Amidst the political turmoil and flurry of new legislation this year, you may have missed that the government is rewriting our national security laws.
The aim of the National Security Bill is to give the government new powers to “deter, detect and disrupt” foreign actors who seek to harm the UK. The proposed measures are extensive, but two could have implications for many Bond members, such as those who receive funding from outside the UK or who involve international partners in their UK advocacy.
The first is a ban on the use of leaked information if you are funded by a foreign government or collaborate with them in relation to the use of that information, and the second is the introduction of a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme. As currently drafted, both these provisions could end up capturing many organisations that pose no threat to the interests or security of the UK and are not the focus of this legislation.
Ban on using leaked information if you are funded by a foreign government
First, the bill will make it illegal for organisations that receive funding from a foreign government to use leaked information in a manner that could harm the “safety or interests” of the UK. This is not defined in the legislation, leaving it up to the government of the day to decide. This is broader than the current rules under the Official Secrets Act. It will become a criminal offence carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
This means that if a UK-based organisation receives funding from a foreign government, e.g., from USAID or SIDA, it cannot use leaked information that it either knew, or should have known, was either restricted or ought to have been restricted by the government, in a manner that prejudices the safety or interests of the UK.
Read our National Security Bill parliamentary briefing
This briefing has been developed to help parliamentarians understand the implications of the National Security Bill and the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme on INGOsRead the briefing
For example, a UK-based INGO working on climate change receives funding from USAID to fund its work on climate adaptation in central America. The same organisation is also advocating to improve the UK’s climate policy. A civil servant asks to share unclassified but politically sensitive information with the INGO relating to UK climate policy. If the INGO were to take the information and use it in a way that the government decides prejudices the safety and interests of the UK, it would commit a criminal offence.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for a public interest exception.
Foreign Influence Registration Scheme
The bill also establishes a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), which has a stated aim to deter foreign governments from using covert arrangements, activities and proxies to influence public life in the UK.
Any organisation or individual involved in “political influencing” in the UK, whose activities are “directed by a foreign principal” must register this arrangement within 10 days, or within 3 months if the arrangement is already in place when the scheme comes into effect. Failure to register properly is a criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine or both. Foreign principals themselves are also banned from carrying out this kind of activity without registration.
The definitions are broad, which is concerning.
- “Political influencing” covers any activities seeking to influence public life in the UK, including elections, government decisions or policy, or parliamentary proceedings; it covers traditional lobbying but extends more broadly including even public communications (unless clear they are directed by a foreign principal).
- “Directed by” is left undefined but could include grant agreements or funding relationships that cover political influencing activities.
- A “foreign principal” refers not just to foreign governments but also any organisation incorporated under the laws of a country outside the UK.
This could mean a wide range of advocacy activities undertaken by some INGOs could be captured by the new regulations.
For example, a UK based INGO receives some funding from a US based private foundation to support its campaign on food security in East Africa. It is agreed with the funder that the campaign will involve communicating with MPs as well as civil servants and ministers with the aim of changing government policy. This arrangement would likely need to be registered with FIRS.
Political influencing activities undertaken by “foreign principals” must also be registered. This would mean that if a UK-based INGO were to invite its international partners to meet with MPs or speak at an All Party Parliamentary Group while they are visiting the UK, and the purpose of these meetings was to influence government or parliament, then these activities must be registered. The UK-based INGO may also need to register if it arranges for these activities to be undertaken.
We do not yet know the detail of the process for the regime, so it is difficult to assess the burden this will place on organisations.
It’s hugely important that we improve transparency around political lobbying in the UK. But we have already seen how this can backfire with the Lobbying Act, which regulates campaigning ahead of an election. The government’s own impact assessment of FIRS noted that “there is potential for discouragement of legitimate activity because of the burden of the scheme and how it is implemented” and pointed towards the chilling effect created by the Lobbying Act.
It could also have a damaging impact on civic space globally. As noted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we have seen the establishment of similar schemes in many authoritarian countries with the intent of making it harder for domestic civil society organisations to secure foreign funding.
The bill is still being considered by parliament and is due to be scrutinised by the House of Lords in December. We anticipate that it will become law early next year.
If you are concerned about how the bill will affect your organisation, or its wider impacts, or if you are interested in campaigning to limit the scope of the bill, please contact Bond’s Policy Manager on Civic Space, Rowan Popplewell.