A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Autocracies’ influence in academia

1.Given the weight of the evidence publicly available, we were surprised that the FCO’s submission to this inquiry did not identify academia as being a distinct area at risk of influence by autocracies. We recommend that the FCO inform the Committee, in confidence if necessary, of its assessment of the extent of the problem. (Paragraph 16)

2.The FCO’s role in advising universities on the potential threats to academia from autocracies is non-existent. There is no evidence that it has considered the threat from autocracies to academic freedom, which underpins the quality of UK higher education, nor engaged sufficiently with other departments to develop a co-ordinated response. We believe that it is vital for the FCO to take the lead across Government on this issue, given that foreign influence falls directly within the Department’s remit. (Paragraph 22)

3.We are disappointed that the FCO has not made detailed assessments about how the UK and its universities should respond to foreign influence in UK academia, and at its failure to engage directly with counterparts in the US, Australia or elsewhere to share best practice. We recommend that the Government and universities develop together a strategy to address the challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities. As a starting point, the Government should examine mounting evidence of foreign influence in UK universities to fully understand the extent of the problem. This strategy should examine the extent to which market incentives may serve to undermine academic freedom in the UK. We recommend that the Government share with us in confidence the details of this strategy by Autumn 2020. (Paragraph 23)

4.We further recommend that a Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) is appointed to coordinate the FCO’s response to threats to academic freedom. The Government should nominate a single point of contact to both gather evidence from, and provide advice to, academic institutions on the political, diplomatic and legal implications of accepting funding and pursuing collaboration with institutions based in non-democratic states. We recommend that the Government appoints a cross-departmental Whitehall champion for academic freedom to coordinate the different agencies involved in monitoring and responding to foreign influence. (Paragraph 24)

5.We recommend that the Government engages in dialogue with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US to explore ways to protect universities from attempts by autocracies to use their financial muscle to leverage influence through the withdrawal of funding. This could take place through existing structures such as the Commonwealth. (Paragraph 25)

6.We welcome the Government’s use and promotion of ‘trusted research’ and academic technology approval schemes to protect UK universities from intellectual theft that may arise from academic collaboration with universities from autocratic states. The Government should continue to support such schemes and provide up-to-date guidance to universities on the political, diplomatic and legal implications of accepting funding and pursuing collaboration with institutions based in non-democratic states. (Paragraph 26)


7.After considerable delay, the FCO has now established that it is legally possible for the UK unilaterally to impose sanctions on individuals and organisations while still a member of the European Union. However, the Minister was not able to tell us how the FCO plans to use these so-called ‘Magnitsky powers’, the criteria on which individuals will be selected for sanctions, or the date on which the FCO would lay the relevant Statutory Instrument before Parliament—a process which will now be further delayed by the 2019 General Election. The FCO has been far too slow to make use of this important foreign-policy tool in countering the abuse of human rights by countries such as China and Russia, and more broadly in support of the rules-based international system. (Paragraph 30)

8.In its response to this report, the FCO should explain why it has not yet used Magnitsky-style sanctions in response to ongoing repression by the state authorities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, what plans it has to do so, and how far these plans have progressed. It should also state how it is seeking to coordinate with the EU when designing and imposing sanctions on individuals and organisations connected to autocratic regimes. The FCO should further set out in the Statutory Instrument to be laid before Parliament the criteria for determining which individuals and organisations should be subject to UK Government sanctions. (Paragraph 31)

9.We reiterate our recommendation that the Government appoint a Senior Responsible Official with personal accountability to the National Security Council for devising and implementing sanctions policy. This is a necessary step to ensure the cross-departmental coherence, and greater effectiveness, of the UK’s sanctions policy. (Paragraph 33)

10.We recommend that the Government acts with much greater urgency in establishing a power to block listings in the UK on national security grounds—a potentially crucial tool in limiting the influence and reach of autocracies in the UK. We expect the Government to update our successor Committee on its progress no later than May 2020. (Paragraph 36)

Hong Kong and Interpol

11.In its response to this report, the Government should provide us with its assessment of the reputational risk to the UK being an active participant in the Hong Kong judiciary. We recommend that the Government coordinates its response to the Hong Kong crisis with the governments of Australia, Canada and New Zealand as judiciaries represented in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. We further recommend that the Government extends the right of abode to Hong Kong residents who are British National (Overseas) passport holders as a means of reassurance that the UK cares about its nationals. (Paragraph 41)

12.We recommend that the FCO steps up its work with the Interpol National Central Bureau (NCB) and its counterparts in democratic states within Interpol to collectively encourage reform of the red notice system to protect it from abuse by autocracies. (Paragraph 45)

Published: 5 November 2019