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Prime Minister Told to ‘Defend the UK’s Democracy’ by Leading Security Body, Amid Russian Interference Warning

Rishi Sunak is being warned of Russian interference during this election, from the highest levels. But there is little time to act

Rishi Sunak is being warned of Russian interference. But there is little time to act. Photomontage: Alamy

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Parliament’s leading cross-party security committee has set out its fears over “threats and risks to our democracy” in the run-up to the 4 July election – as a swathe of loopholes allowing foreign interference remain unclosed. 

Last year the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre said that the UK Government “is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general elections”, and that we could “expect to see the integrity of our systems tested again” during this election year. 

The National Security Strategy Joint Committee’s inquiry into defending democracy was launched in February to examine UK preparedness for a national election in a year when record numbers of people, including in Europe, the UK, the USA, and India, go to the polls. 

The cross-party committee made up of peers and MPs says the UK Government should be prepared for the possibility of foreign interference during the upcoming General Election. 

It has taken the decision to write and publish this letter because “it is not clear if members of the public fully understand how these threats will manifest and what this means for the UK, its democracy and for them as individuals.”  

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The letter warns of cyber-attacks on UK institutions, for example public bodies or Parliament, with the aim of destabilising democracy, as well as the use of hacking and targeting of candidates to expose personal information or blackmail them. And it warns of the spread of AI-generated deepfakes imitating public figures and sowing doubt, division and “chaos where there are already domestic divides” on contested issues. 

In February, during his re-election campaign, London mayor Sadiq Khan was targeted by a deepfake audio file which appeared to show him making inflammatory remarks about Armistice Day. The Met Police decided a crime had not been committed, as there is little legislation banning political deepfakes designed to warp elections. 

An extract from the letter from Dame Margaret Beckett MP

The Committee also notes: “The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, established under the National Security Act 2023, is expected to come into force in 2024, but the exact timing is not clear.” The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme is supposed to enable transparency of foreign influence in UK politics, and “provide greater assurance around the activities of certain foreign powers or entities that may pose a risk to the UK’s safety and interests” by making foreign agents register. 

Under the Online Safety Act 2023, Ofcom – the regulatory authority for online safety – is also responsible for setting up an Advisory Committee on mis- and disinformation. 

Byline Times needs your help to investigate disinformation and electoral exclusion as we head towards the 2024 General Election.

We’re asking for your help to keep track of dodgy campaigning this election, so if you spot anything that bears investigation, please email us at votewatch24@bylinetimes.com.

But the Joint Committee slams the Government for delays: “Despite commitments made by a Minister in October 2023 to support Ofcom in establishing this committee more quickly, we learnt on 18 March 2024 – nearly five months later – that this committee will be put together “probably towards the end of the year.”” That timeline will not inevitably be delayed by the election. 

Ofcom is also tasked with ensuring that online service providers are effectively mitigating and managing the risks from foreign interference. “However, we heard on 18 March that Ofcom is still considering how to bring this foreign interference offence into force for social media companies after closing their consultation on 23 February 2024,” Dame Margaret Beckett MP, the security committee chair, adds in her letter. 

The letter concludes: “Despite public Government statements on the threat from hostile foreign actors such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, it is not clear if members of the public fully understand how these threats will manifest and what this means for the UK, its democracy and for them as individuals…

“The forthcoming General Election is a crucial test of that spirit and of the Government’s preparations to safeguard the electoral processes that epitomise our democratic ideals. We therefore call on you as Prime Minister to use the last few days of this Parliament to bring Government, political parties, and electoral and security agencies together to identify any last actions that can be taken collectively in the national interest.”

The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy scrutinises the structures for Government decision-making on national security, particularly the role of the National Security Council and the National Security Adviser. Committees will be reformed after the General Election. Dame Margaret Beckett is Chair of JCNSS until Parliament dissolves for the election on 30 May. 

A Government spokesperson told Byline Times:

“Security is paramount and we are well prepared to ensure the integrity of the election with robust systems in place to protect against interference.

“That is why we set up the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which brings together all levels of government. Since its formation, the taskforce has established a new election security unit, rolled out an enhanced cyber security offer for MPs and peers, and announced £31million to protect our democratic processes and institutions.

“The National Security Act has additionally delivered a range of measures to strengthen the UK’s efforts to detect, deter and disrupt state threats.”

Byline Times is relaunching our VoteWatch project to monitor disinformation, dodgy campaigning and dark money during the General Election. Get in touch if you have a tip off or any insights: votewatch24@bylinetimes.com

If you have a political story or tip-off, email josiah@bylinetimes.com.


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