry about those who work on behalf of states that are also nominally neutral, which I think the hon. Member for Isle of Wight alluded to—

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

Briefly, the hon. Member is right to point to a better definition. When I was talking about “hostile” states, probably I should have changed that to “hostile, adversarial and potentially highly competitive”, which I think is probably a better definition.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not disagree with the hon. Member on that, but I go back to the point I was about to make about states that are nominally neutral or even allied to the UK and how we hold them to account. I am thinking particularly about the Gulf states—nominally allies, yet ones whose Governments have shown themselves capable and willing to act in the most heinous ways on the territory of ostensible allies.

The jamboree for the real estate, legal and general enablers of Russian money might have ended, but let us be in no doubt: it is going to keep rolling on for all the rest of them, allies or not. The increasing gentrification and sterility of much of central London will become emblematic of the hollowing out of UK institutions on behalf of this global capital.

If that sounds bleak, that is because it is. But let me end with one final appeal to the Minister. It would give even this inveterate Scottish nationalist great joy to see our devolved Administrations lead the UK in implementing a proper system of lobbying regulation, which I alluded to earlier in my speech; but I am afraid, Dame Angela, that I will not be holding my breath.

--- Later in debate ---
Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Wheeler
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. One or two nights ago, a meeting about security was held for Members, which led to a very wide-ranging conversation. People have taken his point, and I am sure there will be another meeting. I am grateful for his suggestion.

As part of the National Security Bill, the Government will bring forward a foreign influence registration scheme, which will require individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign Governments to deter and disrupt state threats activity in the UK, bringing the UK into line with our allies, such as the USA and Australia, with their FARA and FITSA, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

It is completely true that, hastened by war, we are now moving in the right direction; two economic crime Bills and the National Security Bill are going to be very positive. However, can the Minister give an indication of whether the Government will have a broad understanding of what constitutes lobbying, or whether they will have a narrow definition that lobbying is done only by “lobbyists”? It is the former, broader understanding of lobbying that would be the biggest help in framing the lobbying elements of the National Security Bill.

--- Later in debate ---
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I thank all Members for taking part and you, Dame Angela, for chairing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered foreign lobbying in the UK.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation

Bob Seely Excerpts
Thursday 17th March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Forgive me if I do not get drawn into Chelsea football club, which is outside the scope of what we are discussing in this statement. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. Since doing BackBench Business debates on Magnitsky in 2012, he and I have always, whatever else we may differ on, made common cause on the need for robust sanctions. He has been one of the leading lights in relation to SLAPPs, and I will certainly look carefully at the important specific points he has made.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I am very impressed by the Deputy Prime Minister’s action, and I thank him. It is a great shame that over recent years, we have allowed a corrupting cottage industry of legalised intimidation and legalised gangsterism to be offered by unscrupulous law firms in this country to some of the most wretched and unscrupulous people on earth. I hope that the senior partners in firms such as Carter-Ruck, CMS, Mishcon and Harbottle & Lewis will consider whether they feel that they have played an entirely negative role in enabling Kremlin neo-fascism. My brief question is that I was bringing forward a private Member’s Bill on this issue so that the tools of abuse—data protection, privacy and libel laws—can be wrapped up in a series of amendments. Should I continue to try to bring forward that private Member’s Bill in the hope that I can help write some clauses that would be of value in an upcoming Bill, or should I offer that in evidence to the consultation process? I am keen for the Bill to be strong, just and transparent.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend should do both. I thank him for his campaigning tenacity on all this. As ever, he is very forensic, as well as tenacious. I make one point. He makes a perfectly reasonable point about legal ethics—as I mentioned, we will look at the SRA regime, which is important—but I want to avoid this being an anti-lawyer push, because the vast majority of legal practitioners are as aghast as us at the abuses we see. Let us have a targeted approach, because we are more likely to be effective at dealing with the real problem that he has been so tenacious and eloquent in highlighting.

Oral Answers to Questions

Bob Seely Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I think I said to the hon. Lady last week, it is absolutely essential that those who are immunocompromised and the clinically extremely vulnerable continue to have access to free testing and all the therapies and antivirals that they need.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Q12. What assessment he has made of the viability of a potential (a) foreign lobbying Bill and (b) economic crime Bill.

