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Loss of Secret Documents

Volume 698: debated on Monday 28 June 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to update the House on the leak of classified and sensitive documents from the Ministry of Defence.

As the House will be aware, a number of Ministry of Defence classified documents were lost by a senior official early last week. Upon realising the loss of documents, the individual self-reported on Tuesday 22 June. The documents lost included a paper that was marked “Secret UK Eyes Only”. The documents were found by a member of the public at a bus stop in Kent. The member of the public then handed the papers to the BBC. The Ministry of Defence has launched a full investigation. The papers have now been recovered from the BBC and are being assessed as I speak to check that all documents missing have been recovered and what mitigation actions might be necessary. The investigation will look at the actions of individuals, including the printing of the papers through to the management of the reported incident, and at the underlying processes for printing and carriage of papers in Defence. The investigation is expected to complete shortly. While the investigation is being conducted, the individual’s access to sensitive material has been suspended. It would be inappropriate to comment on the findings of the investigation while it is still under way.

That sensitive MOD documents were found strewn behind a bus stop in Kent last Tuesday morning is certainly embarrassing for Ministers, but it is deeply worrying for those concerned with our national security, so I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This is not the first time that there have been known leaks based on classified documents from the MOD that have found their way beyond the MOD. In January, it was the assessment of how far short of our fighting strength our infantry battalions are. Early this month, it was personal details of more than 1,000 forces personnel, including special forces, which the Armed Forces Minister has now confirmed to me is also subject to a military police investigation. Are the military police involved in this investigation?

I am glad that the Minister has confirmed that the investigation will look at how and why these highly classified documents were copied and then carried out of the Department. When will it report, and will he publish the findings? He needs to do more to reassure us about the risks involved in the leak. Will he confirm the level of “UK Eyes Only” classification that the document had? Has the inquiry yet ruled out espionage? Were our allies informed immediately, and at what appropriate level?

The Minister mentions ongoing operations. Our frontline forces on HMS Defender were totally professional in dealing with aggressive Russian actions in the Black sea last week, but they must be asking, “What about our back-up at the MOD?” when top secret documents about their mission, ahead of their mission, found their way to the back of this bus stop in Kent. Finally, Ministers need to do more to reassure the public and our forces personnel that they have a grip of their Department, and have taken actions to stop the series of security breaches at the Department.

I will take all those points in turn. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern over the incident. We take the loss of all data and documents very seriously. In direct answer to his question, the MOD police are involved as part of this investigation. On the timing, I have said “shortly”. I hope that it will be in very short order. I hope that it will be as little as a week, but I cannot commit to that in case the investigation finds more stuff that they need to go into. I would hope that it will be a very short process indeed, and that we will be able to inform the House in Defence questions next week, but forgive me, Mr Speaker, if the investigation needs to take longer. We will explain that on Monday if so.

Regarding espionage, again this is clearly a matter for the investigation, but I emphasise to the House that the individual self-reported when he became aware—when the individual became aware—that the documents had been mislaid. We have certainly informed the United States. It is aware of this circumstance. If anything further comes out of the investigation, it will be informed again. The right hon. Gentleman referred to our armed forces’ totally professional conduct in the Black sea last week. He is absolutely right to do so. They behaved absolutely impeccably, and I share his concerns that we must always be providing good back-up and good support to those armed forces.

I assure the House that, as it would expect, there is intense preparation and intense work to ensure that every angle and every analysis is covered before armed forces conduct themselves around the world, but clearly evidence of that should not be forthcoming from the Department. These are secret documents. The investigation will be appropriately conducted, and we will see what we can learn to improve our procedures for the future.

One thing that would seem only common sense to anyone finding classified documents is that they should hand them to the police. Can the Minister advise us what the legal position is? Was any official secrets legislation broken by somebody handing these documents to anybody other than the police? Was any official secrets legislation broken by the BBC in not handling them directly to the police but in choosing instead selectively to quote from classified information? Will the Government inquire as to whether the BBC paid any money for the acquisition of these documents from someone who ought to have handed them to the police straightaway?

