Earlier in the year, we drew attention to the proposed Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (the 'FIRS') in the National Security Bill. As initially framed, the FIRS would have resulted in a number of UK and non-UK businesses being required to register with the Secretary of State where they communicate with law makers and Government officials as part of their day-to-day business.
However, following criticism of the scheme, the Government introduced amendments at the report stage in the House of Lords. These have now been accepted by MPs and a new, narrower, version of the FIRS will become law when the Bill receives royal assent.
In this article, we provide an update on the amendments to the FIRS.
What was the original scope of the FIRS?
The FIRS is split into two tiers - described by the Government in guidance as the 'political influence tier' and the 'enhanced tier'.
As originally conceived, with some exceptions, the political influence tier would have applied to persons in the UK that enter into particular agreements and arrangements with:
- foreign powers;
- companies incorporated outside the UK or the Republic of Ireland; and
- unincorporated associations formed under the law of a country or territory other than the UK or the Republic of Ireland.
Registration would have been required where a person (in the UK or abroad) has an 'agreement or arrangement' to undertake 'political influence activities' in the UK at the behest of a foreign principal, or where a foreign principal (apart from a foreign power) undertakes political influence activities in the UK itself.
A political influence activity was defined as:
- making any communication with a list of specified persons (including ministers, MPs, Lords, members of devolved parliaments, employees of the previous categories, mayors (but not councillors in local government), members of the executive of political parties, election candidates, senior civil servants and police and crime commissioners);
- making public communications (except where it is clear that the communication is made by or at the direction of the non-UK body); or
- distributing money, goods or services to UK persons.
for the purpose of influencing –
- the conduct of an election or referendum,
- a government decision,
- Parliamentary proceedings in the UK or devolved legislature,
- the proceedings of a political party, or
- an MP or Lord, or member of a devolved legislature.
Most of these concepts are not defined with the result that a wide range of innocuous activities would have been caught. In our previous article, we gave a number of examples including relevant arrangements between a non-UK parent company and a UK subsidiary, buying an MP lunch to build general goodwill as opposed to trying to influence a particular policy, and presenting at a conference on a policy issue at which a member of an MP's staff was in the audience.
What has changed?
Following criticism from a range of stakeholders in business, the charity sector and academia, the Government introduced a number of amendments to the FIRS.
Firstly, the entities with whom a person has an agreement or arrangement requiring registration has been narrowed. Now only agreements or arrangements with foreign powers need to be registered. This means that a person in the UK does not need to register where they enter into an agreement or arrangement with a company to undertake influencing activity – even if that company is owned by a foreign power.
Secondly, some relatively minor amendments have been made to the definition of a 'political influence activity'. For example, the original reference to influencing 'the conduct of an election or referendum' in the UK has now been changed to simply refer to 'an election or referendum' in the UK. This means that, for example, seeking to influence the substantive result through public communications will now be caught, as well as trying to influence the election process itself.
In addition, the reference to influencing the proceedings of Parliament or the devolved legislatures has been removed as it was considered that this was already captured by references to influencing members of those legislatures.
The main change has therefore been to narrow the scope of the FIRS to requiring registration only of agreements or arrangements of foreign powers as opposed to any other non-UK entity.
The enhanced tier
No substantial amendments have been made to the provisions setting out the 'enhanced tier' under which a person (P) must register an agreement or arrangement with a foreign power, or person, specified by the Secretary of State under which P will carry out or arrange to be carried out 'relevant activities' in the UK.
Relevant activities will mean those specified in subordinate legislation or, otherwise, all activities.
Likewise, a person specified by the Secretary of State may not carry out 'relevant activities' in the UK without registration.
The changes to the political influence tier mean that there is now less difference between it and the enhanced tier. Both now relate to arrangements and agreements with foreign powers. However:
- under the enhanced tier the Government can specify persons in addition to foreign powers with whom arrangements and agreements must be registered;
- whereas 'political influence activities' are defined on the face of the Bill, registerable activities under the enhanced tier will be specified in subordinate legislation or, if none is passed, will mean any activities. It seems that the Government is content for the enhanced tier to be widely cast to catch all activities undertaken for a foreign power or specified person, but will consider subordinate legislation in the future if needed to address the risk posed by particular powers or persons.
Few amendments have been made to the offences in relation to the obligations above. Those offences still include:
- carrying out activities without the required registration;
- providing false, inaccurate or misleading information in a registration or in response to a formal request from the Secretary of State;
- carrying out registerable activities where the person knows false, inaccurate or misleading information has been provided in a registration or in response to a formal request from the Secretary of State; and
- failing to comply with a request by the Secretary of State for information.
However, provisions have been added to ensure that offences catch, not just the person who entered into the relevant agreement or arrangement, but also any other person who carries out or arranges activities under that arrangement where it has not been registered.
The Bill is currently going through the Parliamentary process known as 'ping-pong' during which MPs consider amendments made by the Lords and send those that they disagree with back to the Lords for reconsideration.
Although MPs have disagreed with some of the amendments proposed by the Lords, they have agreed to the amendments to the FIRS as set out above. This means that the scheme is now settled and will become law in this form.
As such, businesses no longer need to worry about the scheme unless they are undertaking relevant activity under agreements or arrangements with foreign powers directly. This will cause relief to a wide range of businesses, charities and academics whose activities would have been caught by the previous incarnation of the scheme.
For queries about this article, or for more information regarding the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme, or other UK lobbying laws, please contact Kieran Laird or visit our Public Law and Regulation page for more on the services our expert team offer.