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are carefully reviewing responses to our recent consultation on a range of legislative proposals to counter state threats, including foreign agents registration. We will update Parliament in due course.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I would like to thank the Ukrainian ambassador. Dobryi den, druh mii, shanovnyi posol. Diakuiu, diakuiu vashomu narodu. Slava Ukraini! [Translation: Good day, my friend, dear Ambassador. Thank you, and thank you to your people. Glory to Ukraine!]

Key oligarchs enforce the Kremlin’s hybrid conflict. In Britain, one of its aims is to ensure safe passage for money flows offshore, while law firms intimidate into silence those who would investigate, be it the media or even the National Crime Agency. Does the Prime Minister understand that this is how state corruption happens, and that this is systemic, planned subversion? Does he realise the seriousness of what has been happening to the law firms and finance companies in recent years?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Law firms in this country are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. They were reminded on 23 February of the need to comply with sanctions regulations and legislation, and there are regular checks to ensure that they are doing so. They have responsibilities under that regime to safeguard the UK and to protect the reputation of the United Kingdom legal services industry. Clearly they will face sanctions if they fail to do so.

Sanctions

Bob Seely Excerpts
Tuesday 1st March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am going to make a little progress and then I will give way. Sanctions announced by the UK and our allies are already having an impact. Yesterday, the rouble dropped 40% of its value, before closing 25% down; central bank interest rates have more than doubled, from 9% to 20%; international businesses are quickly divesting, as we have been hearing in the media; and the rouble is now trading at about a quarter of what it was when Putin took power. That will have an impact on the institutions that prop Putin up and that prop his cronies up.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I appreciate all that my right hon. and learned Friend is doing, but we are talking about the cronies and not the institutions as well. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right; I do not see why we cannot just use privilege in this House to name some of the three dozen “dirty oligarchs”. Why can we not use privilege? What law firms and lawyers are holding this up? How much money—how many billions of pounds—will have fled the country by the time we nail these people down?

Michael Ellis Portrait Michael Ellis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We work with our allies around the world on names. This is an effort between allies; we co-operate and discuss the matters, and officials work on that. The idea is to continue to work with our allies to bring forward further sanctions and press for further collective action to reduce western reliance, for example, on Russian energy.

--- Later in debate ---
Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It will clearly be necessary for us to propose and potentially impose measures for quite some time—for a number of years, according to the explanatory notes—and we have agreed to work with the Government on that. Obviously, as I have said, we hope that they are acting robustly, deeply and broadly now. It is crucial to send a very strong signal, not least given what we have seen. I certainly hope that Russia turns around and ends this illegal invasion, but at the moment we have to send that very strong signal.

Thirdly, there are some exemptions in the legislation, and it is not clear on the surface why they apply. For example, there is an exemption for correspondent clearing services relating to aviation assets. Can the Minister explain the reasoning behind that? There are other exemptions that clearly make sense, relating to humanitarian affairs and extraordinary circumstances, and I can understand why they are there, but can the Minister provide a fuller explanation?

Fourthly, the Government have previously referred to an intention to limit the deposits that can be made by Russian nationals. Do they still intend to introduce such a measure, which is not part of the package that we are discussing today?

Fifthly, we think that there are additional things that the Government could do. For example, the US immediately introduced a ban on all imports from Donbas regions controlled by Russia. Have the Government considered that? We have also proposed a ban on the export of luxury goods, comparable with what has been in place against Syria. If that were undertaken with our partners and allies, it could have a major effect in putting

the squeeze on those around Putin who enjoy their luxury lifestyles.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, in the context of a wider set of points, that there is a significant argument for doing more in the legal field? Should we do more about protection against the abuse of libel law, abuse relating to the Data Protection Act, and the need for a foreign lobbying Act? The economic crime Bill and this statutory instrument are not the end of a process; they should be the beginning of a process to clean up our society. It is shocking that we have got ourselves into this mess.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, especially in connection with the measures relating to SLAPP suits that we debated recently in the House. This is a crucial point. There is a whole infrastructure here, a whole systemic problem. What saddens me is that many of these measures were set out so clearly by, for instance, the Foreign Affairs Committee and in the Russia report, but were not introduced. I hope that the Government will now bring forward measures in all these areas. The measures do not, of course, apply only to Russia; they apply to other regimes that are doing heinous things.