In an ideal and proper world, the documents should not have been available where they were, so that is where the original fault clearly lies. In the event of documents of this nature being found, clearly one would encourage members of the public to hand them in to the police. In this instance, they were handed in to the BBC. Naturally, I would have preferred the BBC to hand them over immediately and not made reference to them, but it has a job to do, and I recognise that it has behaved responsibly and handed the documents back to the Department. We are analysing that now.

There was certainly something of Le Carré in the faintly absurd discovery of these soggy documents behind a bus stop in the garden of England. I do not think that we can help but notice the general context. The documents were discovered in the same week in which a more serious security breach—that of confidential CCTV images from a Whitehall Ministry, which leaves many of us unsure and distrustful of the motives of those involved. The whole thing reminds me of one of my favourite Le Carré quotes:

“Cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.”

Does the Minister accept that many of us are worried about these episodes and what they say about the decline of standards in public life? I do not mean the quality of the cabbage served up in the canteen of Main Building.

This is a mistake, it appears. I do not want to prejudge the investigation, but it appears that it is a mistake by an individual. It is important that one gets on top of that mistake, what can be learned and how we can help to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again. I am here to speak about this particular incident—I think that another urgent question follows this one on another issue—but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I know that it is genuinely intended. I am sorry that this incident has happened, and the investigation will be thorough.

Putting aside the particulars of this recent incident, may I ask the Minister of State when the Government will introduce their reform of the Official Secrets Act, particularly on the classification of papers and punishment for those who breach the Act? Given that the Act is over 100 years old, is it not the case that in some situations it is no longer fit for purpose, and that reform needs to come sooner rather than later?

I understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. This is something that he has mentioned previously in the House. As I recall, there was reference to this in the Queen’s Speech. It is not my direct departmental business, but I understand that it is something that the Government are looking into.

I think that the documents pertained to HMS Defender, which must concern us as much as any other ones. Since Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and Jellicoe commanded the Grand Fleet and Beatty the battlecruisers, all documents pertaining to what the fleet was doing were kept totally confidential to the Ministry of Defence and never left that building, so I hope that the inquiry will pick up what exactly happened. The morale of our armed services depends on their confidence in this sort of thing not happening. I hope that the Minister accepts that, because the morale of those brave people who defend the country is, above all else, crucial.

On the latter point, I could not agree more fully. The comments I have received from members of the armed forces today reiterate that. It is absolutely vital that they should have confidence in such procedures, which they follow themselves. There are policies and procedures in place under which documents can be taken out of the Department, but they are tightly constrained. It is up to the investigation to find out whether or not they were followed in this case.

Personally, I am rather saddened that the BBC saw fit to publish information that was secret, rather than pass it straight to the police or refer it to the Ministry of Defence. I think that reflects poorly on the BBC, which is, after all, a public service broadcaster. In the past it was normal practice for anyone in the MOD carrying restricted, classified or sensitive documents out of a secure location to do so in an approved briefcase, which was often manacled to the carrier’s wrist. Have such arrangements stopped now?

As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), there are policies and procedures in place as to how documents can be safely taken out of the Department on the rare occasions when that is necessary. I think it is for the investigation to work through whether those procedures were followed in this instance and whether those procedures need to be reformed or improved for the future.

I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was absolutely right to contrast the exemplary professionalism of our forces on HMS Defender with this unfortunate episode. I understand that the Minister has said that there will be a inquiry that will report as quickly as possible, but will he confirm that when that inquiry reports we will not have to have another urgent question? Will he commit today to a statement on the Floor of the House, so that all the facts that can be publicly known can be discussed, rather than a Minister having to be dragged here for another urgent question?

We will certainly ensure that that information is known to Members. We should ensure that the outcome of the investigation, and certainly whether any further tightening of our procedures is required, are shared with the House.

