The bills announced in the Queen’s Speech each session are the backbone of the parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and totally, as the political cycle evolves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So over the next few months, ConservativeHome will publish a brief guide, most Sunday mornings, to each bill in this year’s speech: what it is, if it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it is expected sooner or later.
14. State Threats Bill
To say that this bill is topical is an understatement. The government argues that it will modernize existing counterintelligence laws; “to create new offences, tools and powers to detect, deter and disrupt activities hostile to and targeted at the UK”, and to improve the protection of official data.
This program will require the reform of the four official secrets laws in place; the creation of a “foreign influence registration system” to help combat espionage, foreign influence and protect research”; and bringing together “new and modernized powers to ensure that security services can combat hostile activity”.
A consultation paper on the bill contained a foreword by Priti Patel and called for responses to be sent to the Home Office, which should therefore take over the measure.
It would be surprising if Damian Hinds, the Security Secretary, did not play a major role in getting the measure passed by the Commons committee.
Postponement or new invoice?
Scheduled for when?
Later – the government has yet to publish its response to responses to the consultation, which ran from May 13 to July 22 last year.
The origins of the bill are twofold and very different. The first source is the review of official data by the Law Commission, which has recommended reform of official secrets laws. 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 assertion that the bill will be “country and actor agnostic”. While this may be technically correct, it will clearly target Russian and Chinese influence. Labor and the Liberal Democrats are currently calling for the bill to be introduced.
Just because the opposition is urging the bill to be released doesn’t mean they’ll support the entire measure, and all three parts of it are likely to meet some resistance. For example, universities that receive funding from China or work in partnership with Chinese institutions may very well object to the registration system.
Any regime of civil orders that can be imposed on individuals suspected of engaging in hostile activity will meet with resistance from civil liberties advocates. And see Robert Buckland’s article on this site making the case for a public interest defense to get a sense of how controversial the Official Secrets Act review is likely to be.
The opposition paints a picture of a government slow to act against oligarchs, economic crime and espionage because it is incompetent, or in hoc with dodgy Russian donors, or both. The noise he makes about the absence of this bill, and in fact of a ministerial response to the consultation, must be seen in this context.
However, Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, also participated – and the government is in a difficult situation with this measure. Delay, and it will be excoriated further. Law, and the various interests that are skeptical, even opposed, to the various elements of the bill will rush.
Controversy rating 8/10
On paper, the government and the opposition must be united in the search for better protection against espionage. In practice, the bill offers the prospect, particularly in the sections that will cover official secrets, of an alliance of civil libertarians and Labor MPs tabling a mass of critical amendments.
Ordinarily, espionage legislation is a somewhat esoteric subject, but the war will increase its visibility. During this time, the Times described the official secrets reform elements of the bill as “the greatest threat to public interest journalism in a generation”. No wonder the government blocked its response to the consultation.