UK spy agencies took their “eye off the ball” over Russian interference and the government “badly underestimated” the threat, a watchdog has said.
A long-awaited report from parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) found Vladimir Putin’s administration has been engaged in “hostile foreign interference”.
It criticised the “illogical” approach by MI5 not to fully investigate how much Moscow tried to influence the Brexit referendum because of an “extreme caution” of being seen to interfere in “democratic processes”.
Ministers “did not want to know” and “actively avoided looking for evidence”, one of the committee members, MP Stewart Hosie, added in a news conference.
The report also called the Official Secrets Act “out of date”, urging the government to pass new laws to curb espionage and “illicit financial dealings” by some of the “Russian elite”.
“In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” the document released on Tuesday said.
“This level of integration… means that any measures now being taken by the government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
The 47-page report described claims of Russia attempting to meddle in the 2014 Scottish independence vote as “credible” in “potentially the first post-Soviet Russian interference in a Western democratic process”.
But it said it was only after a leak of emails in the run up to the US presidential election in 2016 that the UK “belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area”.
And it warned members of the House of Lords with “business interests linked to Russia” that the Kremlin might try to “exploit them”.
Particular concern was raised that the responsibility for defending democracy in the UK is treated like a “hot potato”, with “no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead”.
Responding to the report, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “We will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from such hostile state activity.”
In its full response, the government said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.”
It added UK spy agencies make “regular assessments” of threats to interfere in votes and so “given this long-standing approach, a retrospective assessment” of the Brexit referendum “is not necessary”.
Labour said the finding ministers “underestimated the response required to Russia” means it is “imperative we learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made”.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy tweeted the government should “study the conclusions of the report carefully and take the necessary steps to keep our country safe”.
The ISC report has long been due for publication.
The government was accused of sitting on it, after the committee’s last chair said he provided Downing Street with the final copy in October 2019 – and that the normal redaction process takes ten days.
But Boris Johnson did not publish it before the last election, meaning committee members lost their roles and the government took until last week to nominate the Conservative members.
The prime minister then sacked the new chair, Dr Julian Lewis, from the Tory parliamentary party for contesting the position against the government’s nominee, Chris Grayling.