The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine, highlighted by the recent trilateral agreement signed on board HMS Defender, but maintaining the highest levels of information security is critical to retaining confidence and credibility with our allies. I am reassured that the Minister’s Department is launching an investigation, but have the Minister and the Secretary of State spoken with our counterparts in the Ukrainian Government, along with our ambassador to Ukraine, to ensure that confidence and credibility with our allies has not been undermined and that Ukraine and the wider region remains uncompromised by this leak?

I would not, as a matter of course, comment on the discussions we hold with our friends and allies overseas, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to refer to the agreement struck last week. It was an important agreement for British shipbuilding and for Babcock, and I look forward to that enhancing the Ukrainian navy in due course.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened, and I am sure it will not be the last. It is so serious an issue that the BBC chose not to report on various details in the bundle, because it could have endangered the security of service personnel in Afghanistan. What steps have the Government taken to secure the safety of service personnel in Afghanistan and in the Carrier Strike Group?

The hon. Lady refers to the BBC choosing not to report, and I think that was right. One would have preferred the BBC to have handed the documents straight over, but it acted responsibly by not relaying information that could have caused problems. We are going through the investigation. We are ensuring that all those documents have been returned, and we will be ensuring that any mitigating actions that need to be taken are put in place.

Given the loss of these sensitive documents, can my hon. Friend confirm that we have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the safety of our serving personnel has not been compromised?

Absolutely; that is an ongoing task. There is intense planning behind all defence engagements and activities. That continues to be the case, and we always ensure that it is the defence, the safety and the security of our defence personnel that is uppermost in our minds.

After this weekend, with sensitive military documents left at a bus stop and questions over the surveillance of a Secretary of State in his ministerial office, and as we are well aware that adversaries of our country, be they hostile states or terrorists, forever probe our national security for weaknesses, can the Minister tell the House which organisations are involved in the investigation into how documents were compromised in this way?

I have already confirmed that the MOD police are involved in this process, but I can assure the right hon. Lady that all those whose involvement in the investigation is relevant and appropriate will be involved. She is absolutely right to refer to the ongoing threat to our national security in cyber terms as well as in the context of physical documents, and we as a Government ensure that we have the right advice from the right professionals in the right way.

I believe my hon. Friend said that the documents were reported missing last Tuesday, and of course HMS Defender was hassled on Wednesday. The investigation will say whether there was a link between those two incidents, but what it raises in my mind is the information that has come out about the situation in Afghanistan. It is a very tense situation right now, with the Americans withdrawing and the problems we are hearing about. Is the Ministry of Defence now reassessing the plans with our allies, including the Americans? We do not know at the moment what information there may be on the ground in Afghanistan and the security threat that it represents, including for ongoing security issues. Is my hon. Friend having conversations with our allies about potentially needing to reassess the next 12 months in Afghanistan?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that we constantly update and keep abreast of developments on the ground in Afghanistan and indeed in other theatres, but I would not wish to alarm him. There is an investigation under way that will test what information was in those documents, whether they have been returned and what mitigating actions, if any, need to be taken as a result.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and the Minister for his very helpful responses. Recognising that the protection of internal waters may provoke Russian aggression—it may not be very hard to do that—can the Minister confirm that, alongside allies, we will not duck, but rather that we will maintain maritime freedoms in that area? Will the Minister further confirm that those trusted with classified documents will treat such information with the appropriate level of care?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will not go into the details regarding HMS Defender—that has been the source of a written ministerial statement—but it and its innocent passage may well be the subject of questions at Defence questions next week. I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that maintaining the proper classification and proper secrecy of documents is absolutely critical. That is the purpose of this investigation, and if we need to tighten our procedures, we certainly shall.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Because of the nature of my constituents, I very rarely speak about defence matters, but I cannot begin to tell the House how angry I am that this civil servant or whoever it was who scattered these papers put the lives of 190 personnel at risk on HMS Defender. If you go to a military funeral, Mr Speaker, you will appreciate, as I am sure you do, how precious our service personnel are. I want the Minister, if he possibly can, to confirm to the House that the punishment for this sort of breach of security will match the risk to those people on HMS Defender as a result of this stupidity and incompetence.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I can reassure him that we always emphasise the need for safety and security on Defender and other ships in the Royal Navy. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said at the outset, they behaved in the most professional and exemplary fashion in conducting their innocent passage in the Black sea. I totally endorse what he says regarding the seriousness of this issue, but he will of course appreciate that the investigation must come first. We need to see the outcome of that investigation before any further consideration as to action should be taken.

