New legislation aimed at cracking down on foreign spying and interference are being introduced by Home Secretary Priti Patel today.
The proposals aim to give law enforcement and intelligence agencies the tools to tackle threats such as the use of cyber attacks, drones, and “interference in our economy and democracy”.
MI5 director-general Ken McCallum said Britain was “in a contest with states who are trying to undermine our national security and democratic institutions”.
The measures are part of the government’s legislative programme announced this week.
Ministers had previously published a consultation on legislation “to counter state threats” following last year’s Queen’s Speech – which prompted concern from Amnesty International that journalists printing “undesirable leaks” could be criminalised.
Since then, revelations about a Chinese government agent working in parliament, as well as renewed concern about Russian activities after the invasion of Ukraine, have intensified fears about foreign interference.
The government said the new bill would modernise counter-espionage rules dating back to the First World War and “address the evolving threat to our national security”.
It will for the first time make it an offence to be an undeclared foreign spy in the UK and introduce a new foreign interference offence “to disrupt illegitimate influence activity done for, or on behalf of” another country.
The Home Office said a new sabotage offence would provide greater scope to respond to threats such as drones and cyber attacks to sites, data and infrastructure deemed critical to the UK’s safety or interests.
The bill will also criminalise acts committed in preparation for state threats – with the aim of disrupting them before serious damage is done and allowing courts to hand down significantly longer sentences for “foreign state backed crimes”, the government said.
Also among the proposals will be a scheme forcing people who have “certain arrangements” with other countries’ governments to sign up to a “foreign influence registration scheme”.
Another, potentially controversial, measure is the introduction of “state threat prevention and investigation measures” to be used against people who cannot be prosecuted “as a last resort”.
Aside from the measures relating to foreign states, the bill includes a plan to restrict the access of convicted terrorists to civil legal legal aid, to prevent it being given to those “who could use it to support terror”.
Ms Patel said: “The threat of hostile activity from states targeting our democracy, economy and the values we hold dear is real and ever-evolving – which is why the modernising measures included in the National Security Bill are so essential.”
Mr McCallum, the MI5 boss, said: “Laws designed to deal with wartime espionage have not kept pace with the threats MI5 is now tackling.
“State actors are stealing not only national security secrets, but our cutting-edge science, research and technology. They are attempting to interfere covertly with our democracy, economy and society. We see coercion and, at the extreme, direct threats to life.”