Sixthly, we support wider sectoral measures, to cover insurance and reinsurance, for example, preventing UK firms from underwriting transactions with Russian entities or activity in Russia. I understand that the sanctions we are discussing today will apply to insurance and reinsurance as it applies to the specific transactions covered by these sanctions, but will the Minister tell us whether the Government are considering a wider prohibition on the provision of insurance and reinsurance services more generally to Russia and those engaging with the regime, not least given the key role that the UK plays in the international insurance market?

Seventhly, we have heard the point rightly made by one of the Minister’s own colleagues, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), about Scottish limited partnerships. May we have some urgent answers on that?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) raised a point about the use of assets. My understanding is that these sanctions would, for example, prevent service companies from servicing a large mansion somewhere in London in respect of, say, cleaning or facilities. Of course, the individual would still be able to make use of the asset.

--- Later in debate ---
David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Lady makes a point that will be made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) and others, and I have a lot of sympathy, but we have to be careful that we do not take away ordinary citizens’ rights—indeed, the proper rights of any individual—in how we deal with the lawyers, the accountants and so on.

Particularly in the lawfare area, a huge industry of enormous margins and enormous profits has been developed by various law firms, in particular, that have developed the tactics for defeating the Government’s imposition of proper laws.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) raise a very important point. CMS took instruction from a Ministry of the Interior official who was actually a front for organised crime in the Magnitsky case. Should organised crime have legal representation? Yes. Should foreign organised crime have legal representation? Potentially. Does foreign organised crime have the right to hire companies such as CMS to try to use lawfare to attack freedom of speech and Bill Browder in this country? I would argue not, and that is the debate we should be having.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend and I sponsored the lawfare debate four weeks ago, and he played a sterling part—he made probably the most informative speech in the whole debate. Yes, we have to address lawfare, but it is a difficult area. There are quicker areas we can work on right now, bearing in mind that time means lives. We have to work faster than we have been.

As I said, the NCA was able to bring successfully only two unexplained wealth orders out of nine, but the truth is that it has 100 targets sitting in its files—not two or four—and it cannot pursue them. Its evidence was given to the Intelligence and Security Committee and is reflected in the Russia report, but Lynne Owens, who was then head of the NCA, said that it simply could not afford the huge legal bills that it faced. The truth is that frankly it does not have the huge calibre of skills—no agency can say that they have— that oligarchs with virtually infinite quantities of money can employ.

How can we get the Serious Fraud Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Crown Prosecution Service and the NCA all to use this legislation properly? First, we must ensure that the costs of unexplained wealth orders are brought under control from the state point of view. Again, we must be careful that we do not undermine the rights of ordinary citizens, so we may say that the rules will apply only to unexplained wealth orders of, let us say, more than £50 million or something like that—that will not worry the ordinary citizen—and put a cap on expenditure. We must also use the private sector. We must say, “This is a national emergency” and ask everybody to put their shoulder to the wheel and make these UWOs work properly. The NCA has a list of 100, but those of us who took part in the lawfare debate know that roughly 140 Russian oligarchs should be on the target list. Not all of them are in Britain, but they should be on the list because their money may be in Britain, even if that is not the case.

It seems to me that there is a serious issue that should be in today’s regulations. I worry about the Government moving so slowly that their prey escape them and that the people who are in effect the enemies of the people of Ukraine by proxy get away with things that we should not allow. We must fight fire with fire and beat the oligarchs at their own game.

I will pick one oligarch out. We have already seen the results of actions taken so far, with oligarchs scrambling to protect their reputations. In the newspapers in the last few days we have seen Roman Abramovich doing things to protect himself. According to the Spanish Intelligence Committee, he is the man—or at least one of the men—who manages Putin’s business affairs. That is a really important issue in considering whether he should be on our target list. He was refused a Swiss residency permit due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organisations and, when his UK visa was up for renewal, he chose to withdraw his application as it became clear that he would need to explain the source of his wealth due to the changes that we introduced in 2015. I picked one, but I could have picked any of 100-plus to illustrate that there is information and knowledge—it is not a question of being unable to identify the individuals. It should not have taken a war for us to make a start on that.