This is not the first time there has been a security breach at the Ministry of Defence; in fact, it is the third time in six months. The Minister said that there are policies and procedures in place for secure documents leaving secure settings, but clearly those policies and procedures are inadequate or not working. Can he reassure the House that those policies and procedures will change as a result of this investigation?

It appears to be a loss of documents rather than a deliberate act, although, as I say, I should not prejudge the investigation. That needs to be determined finally, but the loss of documents was reported by the individual concerned. Above official sensitive level, that is an extremely rare occurrence; no incidents have happened in the last 18 months. I checked over the last 18 months for the loss of documents above that level.

However, the hon. Lady is right that no one should take with equanimity information leaving the MOD in circumstances where it should not leave. The investigation is ongoing. I hope that it will report shortly. We will see whether it has recommendations as to how we can further tighten our procedures or whether this was a case of those procedures not being followed. If there are recommendations, we will take that very seriously and we will certainly share with the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Clearly, one of the concerns here is that, had these materials been on a tablet or some other electronic device, they would have been properly security protected. The fact that the documents were literally that—printed documents —means that they were removed from the Ministry of Defence. I understand completely that we cannot know the circumstances, but can my hon. Friend confirm that there are restrictions in place on taking classified documents out of the Ministry of Defence in this way, and that they will continue to be in place? It seems astonishing that we are in this position.

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point: tablets and electronic devices have password protection and encryption, which, as I understand it, prevent these incidents from happening and provide a greater level of protection. In relation to the physical carrying of paper documents, as I say, there are restrictions in place. There are procedures that should be followed. It is down to the investigation to find out whether they were followed in this instance and whether we need to tighten them up further.

The seriousness of a leak such as this comes not just from classified information being put in the public domain, but from the fact that we know our adversaries will be poring over it to find potential weaknesses, including looking at planned movements of Royal Navy vessels and things like that. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that all our operations will continue to be in line with international rules, sticking up for the rule of the UN and law of the sea?

Absolutely. Again, that is not the subject of this UQ, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to conduct ourselves appropriately and professionally, as the Royal Navy always does and as it did last week in its innocent passage across the Black sea. That is absolutely the case. I sincerely hope that this is not a case of our adversaries having sight of these documents, but that is something that has to be confirmed by the investigation.

While there have been attempts today to scapegoat the civil servant involved and the BBC, the fact is that whether the civil servant’s actions were caused by carelessness, forgetfulness, malice or whatever, at least one other person had a responsibility to stop that civil servant getting those papers out the door of the MOD, so at least one other person, and possibly a whole chain of precautions, has failed. Will the Minister give an assurance, first of all, that the investigation will not be allowed to become a blame allocation or scapegoating exercise? Will he also assure us that not only will Parliament be advised of the result of the investigation, but that he or one of his colleagues will come back to give a statement and be questioned and held to account by Members of Parliament on the results of that investigation when it is ready?

The investigation is partly to find out what happened and the circumstances behind the mislaying of these documents. I will not prejudge whether others were involved; it just needs to be discovered. I totally take the hon. Gentleman’s point that one should not jump to conclusions. We need to have a proper investigation. As I say, the police are involved. We need to find the conclusions of that. We also need to find out what we need to learn for the future, and I will make certain that the House is advised of the conclusions of the investigation.

Recent incidents would appear to suggest that the MOD has some difficulty in safeguarding the nation’s secrets. Aside from the loss of documents, there would also have had to be a deliberate act in removing pink paper from a secure area. Will the Minister please confirm that when the culprit is proven to be negligent, he or she will be invited to walk the plank?

I understand my hon. and gallant Friend’s concern, which will be shared by other hon. and gallant Members and by his former serving colleagues, but I think it is important that we have the investigation and find out exactly what is at fault. That also includes an examination of our policies and procedures to make certain that they are fit for purpose.

