Alerts about foreign interference in British politics will become more common in the future, the home secretary has said.
Delivering a statement to MPs in the Commons, Priti Patel said the government would introduce new legislation to give the security services and agencies the “tools they need to disrupt the full range of state threats”.
“We can expect to see these kinds of alerts become more commonplace as a result of the work of our world class intelligence agencies who have adapted to counter these new and emerging threats,” the home secretary said.
“We are developing new national security legislation to make it even harder for a malign state to conduct such activities.
“We are also taking further steps to protect the integrity of our democracy, tackling electoral fraud and preventing foreign interreference in elections, with the Elections Bill.”
She was speaking after it was revealed last week that MI5 has warned that a Chinese government agent has been working in parliament “to subvert the processes”.
A letter was sent to MPs by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who said MI5 warned him a woman called Christine Lee has been “engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, engaging with members here at parliament”.
MI5 sent out an “interference alert” warning Ms Lee has “facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China… done covertly to mask the origins of the payments”.
China has denied the allegations, saying it had “no need” to “buy influence” in any foreign parliament.
Ms Patel said Ms Lee’s connections with MPs were designed to make the UK’s political landscape “more favourable” to Beijing’s interests.
“In this case, the aim was to make the UK political landscape more favourable to the Chinese authorities’ agenda and to challenge those… who raise concerns about the Chinese authorities’ activities on very pressing issues such as human rights,” she said.
“I, like all members across this House, was utterly appalled that an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party for a number of years targeted members of this Parliament.”
She added that the Chinese agent also targeted “aspiring” members of parliament.
Responding to the home secretary’s statement, Labour’s Yvette Cooper said the party condemns “in the strongest terms the attempts by China to interfere in Britain’s democratic process”.
The shadow home secretary urged Ms Patel to assure the Commons “that she is not complacent about threats to our national security and to our democracy as well”.
The home secretary said in response that there is “no complacency” in the government on the matter.
Labour MP named as parliamentarian who accepted donations from Lee
Labour frontbencher and former minister Barry Gardiner was named as an MP who accepted large donations from the Chinese woman, and he confirmed her son was working for him but resigned on Friday.
The MPs’ register of interests shows Ms Lee has made more than £700,000 in donations to parliamentarians, much of that to Mr Gardiner.
He told Sky News he has been liaising with MI5 “for a number of years” about Ms Lee “and they have always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office”.
Mr Gardiner added: “Steps were taken to ensure she had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers.
“They are also aware that I have not benefitted personally from those donations in any way. She ceased funding any workers in my office in June 2020.”
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Mr Gardiner asked if the measures announced by the home secretary would “help MPs to get extra support when making the required checks about the true source of any donations”.
He added: “She will know the security services told me their alert was based on specific intelligence of illegal funding which did not relate to the donations that paid for my office staff, those ceased in 2020.
“So is she able to tell the House what steps she is taking to ascertain where the tainted money ended up?”
Ms Patel said she was sure that the Labour MP would continue to cooperate with the intelligence and security services on the matter.
She added: “It is a fact that across this House we will absolutely come together to do everything possible in terms of protecting the integrity of our democracy and all honourable members from such malign interference and threats.”