--- Later in debate ---
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). I will talk a little about enablers, but it might be helpful to talk a little about oligarchs as well, and I will try, just from my own experiences, having lived in Ukraine and having tried to keep abreast of what was happening in the Soviet Union when I lived there and since, to talk also about the role of oligarchs in Russian hybrid war. I will talk a little about the statutory instruments and give them some context, if that will be helpful.

I think it is pretty depressing that it has taken a major war in Europe for us to take economic crime seriously. We have been waiting on this Bill since 2018, and there is no excuse why it has not been on the statute book for 20 years, frankly. Previous Conservative Governments have failed—I am delighted that this Government are doing the right thing; I am not criticising this one—previous coalition Governments have failed and, frankly, previous Labour Governments have failed. I just do not understand how we have got ourselves into the mess we are in now.

Obviously I am going to support these regulations, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill and whatever else the Government put up, but I stress to them that this is the beginning of a cleaning up of our legal system and finance system—this is not an end, but a start. We do not know how much money has flowed through our country using offshore accounts or Companies House. Our banks were not responsible for this corrupt flow of wealth—some of the worst in history. It was the Danish, German and Swedish banks that were responsible for that, but it is UK companies that they used.

I also say to the Minister that, as well as the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, we need a foreign lobbying Bill and amendments to libel law and data protection law. We need to do more on SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—where aggressive lawyers seek to intimidate campaigning groups, journalists and the like. We also need an espionage Bill.

We must toughen up the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I am told by whistleblowers working for the big companies that they do not do proper client checks and that “know your client” checks are non-existent for some of them. Some actually have a list of people that they specifically do not do those checks on because they know that they are inherently corrupt and inherently criminal. What on earth has happened to some of the major legal firms in this country that means that they specifically avoid “know your client” checks because they know that they will have to turn that client down if they do because those clients are corrupt, criminal or linked to organised crime? I am afraid to say that that is pretty shocking.

I note that some oligarchs are now distancing themselves from President Putin. Fridman, Deripaska and Abramovich have all come out with rather woolly statements in the last couple of days. I am sorry, but I don’t buy it.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Gentleman not find that it rather sticks in the throat that Mr Abramovich has been going around saying that he is an envoy of peace and claiming that he is somehow brokering peace between Ukraine and Russia, given his former involvement in the matter?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady brings me to a point about how oligarchs work. To go back to Ukraine, somebody such as Dmitry Firtash, who is now wanted by the Americans, was set up by Gazprom and Putin. He was given sweetheart deals to import vast amounts of cheap energy into Ukraine. The vast profits that he garnered from those sweetheart deals gave him a good life but, more importantly, he funnelled that money into buying up chunks of east Ukrainian industry, effectively as a front for the FSB, the former KGB. Critically, he also used it to purchase politicians and to fund the pro-Russian political parties in eastern Ukraine.

When it comes to oligarchs, therefore, it is important to understand that we are talking about an economic model within hybrid war. Of all the tools of hybrid war, if hon. Members read the Russian characteristics of war, they will see that the first characteristic of the Russian military doctrine is that there is an integrated military and non-military strategy. So they have their troops, paramilitaries, front organisations or assassins, but with that they have the politics, economics, culture, religion and even sport—sport matters very much.

When it comes to oligarchs, we are talking about not just obscenely rich people who are mates with somebody, but a structure of control and power, whether that is in eastern Ukraine or in the United Kingdom, primarily to facilitate vast money flows to tax havens or to intimidate and silence the western media into not reporting on those people. There are a series of outcomes to that, so I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention.

