Intelligence and Security Committee

Image caption

Chair of the committee Julian Lewis (centre) with members Kevan Jones and Stuart Hosie

The UK government is “playing catch-up” when it comes to tackling Russian interference in elections, says the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The ISC’s long-awaited report said Russian influence in the UK was “the new normal” and called for “immediate action” to help tackle the threat.

But the committee said the government “actively avoided” looking for interference during the EU referendum.

It also said there was “no reason” for the report’s publication to be delayed.

Downing Street was accused of holding back the committee’s report ahead of December’s UK election – which it has denied.

But speaking at a press conference to launch the report, one of the ISC’s committee members, Kevan Jones, criticised the prime minister for not signing it off sooner, saying there was “no reason for delay”.

The ISC’s inquiry covers a number of topics, including disinformation campaigns, cyber tactics and Russian expatriates in the UK – saying the UK was a “top target” for the state.

But much of the “highly sensitive” detail will not be published due to fears Russia could use the evidence to threaten the UK.

The report said the UK was “clearly a target” for disinformation campaigns around its elections, but the issue was described as a “hot potato” – with no one organisation taking a lead to tackle it.

ISC committee member Stewart Hosie said no-one in Government wanted to touch the issue of Russian interference with a “10-foot pole” and no-one knew if Russia had tried to interfere with the 2016 EU referendum “because they did not want to know”.

Mr Hosie told reporters: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“This is in stark contrast to the US response to reported interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment.”

The report also said there had been “credible open source commentary” suggesting Russian tried to influence the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Committee member Mr Jones said the government had “let us down” by not looking into these accounts.

Analysis by Gordon Corera, BBC Security Correspondent

This report may not be what some expected, but it is still damning.

Many expected the committee to have answered the question of whether there was interference in political events like Brexit.

Instead, it says the problem was the government and the spy agencies have failed to have even look at this question.

British intelligence has, at least in recent years, been reluctant to get involved in anything that looks “political” and treated the issue of trying to protect democracy like a “hot potato”.

But ultimately it’s the government that the committee blames.

More broadly, there are serious questions about the failure of the UK to confront the spread of Russian money and influence over a long period.

And there is an urgent call for new legislation to deal with an ongoing challenge.

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