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The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

14. Counter State Threats Bill

To say that this proposed Bill is topical is an understatement.  The Government argues that it will modernise existing counter espionage laws; “create new offences, tools and powers to detect, deter and disrupt hostile activity in and targeted at the UK”, and improve the protection of official data.

This programme will require reforming the four Official Secrets Acts in place; creating “a ‘Foreign Influence Registration Scheme’ to help combat espionage, foreign influence, and protect research”; and bringing together “new and modernised powers to ensure the security services can tackle hostile activity”.

Responsible department

A consultation document on the Bill contained a foreword by Priti Patel and asked for responses to be sent to the Home Office, which is therefore set to take charge of the measure.

It would be surprising were Damian Hinds, the Security Minister, not to play a major role in taking the measure through committee in the Commons.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New Bill.

Expected when?

Later – the Government hasn’t yet published its reply to the responses to the consultation, which ran from May 13th to July 22nd last year.

Arguments For

The origins of the Bill are twofold, and very different.  The first source is the Law Commission’s review of official data, which recommended reform of the Official Secrets’ Acts.  The second is the Intelligence and Security Committee, which advocated legislation to counter hostile state threats in a 2020 report on Russia.

This puts into context the Government’s claim that the Bill will be “country and actor agnostic”.  While this may be technically correct, it will clearly target Russian and Chinese influence.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently clamouring for the Bill to be introduced.

Arguments Against

That the Opposition is urging the publication of the Bill doesn’t mean that it will support the whole measure, and all three parts of it are likely to meet some resistance.  For example, universities that take funding from China or work in partnership with Chinese institutions may well object to the registration scheme.

Any civil orders regime that can be imposed on individuals thought to be engaged in hostile activity will meet resistance from civil libertarians.  And see Robert Buckland’s article on this site making the case for a Public Interest Defence to get a flavour of how controversial the Offical Secrets Act overhaul is likely to be.

Politics

The Opposition is painting a picture of a Government slow to act on oligarchs, economic crime and espionage because it is incompetent, or in hoc to dodgy Russian donors, or both.  The noise it’s making over the absence of the this Bill, and indeed of a Ministerial response to the consultation, must be seen in that context.

However, Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has also pitched in – and the Government is in a difficult place over this measure.  Delay, and it will be excoriated further.  Act, and the different interests that are sceptical about if not opposed to the various components of the Bill will swoop in.

Controversy rating 8/10

On paper, Government and Opposition ought to be united in seeking better protection against espionage.  In practice, the Bill offers the prospect, especially in the sections that will cover official secrets, of an alliance of civil libertarians and Labour front benchers putting down a mass of critical amendments.

Ordinarily, legislation about espionage is a somewhat esoteric subject, but the war will heighten its visibility.  Meanwhile, the Times has described the Official Secrets reform elements of the proposed Bill as “the greatest threat to public interest journalism in a generation”.  No wonder the Government has stalled over its consultation response.