I return to Abramovich, Fridman and Deripaska. If they were so keen to smarten up their act—they are clearly scared of what might happen—I would like to know why, as of only a few weeks ago, they and their London lawyers were all abusing data protection Acts or libel law to target and intimidate individuals, such as Chris Steele and Catherine Belton, HarperCollins and others. At the end of last year and even this year, they have continued to intimidate a free press. They were enabled, and I make the point that it is not only the oligarchs but their millionaire servant class of enablers who enable the billionaire class of oligarchs who enable the neo-fascism that we see in Europe.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his speech today, his past work in the area and his knowledge of it. Is the issue not also close to home in his party? A co-chair of the Conservative party has a business with, as I understand it, an office in Moscow with 50 people in it whose job has been to facilitate those oligarchs and others and to use their money around the world for expensive travel and other things. Should people such as him not question what they have done to support Putin and his regime?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

The right hon. Gentleman makes a really good point. I do not have anything against Ben Elliot; he is a decent enough character. Do I think it is great that Hawthorn does PR for oligarchs? No, I really do not. Do I think it is great that there are Members of the House of Lords, whom we are not allowed to name—God knows why—who have set up their strategic advice so we know nothing about their clients, or who advise Russian oligarchs and their companies? No.

Do I think it is great that we have had a former member of the Scott Trust, Geraldine Proudler, who has represented the organised crime interest that killed Magnitsky? No, I do not. Do I think that there are advisers to the current Leader of the Opposition who have very questionable records when it comes to advice to oligarchs? No, I do not. Do I defend any Tories in that space as well? No, I do not.

What worries me is that, as well as having a very obvious commitment to not hurting the City of London—putting our national interests ahead of the City of London would be awful: it would never do—we build up a quiet collection of very powerful individuals who then effectively gently corrupt our system. I am sure they may be acting in the best interests, but, collectively, they have to be careful.

I think it was in the 1930s that Michael Foot wrote “Guilty Men”. In the past 10 years there have been guilty men and women who have done a really bad job of facilitating the agents of fascism, and those people are going to start coming out of the woodwork. It would be better for many of those people to consider their positions now, rather than becoming the targets for the media and people such as ourselves.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is not my main point, but I just point out that it is not just Britain; after all, the chairman of Gazprom and the former German Chancellor is another such example.

The point that I want to bring my hon. Friend to is his question about the lawyers. I do not feel that I responded properly to his intervention about the professions involved here. It seems to me that professional bodies themselves have to look very hard at the issue. We also have to make sure that the law is enforced. What he is talking about—people ignoring the origin of the money being paid to them—is actually a breach of the law that those people understand.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I do not want to abuse privilege, but, to put it bluntly, I have been told of law firms that do not carry out client checks. I have been told of law firms that are effectively complicit in breaking the law. I have been told of law firms that are knowingly taking from organised crime, but doing it through a front. I will not start naming names now, but people are coming to me and telling me about this stuff—they are telling others here as well. It is a very serious that our legal systems have become so corrupted.

When it comes to solicitors, certainly in the Belton case, there is John Kelly at Harbottle and Lewis; Geraldine Proudler at CMS; Nigel Tait at Carter-Ruck—how often should that company have been mispronounced—which represents the interests of Rosneft; and Hugh Tomlinson QC, who represented all of them. Tait is also going after Charlotte Leslie for another client, as I think some here have mentioned. We have to wonder about the reputations that these people will end up with in a few years’ time, even if they are behaving as well as they might—I am being careful in what I say. Perhaps they are really lovely people, but perhaps their amorality will really begin to bite their reputations in a way that will be uncomfortable.

I just wonder: how on earth have we allowed this to happen? I would love an answer from a lawyer in Government. A free press should be intimidating kleptocrats and criminals. Why have we got to this position in our society—a free society, the mother of Parliaments—where we have kleptocrats, criminals and oligarchs intimidating a free media? We have a coalition not of the willing, but of the woeful. Oligarchs, Putin’s henchmen, team up with amoral lawyers—we know the oligarch model. We heard that from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). Just a few weeks ago, they told us how these firms set up a one-stop corruption shop to offer a form of legalised intimidation to silence not only their rivals, but journalists and authors.

There is also an unstructured, unregulated private eye business that is now collecting kompromat on people in this country. Do not get me wrong: people have the right to advice and legal representation, but that is being abused very badly in our society at the moment. To make the link with Putin, when it comes to the Belton case Catherine Belton says that the legal cases against her started two months after the Navalny video of Putin’s palace, when Navalny quoted from her book. As if by magic, a few weeks later three oligarchs, completely coincidentally, attack her to try to silence her and try to bankrupt HarperCollins and intimidate it into withdrawing the book.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is outlining a damning case against those who facilitate. Does he accept that as long as we have a system in the United Kingdom where, as has been described in this House today, those with bottomless pockets and billions of pounds can use them to defend their ill-gotten gains, it will be a one-sided battle when it comes to the more limited resources of those seeking to expose them?

