By Ben Hatton and Martina Bet
Press Association – June 26, 2023
Proposed reforms intended to tackle foreign interference in elections have been voted down by the House of Commons. A Lords amendment to the National Security Bill would have introduced new transparency measures on UK-registered political parties, forcing them to identify donations made directly or indirectly from a "foreign power''.
The Government said accepting a donation from a foreign power is already against the law. MPs voted 289 to 199, majority 90, to strip the Lords' suggestion from the Bill.
The Conservative chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) Sir Julian Lewis said:
"By refusing to accept the need to update the law, the Government is rejecting the non-partisan conclusions of both Parliament and the Electoral Commission.
It's inexplicably rejecting the opportunity significantly to improve the transparency and accountability of our political system by requiring political parties to take modest but important steps to identify and disclose donations received from foreign sources and states.
It claims to oppose this amendment on the basis that the existing protections within the electoral law are sufficient, that the amendment wouldn't work in practice and that it would place an undue burden on grassroots political organisations.
Almost everyone else disagrees."
Sir Julian also warned that parliamentary oversight of the Government's intelligence and security activity is being eroded by a refusal to update his committee's remit. He said there had been a "repeated refusal" by the Government to update the ISC's memorandum of understanding (MOU), which he said was needed
"in order to ensure that we maintain the power to scrutinise effectively all intelligence and security activity taking place across Government''.
He told the Commons:
"Unfortunately, all our efforts from 2021 onwards to secure the necessary changes have relentlessly been blocked.
The issue ought not to be controversial, and the committee has been baffled and exasperated by the Government's negative attitude.
We do not know precisely whom in Government are seeking to erode proper parliamentary oversight, nor what it is they are trying to hide, but behaviour of this sort only fuels conspiracy theories.'"
Security minister Tom Tugendhat, addressing the amendment on foreign donations, said:
"Government is very much alive to the risk presented by foreign interference, and I'm pleased that we have already taken action to address this."
Explaining the Government's opposition, he said:
"Any person accepting a donation from a foreign power whether made directly or indirectly is already breaking the law.
As such, the results of this amendment would be for political parties to submit a blank return to the Electoral Commission once a year, as I'm sure my honourable friends agree, this will do little to improve transparency or enhance our electoral security."
He also argued the amendment would do
"nothing to enhance the actual ability of political parties to investigate donations''
and could also be
"disproportionately burdensome for smaller political parties, disincentivising them from accepting donation and in turn harming grassroots democracy''.
Addressing a Lords amendment aimed at mandating a review of the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Mr Tugendhat said:
"We do not believe that primary legislation is an appropriate mechanism for making amendments to the MOU. However, we recognise the strength of feeling on the issue and in the spirit of compromise have tabled an amendment today in lieu of the amendment made in the other place.
The Government's amendment achieves similar results and will create a duty on the Prime Minister and the Intelligence and Security Committee to progress a review of the MOU within six months of this provision coming into force."