The government is facing a legal challenge over its refusal to launch an independent inquiry into possible Russian interference in UK elections as recommended by parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
Six MPs and peers lodged a judicial review challenge on Thursday alleging that the government’s inaction breaches its legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantee citizens’ rights to free and fair elections.
Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which oversees Britain’s spy agencies, published a report in July which found the UK was “clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations” and called for an investigation into whether Moscow had interfered in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The government’s response to the committee’s report ruled out any such inquiry, saying it had “seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum” and that as a result, a new assessment was “not necessary”.
However, the government’s stance has been criticised by a number of MPs as well as Anthony Brenton, the UK’s former ambassador to Russia.
A new lawsuit co-ordinated by law firm Leigh Day and non-profit group the Citizens will now put pressure on the government to set up an independent investigation or public inquiry.
The legal action by the parliamentarians — involving Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw, Alyn Smith of the Scottish National party, and Caroline Lucas of the Greens, plus Lib Dem peer Paul Strasburger and cross-bencher Patience Wheatcroft — calls for improvements to current legislation so as to prevent potential Russian interference in future elections. Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security adviser, has also supported the legal challenge.
Ms Lucas called Boris Johnson’s dismissal of the intelligence and security committee’s report “deliberately irresponsible”.
“Attempts to undermine western democracies have not stopped and we need to learn from what’s happened in the past so we can ensure our electoral processes are robust enough to withstand potential future meddling.” she said.
The Citizens said that multiple US investigations and congressional inquiries had detailed the extensive attacks by Russia on the 2016 presidential election.
“In Britain, that process hasn’t even begun,” it added. “We hope this will be the beginning of that process.”
The lawsuit alleges the government’s decision not to establish a public inquiry under the inquiries act 2005 is unreasonable and contrary to the public interest.
In their legal grounds for challenge, the parliamentarians said that an inquiry would be able to compel witnesses to testify and request documents.
They added it would be able to reach conclusions about the extent of any Russian interference in the UK democratic process dating back to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
UK spy agencies have repeatedly disputed the intelligence and security committee’s claim that they “took their eye off the ball” when it came to monitoring Russia’s influence in Britain.
Ken McCallum, MI5’s new director-general, told reporters this month that his agency had investigated the possibility of Russia interfering in the Brexit referendum and not found anything of “significance”.
However, he acknowledged there were “questions to be posed” about whether spy agencies had dedicated enough resources to the threat from Moscow in the period after the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001, when counter-terror operations were being rapidly expanded.
A government spokesperson said that while it would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, safeguarding democracy was an “absolute priority”.
“The UK has robust systems in place to protect our elections and institutions from interference,” added the spokesperson, saying that the government was bringing forward new legislation to help the security services disrupt hostile state activity and taking action to curb the spread of disinformation.
The intelligence and security committee declined to comment on the legal challenge.