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I completely agree, and the right hon. Gentleman is completely right. I am going to carry on for no more than a minute or 90 seconds, Mr Deputy Speaker. One of the most frightening things that I have read about our society was in the Intelligence and Security Committee report. In that, the head of the National Crime Agency said that it has to think carefully about which cases it can take on, because it is so costly and risky to take on some of the most powerful and, frankly, wretched people, who are lawyered up with these amoral lawyers who seemingly do not care. They have no moral concept of what they are doing but are happy to take the vast sums that these people are willing to pay to scupper the legal processes in this country, prevent the people’s will from being done via Government and prevent justice from being done. There are beginning to be elements of state capture, in extreme cases, in some of the things that are happening.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also alarming when companies such as Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation can take individuals who work for organisations such as the Serious Fraud Office to court for having the audacity to lead an investigation into ENRC, and use SLAPP orders and litigation to weigh down not only the SFO, but the individuals who work for it? Surely we need to offer them our protection.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

We absolutely should, and the hon. Gentleman makes another really important point. The lawyers go after anything and everybody they can to try to destroy them in any way they can. One of the most awful things I read was that Mishcon de Reya was in the process of financially destroying that Maltese journalist Galizia before she was physically destroyed. How awful is that? How much reputational damage are these people willing to endure for the bonuses they make? We are not talking about these people as individuals or as companies enough. We need to do that more.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have been listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely there must be some remedy and solution. I would be very interested in his view on what practical steps we can take collectively to shut down these loopholes and stop these sharp practices.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

There are lots of them; there are too many for me to go into, because I am genuinely trying to wind up my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker. The best way of doing that is to use privilege to get these oligarch names out on the Floor of the House, so that we do not have to worry about being sued for what we say about them and so we can get the sanctions out, rather than have them cart their money off to God knows where. We can cap costs in NCA cases. We also have to get the crime agencies talking much more holistically.

To round up, I seek a public inquiry into what has gone wrong in the past 10 to 15 years, because this system is becoming rotten at so many levels. I am talking about the amount of money; the corruption to some of the standards in the legal firms; and some of the former politicians—on the Opposition side and ours—who are, in effect, the public spokesmen for these people. It is wrong and there is progress to be made. I support these measures but they should be a start, not an end.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Like everyone who has spoken in this debate, I support these regulations, but I want the Paymaster General to become a paymaster for taking on Kremlin paymasters with a lot more force and power behind him. We are now about to see what could be the “Syrianisation” of the conflict in Ukraine. We have seen horrifying pictures of the shelling intensifying this afternoon. We know there are Spetsnaz and paratroopers ready to drop. We know Ramzan Kadyrov has readied thousands of Chechen fighters to go in and pursue a murderous, barbarous campaign. We are on the brink now of a humanitarian disaster in Ukraine. Therefore, what we needed to see from the Government this afternoon was a step change in a plan for economic warfare, targeted to defeat President Putin.

I said to the House yesterday that we remain troubled that our neighbours are so much further ahead in targeting and sanctioning institutions and individuals. The Foreign Secretary, who is not in her place, said something very strange in response: she said that

“this is not a competition”.—[Official Report, 28 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 726.]

Of course it is not a competition; it is an exercise in not leaving a gap through which bad people escape justice and our campaign.

The ban on trading in state bonds is in place in Europe, but not here in the United Kingdom. The ban on import and export from breakaway regions is in place in Europe, but not here in the United Kingdom. The sanctions on state Duma members are in place in Europe, but not here in the United Kingdom. There are 23 serious players on the EU sanction list who are not on the UK list. They are key economic players, such as Mr Kostin, the president and chairman of VTB Bank.

