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Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “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.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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Politics

Covid-19 restriction relaxations in Wales brought forward

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will be accelerating elements of its programme to relax Covid-19 restrictions as cases of new infections continue to fall across Wales, the First Minister today announced.

People will be able to form an extended household, visit the gym or take part in organised outdoor activities a week earlier than planned, as the public health situation – and vaccination rates – continue to improve.

The First Minister last week set out a detailed timetable for moving Wales firmly into alert level three. But some of these measures will now be introduced sooner than planned as cases have fallen markedly from 37 cases per 100,000 people to fewer than 21 per 100,000 this week.

The pressure on hospitals also continues to ease. Confirmed cases in hospital beds continue to reduce, and now stands at 89. This is 26% lower than last Thursday and is the lowest position since 22 September 2020.

The planned opening date for organised outdoor activities and outdoor wedding receptions will be moved forward to Monday 26 April from 3 May.

And, from Monday 3 May, a week earlier than previously signalled, gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities will be able to reopen for individual or one-to-one training. Extended households will also be allowed again, enabling two households to meet and have contact indoors.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford said:

“The public health situation in Wales continues to improve thanks to everything you are doing to help us control this awful virus. Cases of the virus are falling and our incredible vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength.

“Last week, we set out our programme to further re-open the economy and relax the restrictions we have lived with for so long, as part of our careful, step-by-step approach to keeping everyone safe. This week, because of the improvements we continue to see, we can bring forward some of our plans.

“This is only possible because of the efforts everyone is making to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

From Monday 12 April, the following relaxations will go ahead:

  • The full return of children to schools for face-to-face education, all post-16 learners will return to further education and training centres, and university campus’ will be able to open for blended face-to-face/online learning for all students;
  • All remaining shops will reopen, completing the phased reopening of non-essential retail;
  • All remaining close contact services will open, including mobile services;
  • Travel restrictions on traveling into and out of Wales will be lifted. However, restrictions on travel to countries outside the Common Travel Area without a reasonable excuse, remain in place. The Common Travel Area means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland;
  • Wedding ‘show-arounds’ by appointment are allowed;
  • Restrictions on political canvassing are removed, subject to canvassers doing so safely.
  • Further easements to restrictions in the coming weeks will be subject to the public health situation remaining favourable. These will be confirmed at the next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations on 22 April.

On Monday 26 April:

  • Outdoor attractions, including funfairs and theme parks, would be allowed to reopen;
  • Outdoor hospitality can resume, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants. Indoor hospitality will remain closed except for takeaways;
  • Organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people can again take place (previously Monday 3 May);
  • Weddings receptions can take place outdoors for up to 30 people (previously Monday 3 May).

On Monday 3 May (previously Monday 10 May):

  • Gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities can reopen. This will include individual or one-to-one training but not exercise classes;
    Extended household will again allow two households to meet and have contact indoors.
  • As set out in the revised Coronavirus Control Plan, a small number of outdoor pilot events of between 200 and 1,000 people are also being planned.
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Ceredigion MS and MP call on Welsh Government to support agricultural shows

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ELIN JONES MS and Ben Lake MP have called on the Welsh Government to provide financial support to all agricultural shows to see them through to 2022 

A number of shows up and down the county were forced to cancel last year, starving farming communities of annual chances to meet acquaintances, denying traders a vital market and rural charities of fundraising activities and ultimately causing significant losses to the rural economy. 

About seven million people attend agricultural and county shows across the UK every year, and numbers were growing before the pandemic, according to the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations (ASAO), the voice of the agricultural show industry. 

Ben Lake MP calls on Welsh Government to support agricultural shows

In 2019, agricultural shows across the UK generated £128.6m of income, the ASAO figures show. But the mass cancellation of physical shows last year led to a £36.5m loss, while the impact on the wider economy was an estimated loss of £810m. 

Some agriculture show organisers in Ceredigion have already announced cancellations of their 2021 events. These include: Aberystwyth County Show, Lampeter Stallion Show, Barley Saturday, and Llanilar Show. 

With the possibility of further show cancellations this year, Elin Jones MS and Ben Lake MP have called on the Welsh Government to provide financial support to all agricultural shows to see them through to 2022.  

Elin Jones MS said: “For many farming families in Ceredigion, the agricultural show season is the highlight of the year. Every agricultural show plays an important part in promoting our nation’s rural sector, in addition to the rich array of traditions and history associated with rural Wales. 

“Whilst virtual agricultural shows went some way to filling the void left by the cancellations in 2020, nothing replaces the buzz of live outdoor shows.  They give opportunities for communities to come together and provide a vital hub for the farming and rural community to meet, socialise and conduct business.” 

Ben Lake MP added: “Agricultural shows and societies are a crucial feature of the annual calendar for most rural communities, showcasing the heritage of key elements of farming and rural life in Ceredigion. 

“With the possibility of further show cancellations in 2021, we believe it is timely for the Welsh Government to consider providing a one-off grant payment to all agricultural shows to ensure that they are able to see this pandemic through.” 

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16 and 17 year old’s urged to register to vote in this year’s Senedd Elections

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ELIN JONES, Ceredigion’s Member of the Senedd, has urged everyone who will be 16 years old by or on the 6th of May – Senedd Election Day – to register to vote. This is the first time 16 and 17 years olds will be able to vote in a national election in Wales.

Speaking directly to young people in Ceredigion, Elin said: “One of my proudest achievements from the last Senedd has been helping to pass the law that has extended the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.

“This is the biggest change in voting rights in Wales for many, many years.

“So many aspects of young people’s lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic, so it’s completely right that you have the democratic right to express your opinions on how things have been run.

“We now have a fixed date for the election, providing the Covid situation doesn’t change. So if you will be 16 years old or older by the 6th of May, then make sure you register to vote. Your voice counts, and I hope that you will use it.”

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