Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly and Suella Braverman talk after attending the Ceremonial welcome at Horseguards Parade to mark the state Visit for Cyril Ramaphosa President of South Africa. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme is coming – here’s what you need to know

The Foreign Influence Registration Scheme (FIRS), due to come into force in 2024, aims to provide greater transparency about the influence of foreign powers in UK political life.

The scheme has two tiers. The political influence tier will require organisations or individuals to register with the government if their funding arrangements involve them being directed by a foreign power to carry out advocacy or campaigning activities in the UK.

It is important to stress that advocacy and campaigning remains a legitimate action for international development organisations, and for many it is crucial to their mission. This makes understanding the implications of FIRS essential.

What FIRS’ draft guidance says and what it will mean in practice

The Home Office has published draft guidance laying out four conditions which, if met, will require organisations to register under the political influence tier. Essentially, you need to consider: who is providing the funding; what the funding arrangement is and what activities are being funded.

Condition 1: You make an arrangement (whether formal or informal) with a “foreign power”.

We anticipate that the only funders this includes will be bilateral state donors, such as USAID, Irish Aid, Dutch MFA and Danida. Philanthropic foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, CIFF and OSF, will not be considered a foreign power. Nor will multilateral organisations, such as UN agencies, development banks or the European Union.

Condition 2: The arrangement involves a “direction” from the foreign power.

The guidance helpfully aligns with the Government’s earlier reassurances and states that foreign state funding in itself does not count as direction. It will only count as direction if the funding has conditions that mean it must be used in a certain way, or if it is provided in furtherance of an expectation that it will be used in a particular way. In practice this undermines the level of reassurance as it is rare that foreign state funding will have neither of these.

Restricted grants typically lead to an agreed list of activities in the contract or agreement, and while detail may vary from donor to donor, inclusion of an activity in this list is likely to be considered as direction. Similarly, a commercial contract with a bilateral donor is going to be restricted and have a specific set of activities, so this would also be considered direction.

Unrestricted grants leave it to the grantee to decide which activities to undertake and how best to achieve the purpose. So they are unlikely to meet the condition – unless they are “provided in furtherance of an expectation that they are used in a particular way.” But the lack of explanation of what an ‘expectation’ amounts to significantly undermines the guidance’s clarity.

Condition 3: The direction is to carry out “political influence activities” in the UK (whether by yourself, or with or through someone else).

This covers communications to public officials and politicians, seeking to influence national decisions. It also includes public-facing communications intended to influence national decisions, like using social media or print media. But if your public-facing communications clearly state that they are directed by a foreign power then it does not meet the condition.

Condition 4: No exemptions apply to the arrangement or activities.

While there are exemptions to registration, these are unlikely to apply to international development organisations. However, there will be circumstances where information registered will not be made public if there is a significant chance it would put individuals at risk. This may help to mitigate potential risk, for example when bringing a partner to the UK to speak about human rights violations in their country – although the proposals currently require named individuals to be at risk, which is unhelpful.

Examples of arrangements that are likely to require registration

The draft guidance gives examples of arrangements to show when registration may or may not be required. But these don’t reflect the nuance of many organisations’ situation. Below are two examples, based on Bond members experiences.

In the first example, an international wildlife conservation charity receives a restricted grant from USAID. Activities the grant covers include public awareness raising to put pressure on national governments (including the UK) to take action, and direct engagement with governments to influence policy. As there are grant conditions to use the funding for awareness raising and policy influencing, this can be considered at the ‘direction’ of USAID. This means it will require FIRS registration.

In the second example, a Norwegian NGO receives funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That NGO, in turn, has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with a UK-registered NGO to provide funding for advocacy staff. The Norwegian NGO independently decides how to allocate the funding and the UK-registered NGO has no relationship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A situation like this is a grey area and is not covered in the guidance. Our current thinking is that if the MOU refences the terms or conditions laid out in the arrangement with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is likely to be considered foreign direction. But if there is no reference made, it may fall outside of FIRS’ scope. But interpreting whether the expectations of a foreign power underpin such an arrangement creates a significant degree of uncertainty.

How you can help make the FIRS guidance as clear as possible

  • Respond to the Home Office consultation on the draft guidance. The consultation is open until 1 December.
  • Contact Bond and Bates Wells. The more nuanced our evidence to the consultation, the better positioned we are to advocate for clarity in the guidance. Please email Rosemary at [email protected] by 24 November.

And remember, regardless of what the final guidance looks like, advocacy and campaigning remain legitimate activities to undertake – even if they are registrable.