Missing from our list are key political figures such as Anton Vaino, chief of staff to President Putin. Missing is Mr Grigorenko, the deputy Prime Minister. Missing are key propagandists such as Margarita Simonyan. Missing, surprisingly, are military figures such as the commander-in-chief of the Black sea fleet, the commander-in-chief of Russian aerospace forces, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army and the Russian Defence Minister. I am well aware that the sanctioning business is not a competition, but I want to know from the Paymaster General why these individuals who are being sanctioned by our neighbours are not in the regulations presented to this House.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

I try to agree on this issue with almost everything the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would put an alternative argument to that point, and I am sorry to do so. People such as Gerasimov are potentially valuable because they are soldiers and can see some of the craziness of what the politicians are doing. The Black sea fleet is potentially a good target, but I would caution against going after senior military men, provided that they are seen to be credible military men. I apologise for disagreeing.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the nuance the hon. Gentleman brings to the debate. Gerasimov was not on the list I cited and I do not believe he is on the EU list either, but what disturbs me, which I have not yet heard an explanation for, is why these individuals are sanctioned across the channel and not yet sanctioned here. That deserves an explanation.

My second point is to push the Paymaster General on just what sanctioning means. We have heard a lot of rhetoric over the past week about the biggest and boldest sanctioning regime in living history, going further and faster against the Russians than ever before. Frankly, that does not say much, given the lassitude with which the Government have approached this question over the past few years.

I am seriously concerned that, whereas France is talking about taking away assets such as mansions, yachts and jets, paragraph 3.1.3 of the UK financial sanctions guidance in December 2020 does not prohibit the use of assets even if those assets are technically frozen. Are we seriously saying that we will step back and watch people such as Abramovich and Usmanov parade around the world in jets and in yachts and make use of property here in the United Kingdom because we did not tighten up the regulations strongly enough? Are we in this House seriously prepared to stand by and watch that? I do not believe we are.

--- Later in debate ---
Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I am speaking at a late stage in the debate, much of what needed to be said has already been said, so I will not repeat any of it. Let me instead make three brief points.

First, what really matter now are those things that have a systemic impact on the Russian economy and on Vladimir Putin’s ability to finance the war in which he is engaged in Ukraine. We must be careful, as a House, not to fail to see the wood for the trees and go down the rabbit hole of interest in individuals and oligarchs. That is of course important, and I will return to it in my second point, but it will not make a material difference in the short term. Many of those individuals are not close to Vladimir Putin today. Many of them left Russia or are dual nationals. The situation is highly complex. I will return to that in a moment, but what really matter, and will make a serious impact, are the measures that have, broadly speaking, been put in place over the last few days.

Like a number of Members on both sides of the House, I was disappointed that, when we had a debate on this subject towards the end of last week, the initial package of measures was very limited indeed, but now we find ourselves in a position where the UK, broadly in concert with our allies, has brought forward significant measures. For some time I advocated the move on SWIFT, and we were told that that was unlikely to happen. It has happened, and I am pleased that the UK played a significant part in advocating it, although I find it disappointing that it has been done in a partial manner. I wish that we could move to a point at which SWIFT is turned off from Russia more substantially, if not in its entirety, and I suspect that that is the UK Government’s ambition, but it is being held back by some others, particularly European allies, who rely on it to remit payments for oil and gas to Russian entities.

I think the sanctions that were put in place against the Russian central bank were by far the most significant that we have imposed as an international community, because part of the effort put in by Vladimir Putin over the last two or three years was to build up £600 billion of foreign currency reserves. The fact that half of that is based overseas, in foreign banks and foreign central banks, is extremely important and material, if we can truly freeze those assets and prevent the Putin regime from accessing them. I warmly support those changes and hope that they are effective; we will all have to follow events to see whether they really are in practice.

I am still not certain why the UK has not sanctioned all the major Russian banks. There are still some that we have not sanctioned, and I should like to hear a good answer to the question of why that is. There may be an answer, but I do not see it. There are vested interests across Europe; for example, some major banks in Russia are owned by SocGen—Société Générale, the French bank—so it is quite clear to me why the French Government would not want to sanction that particular bank, but I cannot see a good reason why the UK Government would not want now to sanction all the Russian banks, which is something that we could do quite quickly. I should be grateful if the Minister could, on this occasion or in future, make it clear why we are not doing it.

