A parliamentary researcher who was arrested on suspicion of spying for China has said he is “completely innocent”, in a statement released by his lawyers.
The researcher at the centre of the row, who had links with senior Tories including security minister Tom Tugendhat and foreign affairs committee chair Alicia Kearns, was arrested back in March – but this went undisclosed until Saturday.
The arrest under the Official Secrets Act led to Rishi Sunak confronting Chinese premier Li Qiang at the G20 summit in India on Sunday over what he alleged was “unacceptable” interference in democracy, while Tory MPs sanctioned by Beijing have expressed anger at not being informed of the arrest.
In a statement released by his lawyers, Birnberg Peirce, the man – who they did not name – said: “I feel forced to respond to the media accusations that I am a ‘Chinese spy’. It is wrong that I should be obliged to make any form of public comment on the misreporting that has taken place.
“However, given what has been reported, it is vital that it is known that I am completely innocent. I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenges and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party.
“To do what has been claimed against me in extravagant news reporting would be against everything I stand for.”
The former private schoolboy was arrested along with another man by officers on 13 March, on suspicion of spying for Beijing, it was revealed by the Sunday Times last week. One of the men, in his 30s, was detained in Oxfordshire, while the other, in his 20s, was arrested in Edinburgh, Scotland Yard said.
Both were held on suspicion of offences under section one of the Official Secrets Act 1911, which punishes offences that are said to be “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”.
The researcher had worked for a foreign affairs committee member and had worked in parliament for several years, but is believed to have previously worked in China.
He is reportedly a “skilled networker” rubbing shoulders with ministers, holding regular drinks events and using a dating app, including attempting to organise a date with a political journalist from The Sun.
Furious Tory MPs – particularly those sanctioned by China – have now hit out at security services for not disclosing the arrest, with Iain Duncan Smith claiming to The Times: “It’s a remarkably dangerous situation.
“This is a guy who allegedly spies on behalf of the Chinese government in the place where decisions are made and sensitive information is transferred.”
Another sanctioned MP told the paper they were “in a complete state of shock”, while a third said: “We didn’t know anything until we read it in the paper. I feel incredibly let down.”
But a source close to Kearns told The Independent: “Preposterous suggestions that Alicia should have breached all Police and Intelligence requests not to discuss this case could only come from individuals with zero understanding of legal investigations or intelligence work.”
Sir Keir Starmer piled pressure on Mr Sunak to reveal what he knew about the alleged spy.
Speaking during a visit to a school in Dagenham, east London, the Labour leader said: “The very big question now for the Prime Minister is was this raised when these arrests took place back in March or has it only been raised now that it’s come into the public domain?
“I think that’s the central question that needs to be answered by the Prime Minister today.”
Sir Keir declined to describe China as a threat to national security, saying “strategic challenge” is the right way to describe the country.
“But that does require that consistency of approach and that’s what’s been lacking,” he said.
It comes a year after MI5 issued a rare security alert, warning MPs that a suspected Chinese spy called Christine Lee had engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of China’s ruling communist regime.
The Telegraph said more security service interference alerts have been issued in recent months and said intelligence services were poised to unmask more Chinese spies in the coming months, citing Whitehall sources who claimed suspected spies in the Commons face being detained under new espionage laws.