Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS): What does it mean and where next?
When first introduced, the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme – which features as part of the National Security Bill – raised widespread industry concerns around how non-UK organisations could continue their day-to-day operations and engagement with Government. Having listened to the widespread concerns of businesses and other civil society organisations that would have been caught up in these proposals, the Government announced amendments that refocused the scheme more closely to its national security objectives.
The scheme was introduced as a means for the Home Office to crack down on foreign influence and hostile state threats to the UK political system.
As initially written, the scheme would have had far reaching implications for the day-to-day interaction between business, government and legislators. It would have required all non-UK headquartered organisations to register any ‘political influence’ activities with the Home Office within 10 days of them being arranged or taking place. These activities would have included any communication, meeting or correspondence with a public official which includes MPs, Peers, their staffers, civil servants and senior policy officers. Non-compliance with the scheme could have resulted in sanctions such as unlimited fines and a prison sentence for individuals in breach.
techUK, and wider industry, was deeply concerned that not only would this create a massive burden for businesses, requiring vast amounts of information to be registered, but also that it would negatively impact the open dialogue between business and government that is necessary for effective policymaking . Given the Government’s priority of attracting foreign direct investment there were worries that such a scheme would place a veil of suspicion over all international business operations in the UK.
The Government has since amended the Bill to alleviate the majority of these concerns. One particular amendment focusses the scheme on foreign government influence within the UK political system, instead of all foreign companies as it was before.
In addition, the time limit for registering activity has been increased from 10 to 28 days. There has also been clarification that the scheme does not intend to interfere with Parliamentary privilege and therefore protects that portion of policymaking for MPs and Peers.
Given these amendments, we are now confident that techUK and the majority of its members are out of scope of the scheme.
techUK has been made aware that the scheme is intended to focus on the direction of foreign influence activity within the UK political system and will not be based solely on the ownership of foreign organisations. Similarly, foreign government investment into organisations, or having members within representative associations who are foreign will not automatically bring those organisations into scope.
We have also been made aware that the Foreign Influence Register will be public. There will however be exemptions for the registration of commercially related or sensitive information, including information on the grounds of national security, public security, and risk to personal safety of individuals.
The Bill will receive further scrutiny on 13 March in the House of Lords. After this, it will then return to the House of Commons as per the Parliamentary process and become law later in 2023.
techUK will continue to engage with the Home Office on the development of the Bill, the practical implementation of the FIRS and also proposed guidance which will be published following industry and public consultation after the Bill receives Royal Assent.
If you have any questions over the proposed Home Office amendments within the FIRS, or would like to chat through the Bill please do get in touch with techUK’s Programme Manager for National Security – Raya Tsolova ([email protected]) and techUK’s Public Affairs Manager – Alice Campbell ([email protected]).