China was last night accused of carrying out a ‘hostile act’ in the heart of Westminster after a parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying.
As diplomatic relations plunged to a new low, Rishi Sunak confronted China’s premier over his country’s ‘unacceptable’ interference in British democracy.
And there were calls for the Government to ban Beijing from attending the UK’s world-first summit on artificial intelligence this autumn in response.
In what is alleged to be one of the most serious security breaches involving a hostile state at Westminster, the suspect has links to several senior Tory MPs, including security minister Tom Tugendhat and foreign affairs committee chairman Alicia Kearns, a vocal China critic.
The revelation sparked fury yesterday as it continued a pattern of behaviour by Beijing that has become increasingly concerning to the UK.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith has been sanctioned by Beijing after condemning human rights abuses
Parliament’s spy agency watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned in July that Beijing was targeting the UK ‘prolifically and aggressively’ (Pictured: Chinese President Xi Jinping)
MPs said it represented an ‘escalation’ in hostilities, and urged ministers to take the threat posed by China seriously, while others called for a full review of all those who hold parliamentary passes.
The researcher was in a key role in Parliament for a year, having been promoted from a more junior position. MPs were said to be furious that they were left in the dark about his arrest in March.
He worked with MPs – some of whom are privy to highly sensitive information – on international policy for several years, and has spent time living and working in China.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith – who has been sanctioned by Beijing after condemning human rights abuses – told the Mail that ‘China does not give a damn about our policy of “robust pragmatism”’ and sees Britain as a ‘soft option’.
He branded the alleged spying a ‘hostile act’, adding: ‘They have infiltrated most of our institutions now. This is another example of how they target us in Parliament.’
Bob Seely, a Tory member of the foreign affairs committee, said: ‘What we are not grasping is the hostility of the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party.’
He also urged ministers to take the threat from China ‘seriously’, adding: ‘China does not want to live in harmony with the Western world, but it wants to be in a dominant position over it.
The Prime Minister raised his concerns with Chinese counterpart Li Qiang at the end of the G20 summit in India yesterday
‘That doesn’t mean we wag a finger at them… it means we have a sensible, nuanced relationship but one where we are much more robust about protecting our interests and understanding our vulnerabilities and what that means in the future.’
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence committee, said: ‘We should assume this not an isolated incident – but potentially part of a wider, long-term, Chinese strategy to infiltrate Parliament.’
Parliament’s spy agency watchdog, the Intelligence and Security Committee, warned in July that Beijing was targeting the UK ‘prolifically and aggressively’.
Last year, MI5 issued a rare security alert, warning MPs that a suspected spy, Christine Lee, had engaged in ‘political interference activities’ on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
‘Game-changing’ new law
Spies working for hostile states increasingly face the risk of prosecution under a new law hailed by the head of MI5 as ‘game-changing’.
Following the introduction of the National Security Act in July, police and MI5 are expecting to bring more espionage prosecutions in the coming year.
MI5 director general Ken McCallum said: ‘We face state adversaries who operate at scale and who are not squeamish about the tactics they deploy to target people and businesses in the UK. The National Security Act is a game-changing update to our powers. We now have a modern set of laws to tackle today’s threats.’
Espionage was a criminal offence, but the relevant law in the Official Secrets Act was more than 100 years old. In practice, the outdated law made it impossible to prosecute foreign spies. The National Security Act has made it an offence to assist or work covertly for a foreign intelligence service.
And in July it was alleged China sent an agent posing as a tourist to infiltrate a Commons briefing by Hong Kong dissidents, trying to access an invitation-only committee room before being turned away.
The parliamentary researcher, in his late 20s, was arrested along with another man, in his 30s, by officers on March 13 on suspicion of offences under section one of the Official Secrets Act 1911. They were both released on bail and have not been charged.
Inquiries are being conducted by Scotland Yard’s counter-terror command.
Last night the suspected spy was not at his registered address, believed to be his parents’ home, in a leafy suburb of Edinburgh. A neighbour, who did not want to be named, said: ‘He did Chinese at university. He did a further Chinese course in London.’
They added the suspect had then gone on to live in China to teach English. The neighbour said: ‘He’s a lovely big lad, he’s a nice big fella, he’s fairly pleasant.’
Yesterday there was little sign of activity at the address other than the curtains being drawn after a woman, who claimed to be a house sitter looking after the property, arrived carrying a bouquet of flowers.
A neighbour said they thought the property had been vacated last week.
The Prime Minister raised his concerns with Chinese counterpart Li Qiang at the end of the G20 summit in India yesterday.
The Chinese PM is understood to have responded by saying the two leaders obviously have ‘differences in opinion’ during the conversation, which also touched on Ukraine and trade.
Mr Sunak said he raised his ‘very strong concerns about any interference in our parliamentary democracy, which is obviously unacceptable’.
He added: ‘There’s no point carping from the sidelines – I’d rather be in there directly expressing my concerns, and that’s what I did today.’
Labour business spokesman Jonathan Reynolds said the government policy of not describing China as a threat was ‘naive’, but he argued that economic ties with Beijing could bring benefits.’
Senior Tory MP Caroline Nokes called for a review of Parliament’s pass-holders.
Downing Street and the House of Commons both declined to comment, citing their policies on security matters.