The case of suspected Chinese spy Christine Lee targeting MPs is not a “one-off” and such threats are increasing, security sources have warned.
Attempts by foreign states to interfere with British politics are feared to be a growing problem and one which is a huge danger to democratic institutions and values.
Earlier this year, MI5 issued a rare security alert, telling MPs that Ms Lee, a prominent London-based solicitor, had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
The comments came as Ken McCallum, the boss of the security service, described the UK as being in a “contest” with states trying to undermine national security and interfere with democracy, as he welcomed plans to overhaul espionage laws.
Describing the problem as an “insidious” threat and a “really significant challenge”, security sources said they would not see Ms Lee’s as a “one-off case”, adding: “We are seeing that manifesting elsewhere and we are prepared to see much more of that in the future.”
Whitehall officials believe powers put forward in the National Security Bill, introduced to Parliament on Wednesday, could help tackle similar cases in future.
When MI5 circulated the warning about Ms Lee in January, it emerged that senior Labour MP Barry Gardiner had previously received more than £500,000 from her to pay for researchers in his office. But at the time he told the Commons he had been assured the alert did not relate to those donations.
Director-general Mr McCallum said it “must be right” that Parliament looks at modernising powers available to the security service.
While espionage is as “old as the hills, the way in which it comes at us is changing”, Whitehall officials said.
Discussing the rise in threats from other hostile states, officials added that the UK is “regarded as one of a leading pack of unfriendly nations towards Russia, so we are expecting to see heightened activity.”
Particularly, grave concerns remain over the Russian regime being “prepared to kill on UK soil”.
As well as reforming existing outdated elements of laws like parts of the Official Secrets Act, the proposals will create new offences including for acts of sabotage and foreign interference and make it easier to disrupt perpetrators preparing to carry out such crimes “before serious damage is done”.
Courts will also be given greater powers to hand down longer sentences for foreign-state backed crimes.
It is understood very few prosecutions take place under current espionage laws but it is hoped this will increase if the new measures are adopted, as well as acting as a deterrent.
Where prosecutions are not realistic, Asbo-style restrictions on movements and travel, and where suspects can live and work, called State Threat Prevention and Investigation Measures (Stpims) could be used as a “last resort”.
These are similar to orders placed on a small number of terror suspects known as Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims), where the person in question is monitored by the police and MI5 and any breach of the restrictions is treated as a criminal offence.