Hostile state actors – spies, assassins or hackers directed by the government of another country – are to be targeted by refreshed espionage and treason laws, the home secretary has announced.
In a speech to security officials in central London, Sajid Javid revealed plans to publish a new espionage bill to tackle increased hostile state activity from countries including but not limited to Russia.
Javid said officials would also examine treason laws to see whether the legislation could be updated to include British nationals who operate on behalf of a hostile nation.
One measure under consideration is to introduce a “foreign agent registration requirement”, similar to legislation in the US, under which agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” disclose their relationship with the foreign government as well as information about related activities and finances. In the past, the legislation has allowed the US to expel key figures from the country in response to alleged hostile state activity.
Javid said: “We have to ensure that we have the necessary powers to meet current and evolving threats to the UK, both domestically and overseas.
“Getting this right and having the right powers and resources in place for countering hostile states must be a post-Brexit priority. So, I can announce today that we are preparing the way for an espionage bill.
“This will bring together new and modernised powers, giving our security services the legal authority they need to tackle this threat.
“The areas this work will consider includes whether we follow allies in adopting a form of foreign agent registration and how we update our Official Secrets Acts for the 21st century.”
He added: “I have also asked my officials to consider the case for updating treason laws.
“Our definition of terrorism is probably broad enough to cover those who betray our country by supporting terror abroad.
“But if updating the old offence of treason would help us to counter hostile state activity, then there is merit in considering that too.”
Javid said the need to refresh the legislation evolved from discussions following the Salisbury poisoning attack last year, which the UK government alleges was directed by the Russian state.
Army officers in forensic suits remove a bench in Salisbury after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, came into contact with a deadly nerve agent called novichok in March 2018. Both survived the attack but four months later, a bottle of novichok was found in a bin in Salisbury, a discovery that ultimately led to the death of the British national Dawn Sturgess, who sprayed the chemical on her wrists, believing it was perfume.
The suspects – Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin – were identified as Russian intelligence officers.
But answering questions from journalists after the speech, Javid said it was “not just Russia” that posed a threat to UK security.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which passed into law last month, included new powers to investigate hostile state activity at the border.
Using the power, the police or designated immigration or customs officers will be able to stop, question, search and detain an individual at a port, an airport or a border area to determine whether he or she is, or has been, engaged in hostile activity.
But Javid said there were still gaps in the legislation.
In the speech, the home secretary said he shared concerns from intelligence partners – including the US and Australia – over telecommunications infrastructure and would take them into account as the government makes a final decision on 5G.
The comments follow warnings about the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, its role in developing 5G infrastructure in the UK and other countries, and the influence the Chinese state has on its operations.
Javid’s speech was wide-ranging, touching on the impact of no-deal Brexit scenarios on security, as well as unveiling a new independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Jonathan Hall QC. The role has been vacant since November.
He also revealed how he intends to use a controversial new power, which makes it a criminal offence to enter or remain in a “designated area” overseas.
Idlib in Syria’s rebel-held north-west, where there has been devastating fighting in the past eight years, as well as the country’s north-east, a region controlled by Kurdish forces but once overrun by Islamic State militants, are to be targeted by the measure.
A person convicted of entering or remaining in these areas, once designated, could face a prison term of up to 10 years, a fine, or both. The power was written into the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act.
Javid said: “I’ve asked my officials to work closely with the police and intelligence agencies to urgently review the case for exercising this power in relation to Syria, with a particular focus on Idlib and the north-east. So anyone who is in these areas without a legitimate reason should be on notice.”
Isis lost its final stronghold in Syria in March after a push by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
A person already in a designated area at the time of designation will not commit an offence if they leave the area within one month of such an order being made.
Javid said there may be a need to apply the power to parts of west Africa, where there has been a resurgence in al-Qaida affiliates as well as an ongoing battle with the terror group Boko Haram, adding that the use of the tactic would not hamper humanitarian efforts in the region.