The Minister recognised in his comments, I think, that revealing this information could have put the safety or even the lives of our serving personnel at risk. In that context, it is not scapegoating to say that if it was human recklessness, it has to be dealt with in a salutary manner—but if there is system failure, Ministers have to look very carefully at themselves and at senior officials to know why it could have taken place. The investigation has to give reassurance that this can never happen again.

I am not going to say whether it is human recklessness, or what it is, until the investigation has reported. As I say, there are quite serious policies and procedures in place; whether they need to be tightened again is a subject for the investigation, and I will be interested to hear what it says. We will take what it says very seriously, I can assure the hon. Gentleman.

The success of all security processes clearly lies with the people who implement them. Is the Minister able to outline what document security training is undertaken at the MOD, who receives it and how often?

There is indeed a security brief; my understanding is that it is mandated to take place for all employees annually and that it includes information on how documents should be properly and professionally handled.

The thing is that the Minister is far too nice and is being far too reasonable. Should we not all be a bit more angry about this? Carelessness is a form of treachery when dealing with documents of the significance to which he has referred in the House. Frankly, I do not understand why the Secretary of State is not here. This is a very, very serious point, and the Government need to make sure that if somebody has acted recklessly and put British service personnel in danger, that person will be expected to resign.

Mr Speaker, you will be very relieved that the Secretary of State is not here, given that he was in contact with someone who has tested positive for covid-19.

The hon. Gentleman gets the point. I am sure that the Secretary of State would have wished to be here otherwise, so please do not take it as a lack of interest on his part. He is doing the right and responsible thing. We all want our colleagues to do the right and responsible thing in all circumstances.

Please do not take my desire to hear the results of the investigation to be covering up anything other than serious disquiet, and indeed anger, that this has happened. It should not have happened; these documents should not have been mislaid. I am deeply sorry that that has been the case. We need to see from the investigation the circumstances that led to it and get the full details, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking it very seriously.

This latest breach further demonstrates why the Government are not trusted with data. From the NHS data grab and the Home Office’s loss of 15,000 arrest records to losing details of thousands of covid cases in a track and trace Excel spreadsheet, and now this—how can the Minister reassure the public that breaches of this severity will not happen in future? When will the Government publish details of a more comprehensive and robust investigation into wider security practices?

The irony will not be lost on the hon. Gentleman that, whereas he referred to massive data accumulations through the internet and online services, what we are talking about here is paper documentation being left and mislaid. It is a different scenario. As I say, the investigation will check what happened, why it happened, what we can do to prevent document loss in future and whether there are more measures we need to put in place. Ultimately, however, this is the loss of physical documents. It should not happen. As I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) earlier, I did do a trawl and we have no record of documents being mislaid at above official sensitive level in the last 18 months. I hope that this is an extremely rare circumstance, but we still need to learn the lessons.

This is clearly a “never” event: it should never happen. In the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), he talked about the training that individuals go through to avoid such events. Of course, they can happen—like a fire or a pandemic can happen. Can my hon. Friend enlighten me on whether there are drills for such never events? If not, will he consider implementing drills to deal with these kinds of fallouts?

There are procedures in place if lost documents are reported. The investigation will certainly check that we took the right actions on the reporting and in the actions that were taken subsequently.

Once again, secret documents have been lost from the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, it is the third major breach in the last six months. The Secretary of State seems to be asleep at the wheel while our nation is becoming the butt end of jokes in the international security community. Will the Minister confirm that the safety of our brave British troops has not been compromised? Can he also advise what conversations have been had with our allies, whose personnel may have been put at risk as a result of this breach?

I have no evidence to suggest that the safety of our personnel has been compromised, but clearly, as I have said, this is an investigation. It will go through the documents. It will ensure that missing documents have now been returned. It will go through the contents of the documents and put in place any mitigations that are needed. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have been in contact with the United States. It is aware of the issue and we will keep it updated if we need to in future.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business.