New Forest East



Dr Julian Lewis: I have been here purely to listen to the debate, but I have one question for the Minister. Does he accept that both Government and Opposition parties are targets of systematic attempts to buy political influence? If so, does he accept that the people who are trying to check the legitimacy of such donations must be properly protected?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (James Cartlidge): My right hon. Friend, who has a track record of scrutinising such matters, makes a very good point. I would simply say one thing: the Opposition spokesperson [Andy Slaughter] mentioned donations to our party, but we should all be concerned about recent stories of certain donations from an individual connected with the Chinese Communist party to a Member of the House.

As I said, I will be giving SLAPPs [Strategic lawsuits against public participation] in UK courts urgent consideration. I want to make it clear that the Government are committed to a robust defence of transparency and freedom of speech. We will not tolerate anything that risks tarnishing the integrity of our judicial and legal profession.

Dr Lewis: I am sorry to come back, but that was not a reply to my intervention. I made it quite clear that parties on both sides of the House are subject to the problem. I am looking for a commitment from the Government that when people are trying to do due diligence and check on behalf of their party or any other organisation within their party that donations are legitimate – when they are trying to see whether a donation is clean money or dirty money – the Government will recognise the need for them to be protected and not sued. Will the Minister give a straightforward answer to that question?

James Cartlidge: Let me be clear to my right hon. Friend. I was simply referring to the debate as a whole. I recognise that he referred to all parties; I was just putting in some balance because we had only heard about one party. On his point, I am more than happy to meet him and look at the detail of what he proposes, because I do not think it is directly relevant to the matters that we have been debating.

It is important to consider lawfare threats in the broader context of Government action to curb abusive foreign influence. Last year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy brought in the National Security and Investment Act 2021 precisely to target foreign state interference in our economy.

Bob Seely: I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the debate. He says that the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) was not directly relevant but, with great respect, it was, because we need to protect people such as Charlotte Leslie, who are trying to do due diligence; we need to protect officials at the SFO to ensure that they are not hounded individually; and we need to protect journalists and people here. We need to protect quite a lot of people in this debate. He says that the Government will do everything in their power, which is great, but we need to get on and act because there is a real specific problem at the moment.

James Cartlidge: I recognise that there is a lot of concern about sources of money. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and a number of other colleagues have talked about the source of funding. I do recognise its importance, but stress that the legal profession has a robust due diligence mechanism in place to prevent dirty money corrupting our courts. Anti-money laundering regulations exist to combat illicit financing. The suspicious activity reporting regime requires legal professions to report to the UK financial intelligence unit within the National Crime Agency where terrorist activity or money laundering is suspected. Law enforcement officials must act safe in the knowledge that the Government defend their investigative remit as we all collectively rely on their industry. There has been a lot of talk about following the money. I just make the point that we do have robust regulations in place, as my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee [Sir Robert Neill] said earlier.

Sir Robert Buckland: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know that he is working very hard on these issues. He is right to talk about suspicious activity reports. The problem with them is that, for far too long, we have prioritised quantity over quality. Will he focus on this with his colleagues at the Home Office to make sure that we make this a meaningful process? May I gently say to him that the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is germane? It is a clear SLAPP. If somebody is trying to do the right thing in the public interest, and, in effect, a litigation stops that, then that is a classic SLAPP and something that we should all be concerned about.