UK ministers have proposed scores of amendments to a contentious spying bill to secure its passage through parliament, including changes to a planned register of people working for foreign organisations.
The government has also put forward changes to curb the national security bill’s potentially stifling effect on media freedom.
Security minister Tom Tugendhat insisted the bill would play a “critical” role in keeping the UK safe from “hostile foreign activity” but said the changes would improve the legislation.
“These amendments will focus the bill on the most serious threats we face,” he said.
The legislation is intended to update the UK’s laws on espionage, some of which are more than 100 years old, to cope with threats such as cyber attacks and other new forms of state-backed hostile action.
However, it was unclear on Thursday whether the proposed changes would avert a government defeat on the legislation. It was passed by the House of Commons and is making its way through the House of Lords, where members on all sides have expressed objections to it.
Lord Jonathan Marks, a barrister and Liberal Democrat peer who has been seeking changes to the legislation, said the amendments had gone “a long way” to allaying his concerns.
But he said aspects of the changes, including the government’s failure to introduce a “public interest defence” for some offences, left “a lot to argue about”.
Marks has proposed, with support from peers of all parties, to allow people charged with some of the offences to argue they are not guilty because their disclosures were in the public interest.
Bodies representing some foreign businesses have expressed concern, however, that the planned Foreign Influence Registration Scheme might deter foreign investment by obliging anyone working on behalf of any foreign entity to register any contact with British politicians or officials.
Government amendments put forward on Thursday will restrict the obligation to register to people who are being instructed by a foreign government to take action intended to influence British politics or policy.
The change is intended to remove from the new law’s scope people working for foreign companies, universities or charities.
Duncan Edwards, head of British American Business, the largest transatlantic corporate membership association, said the amendments were “very encouraging” and appeared to remove “an unnecessary and pointless barrier to discussions with major investors in the UK economy”.
Miles Celic, chief executive of financial services lobby group TheCityUK, said the amendments would go a “very long way” to addressing concerns that companies in the sector had over the threat to their relations with the government. However, he added there might be some unresolved issues, including what would be defined as a state representative.
Other proposed changes seek to ensure the bill avoids criminalising legitimate journalism. The bill as drafted made it a criminal offence to take action that a person knew or “ought reasonably to know” would be useful to a foreign intelligence service. Media organisations had criticised the wording, saying it could criminalise reporters whose work helped a foreign intelligence service without their realising it.
The amendments change the wording to apply to anyone who knew or “having regard to other matters known to them, ought reasonably to know” their actions would be helpful to a foreign intelligence service.
A third set of government amendments dilutes previously sweeping proposals to exempt the UK’s armed forces and intelligence services from prosecution for some offences. The changes are designed to ensure the law will not grant amnesty to rogue soldiers or intelligence officers who acted outside their authority.
A Labour insider in the Lords said he welcomed the government listening to the concerns of the party and others.
“We will scrutinise these amendments closely to ensure they deliver what is needed,” the person said.
The bill is due to return to the Lords on Wednesday.