When it comes to individuals, as I have said, I am sceptical about the impact of this in the short term. The term “oligarch” is bandied around, and there is a spectrum of those individuals, from people who are clearly gangsters to people who made money out of Russia in a way that none of us would regard as legitimate, but who are now quite distanced from the Putin regime. It will make very little difference in some cases, and in fact I suspect that Vladimir Putin will find it highly amusing and satisfying to see those individuals being punished.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely
- Hansard - -

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I fully understand that he is separating the institutional from the personal. The term “oligarch” is bandied about far too much, but does he accept that while the institutional stuff will hurt the Russian state, by targeting those people who remain close to Putin, we will then target him, especially if they remain the oligarchic facilitators of some of his overseas policy, which is effectively a parallel Kremlin policy to the official state?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do, and I completely understand what my hon. Friend is saying. The point I am trying to make is that we must not spend all our efforts on the individuals, although most of us would like to see those individuals punished in some way or form, and that the most important thing is to target the things that will have a real and major impact on Putin’s ability to finance his campaign in Ukraine. On the individuals, there is a distinction—as my hon. Friend has just said—between those individuals who we know through our intelligence to be directly involved in the Putin regime today and others who may have drifted away, and we should order in priority those individuals that we take action against.

My second point is that the regime we have in place for targeting individuals is clearly not fit for purpose. We were told that there was a hit list of oligarchs and that we would be taking action against them, yet days have passed and very few if any further individuals have been put on that list of sanctions. That leads me to believe that the legal bar that we have to reach before sanctioning those individuals is too high and that the group of officials doing that work is either insufficiently resourced or we do not have the right people. That is no disrespect to those officials, but we need to be able to sanction these individuals faster than we are doing today; otherwise, our rhetoric simply will not match up with reality. I am afraid that that is the situation today.

Anyone listening to the rhetoric would say that it is very strong, but the action is fairly weak. I would like to hear from the Minister what more we can do to help him and the Government to get those individuals sanctioned. As I say, it feels to me that that means more resources for the team providing the legal basis, and a lower legal test in order to sanction the individuals. If that requires changes to the legislation, let us bring them forward to the House, because there is clearly cross-party agreement on this.

My third point is that a large number of British businesses are going to be affected by the sanctions, the overwhelming majority of which are perfectly legitimate individuals and businesses in our own constituencies. I would like to see the Government bring forward some simple plain-English guidance for those businesses as quickly as possible. It is not available today. If we look online, we can see that there is not much guidance at all, and the guidance that is available is quite complex. If we are going to ask businesses, including small ones, to abide by these rules and regulations, the Government need urgently to bring forward some plain-English guidance for them.

Linked to that is the point I made during the urgent question earlier in the week, which was that in order to address a small number of seriously bad apples, we must not do anything that hurts legitimate small businesses and entrepreneurs in this country. The issue I am most concerned about there is the reforms to Companies House in the White Paper. It is a great thing in this country that for £12 someone can incorporate a company and get their certificate of incorporation within 24 hours. With that comes a serious concern about nefarious intent from those individuals who are not legitimate businesses, but before we legislate for that, I want proper reassurances from the Government that legitimate businesses will not be hurt. I do not want to live in a country where that £12 becomes £500 or where 24 hours becomes four weeks, because we all know other jurisdictions around the world, including in Europe—France is an example—where it is much more complicated and time-consuming to incorporate a business and operate it legitimately.

Ukraine

Bob Seely Excerpts
Thursday 24th February 2022

(1 year, 12 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Obviously I do not want to go into detail, because it is a sensitive and difficult business, but, yes, we have done so and continue to do so. I believe that I have the support of the House in intending to continue to do so.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
- Hansard - -

I thank the Prime Minister for his words and, if I understood correctly, his early commitment to an economic crime Bill and a kleptocracy cell. In relation to that, will there be a foreign lobbying Bill? Will there be amendments to LIBOR and the Data Protection Acts to stop unscrupulous law firms from offering intimidation services to oligarchs and kleptocrats? Will the NCA be properly funded, as the Intelligence and Security Committee report suggested, so that it can take on the kleptocrats, the autocrats and the oligarchs in this country?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I said in my statement, we are setting up a new combating kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency to target the very individuals mentioned by my hon. Friend.