New powers promised to help UK spies tackle hostile states in wake of damning Russia report

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt

New powers will help Britain's spies "clamp down" on the activity of hostile states, the government has promised - after a damning report from MPs on the potential threat posed by Russia.

It is understood Prime Minister Boris Johnson will strengthen counter-espionage laws in the wake of the bombshell study by the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Ministers are considering a US-style law requiring people working on behalf of foreign states to formally register their activities.

The ISC report looked into alleged Russian involvement in the UK’s affairs Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

The move comes with Labour poised to go on the offensive on the issue on Wednesday at Prime Minister's Questions - Parliament's final sitting day before the summer recess.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the government was looking at introducing new legislation to tackle the activities of "hostile states".

"We want to be able to look at the activities, clamp down on the activities of hostile states which threaten the UK," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

The government has already committed to introduce legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with "the tools they need" to disrupt hostile action.

The Transport Secretary denied the government had “avoided” an investigation potential Russian interference. Credit: PA

He told Sky News: "We are looking at additional powers to look at the activities of hostile states and that may include introducing new laws."

Adding that the UK was working with "like-minded international partners" on "something like the foreign agent registration laws that exist for example in the US and Australia".

The US Foreign Agents Registration Act covers activities including lobbying and public relations for overseas states, and Australia has a similar register.

Labour has accused the government of failing in its response to the security threat posed to UK democracy by Russia, after the long-delayed ISC report insisted London was too slow to recognise Moscow’s menace to British democratic processes.

Speaking ahead of an urgent question in Parliament on Wednesday, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said that “on every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat”.

Screengrab from the video briefing by members of the Intelligence and Security Committee on their long-awaited Russia report. Credit: House of Commons/PA

Mr Johnson is likely to face a grilling on the situation in the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the parliamentary session.

But during Wednesday's morning media rounds, the Transport Secretary denied British intelligence services had taken "their eye off the ball" over the security threat posed by Russia.

Appearing on Sky News, Grant Shapps said: "It’s obviously right that we’re always reminded that the threat is there and it’s very real, but I don’t think it’s the case that the intelligence services took their eye off the ball."

He also said the report had not contained "any evidence" of Russian interference in the EU referendum in 2016. "The report didn’t reveal that," Mr Shapps said and suggested there was no need for a "big sudden review" into potential Russian involvement.

Shadow home secretary Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “The Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia exposes deep systemic failings in government approach to security.

“This report outlines the scale of the shortcomings of the Government’s response to maintaining our national security in the face of what is clearly a growing and significant threat from Russia," he continued.

“The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance.

“On every level the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat.

“While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government have been so keen to delay the publication."

“The UK has world leading security services, yet this report makes clear they have not received the strategic support, the legislative tools or the resources necessary to defend our interests.

“The government need to urgently outline how they will address these systemic failings.”

  • The 'Russia report' explained:

It has been suggested the UK could introduce a “register of foreign agents” like the ones in place in the US and Australia as part of a stronger move against foreign interference in internal affairs.

Under the American system, people who work for foreign governments and officials have to register with US Justice Department and file reports about their activities.

In an explosive commentary, the ISC said the government was slow to recognise the potential threat posed by Russia to British democratic processes and did not properly consider whether Moscow could interfere in the Brexit referendum until after the event.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Downing Street on Tuesday Credit: right

The ISC report concluded the UK only belatedly realised the threat to political processes despite alarm bells ringing over the 2014 Scottish referendum.

The intelligence agencies and government departments treated the issue as a “hot potato”, with nobody effectively tackling the problem, the committee said.

The government said there was “no evidence” of successful Russian interference in the Brexit vote but the committee – which oversees the work of Britain’s spies – suggested there was no proper investigation.

MI5 provided just “six lines of text” when asked whether there was secret intelligence on the issue of potential Russian meddling in the referendum.

But the government – led by a prominent Brexiteer in Mr Johnson – has rejected the committee’s call for a full analysis of whether Vladimir Putin’s government did attempt to influence the result of the 2016 vote.

The report was drafted by the ISC’s members in the last parliament.

Its publication was delayed by Mr Johnson’s decision to call a general election and by the slow process of appointing a successor committee.