There is nothing like a walk around parliament to leave you melancholy. The once dynamic British state, which still celebrates itself in these Gothic halls and corridors with countless statues and portraits of Victorian derring-do, is now defined by paralysis. Build our way out of a housing crisis through the trusty British solution of new terraces? That’s too difficult, sorry. Ban the rampaging American bully XL, like we have done countless times before, with so many other dangerous dogs? Oh that’s probably too difficult, too.
The extended metaphor for Britain that is the Palace of Westminster — literally cracking up in front of your eyes, with daily falling lintels and exploding drains — is almost too on the nose for a country that has squandered its inheritance by failing to face up to its mounting problems until it is too late. And just like Britain fails to take security seriously, so too does parliament with its Chinese spies.
Westminster is still reeling from the arrest of the 28-year-old Conservative parliamentary researcher accused of spying for China. Not only was he the director of the China Research Group, a powerful policy group that has led Tory MPs calling for a tougher approach towards Beijing, but he was employed as a researcher by the head of the foreign affairs committee, the Conservative MP Alicia Kearns. It is easy to point fingers but that would be a mistake. Because if something like this happens it is the system that has failed — and not the targeted members of parliament. What should be shocking is that this was not out of the blue. MI6 has been warning for years that Chinese spying on a gigantic scale was now one of the leading threats to Britain. And despite this — not to mention our deep geopolitical confrontation with Russia — none of the most basic steps were taken to secure parliament against spies and foreign influence. This is a whole of government failure to prioritise.
Britain has squandered its inheritance by failing to face up to its mounting problems until it is too late
This is the real scandal and why the country is now so rundown and at risk. Just like so many other problems, the Government seemed content to do too little too late. Despite it being abundantly clear that China was trying to infiltrate and interfere in British politics and society the intelligence services were lazily insisting as late as 2019 that “interference” as opposed to “espionage” was not their job.
Despite years of warning, it was only this summer that parliament passed a new National Security Act. And worse still its key provisions — a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, in which people will have to register if they are working on behalf of a foreign state, and the power to prosecute an individual for being or helping an undeclared spy — are not yet operational.
No wonder China has been able to run spies so easily in parliament. Not only did Britain lack basic screening provisions but basic laws to do anything about them. Suspicious money has been sloshing about parliament for years. Despite the Speakers of both the Lords and Commons warning that All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), forums in which MPs gather to discuss countries, campaigns and causes, are being used as authoritarian influence operations — no action has been taken to tackle them beyond proposals. Shockingly two APPGs have secretariats funded by a foreign government and the funding of five of them was simply unknown.
Despite parliament’s own standards committee having warned that APPGs will be the “next great parliamentary scandal” its recommendations — a ban on them accepting foreign funding and a review of parliamentary pass holders — are not acted upon. Worse, nobody is suggesting putting a stop to the scandal of such APPGs funding lavish foreign trips to authoritarian states where MPs have been known to be influenced. That would be too difficult.
But this isn’t the only open secret in Westminster. It is common knowledge that the security vetting system — which could have caught the alleged Chinese spy — has been known for years to be a complete mess. Both too small, too slow and not remotely up to scratch. Like so much of the services of the British state, its crucial waiting list is more than a year long and it is failing at its job through lack of investment and the false economy of cost cutting. We cannot go on like this. Just as we need to bite the bullet and invest in renovating the Palace of Westminster to stop bits of it starting to collapse — we urgently need to invest in securing our political system from foreign interference. Because there are going to be more, not fewer, undeclared agents in the tough years ahead.
Ben Judah is a columnist and author