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National Security: Cabinet Office Documents

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

My Lords, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about events relating to the loss and recovery of two Joint Intelligence Committee documents. The Statement is as follows:

“The Joint Intelligence Committee—the JIC—is situated in the Cabinet Office and, under the chairmanship of Alex Allan, provides intelligence assistance to departments across government.

“An employee working in the JIC assessment staff left two documents on an early morning commuter train on Tuesday of this week. While the documents do not contain the names of individual sources or specific operational details, they are sensitive high-level intelligence assessments. The individual concerned informed his superiors about the loss of the documents on Wednesday morning and they called in the Metropolitan Police, which began an urgent investigation.

“On Wednesday afternoon the Cabinet Office was contacted by the BBC, which told the department that the two documents were in its possession. The nature of the documents was made clear to the BBC and it was requested that it did not broadcast the contents of the documents and that they be returned. The original documents were handed back to the Metropolitan Police on Wednesday evening. There is no evidence at this stage to suggest that our vital national security interests have been damaged or that any individuals or operations have been put at risk. However, the police investigation is continuing.

“This was a clear breach of well established security rules, which forbid the removal of documents of this kind outside secure government premises without clear authorisation and compliance with special security procedures. These rules are a clear part of the operating procedures for handling matters of this sensitivity. All individuals on joining the assessment staff are given a formal briefing on the rules by a specially designated security officer. This formal briefing is supplemented by clear written instructions provided to the individual and that individual has to sign a statement to indicate that they have read, understood and will comply at all times with the rules. In this case, no authorisation was sought for the removal of the documents.

“The official concerned has been suspended from his duties as part of a standard Civil Service disciplinary procedure. The chairman of the JIC, Alex Allan, has confirmed that there are clear rules and that they were not followed in this case. In order to provide the reassurance that all necessary procedures and safeguards are in place, the Cabinet Secretary has asked Sir David Omand, former Permanent Secretary for Security and Intelligence and Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, to carry out a full investigation of the circumstances of the case. Given the nature of these issues, I have asked Sir David to keep the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has a particular role in security and intelligence issues, fully informed.

“All JIC staff have been reminded by the chairman of JIC of the fundamental importance of following in full all security procedures and similar steps are being taken across government for those handling sensitive, intelligence-related material. It is a matter of utmost concern to the Government that this breach of security happened. We will take all steps to ensure that all individuals who work within the Joint Intelligence Committee staff observe the procedures that are necessary for security. We will continue to do everything necessary to safeguard sensitive intelligence material so that we safeguard the British national interest”.

I commend the Statement to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The facts in the case are pretty straightforward. Highly classified and sensitive government documents, drawing on material derived from intelligence sources, were discovered by a member of the general public. The documents were left lying on a train seat by mistake, I assume, by the official concerned, who has now been suspended. This member of the public gave the documents not to the police, as should have been the case, but to a BBC security correspondent. As a result, we know the subject matter of the two documents. Fortunately their contents have not been published and the BBC is to be congratulated on preferring to obey the law and safeguard the security of the nation, rather than going for what could have been a big scoop.

Had the contents been published, the Iraqi Government would have known whether there is any discrepancy between what is said in public by HMG about Iraqi military capabilities and their private assessment. This would have put trust between the UK and Iraq in jeopardy. As for the assessment of al-Qaeda, this country’s leading terrorist foe, I invite the House to consider the implications of an enemy being informed of our assessment of their strategy and capabilities. In war, what a fighting force needs above all is to know what the other side knows and thinks about it and what it does not know. Al-Qaeda has shown itself to be extraordinarily astute politically. Here it would have been handed information on a plate from which it could have devised new and more deadly ways of operating to harm us and to kill our people.

Yesterday in the other place, the Home Secretary said in respect of the terrorist threat to this country:

“The British people place their trust in us”—

“us” being the Government—

“to take the right decisions to protect them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/08; col. 400.]

What is the value of what are claimed to be the right decisions if people in a central part of the government machine, the Cabinet Office, take their duties so lightly that they are capable of actions that risk directly helping the enemy to conspire successfully against us? The aim of government should be to prevent terrorism, not to help to create messes for which the police are then said to need extra powers to clear up. One wonders what our close intelligence allies think. What do the Americans, Canadians and Australians make of this story? Their security is thereby prejudiced, too. Presumably the Government will apologise to them if they have not already done so.

It would be nice to think that yesterday’s incident was an isolated case. It was certainly egregious and the House notes the action taken in respect of the individual concerned; the Government could do no less. However, this is not the end of the matter. There is a systemic and cultural problem, both at the heart of government and more widely in other Whitehall departments. I could list no fewer than seven other instances of lapses since November 2007 in the proper custody by the Government of sensitive data in their possession—seven other lapses in just six months, and these are merely the ones about which we know. The House will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to give chapter and verse of these examples, but they are strikingly spread throughout Whitehall: two in HMRC, two in DWP, one in the Department for Transport, one in the National Health Service and one in the MoD. The Cabinet Office makes eight, and this is the department responsible for security throughout Whitehall.

Lest anyone thinks that these earlier lapses were trivial, let me recall that some of them were so serious that, as today, they demanded a ministerial Statement to the House. To cite just one, the House will recall the loss in transit by HMRC of the banking details and addresses of 25 million families in receipt of child benefit, which jeopardised the personal financial security of a large proportion of this country’s households. This shows contempt for the rights of the citizen to basic personal security and trustworthiness. This is the Government who imply that they are a better, more trustworthy guardian of the security of the people than those who disagree with Ministers about issues surrounding the extension of pre-charge detention. I suggest that this is not serious. Security is indivisible. The Government cannot be secure in one part and insecure in another without destroying overall credibility.

Sir David Omand is a distinguished person of wisdom and integrity and his willingness to review procedure is to be welcomed, but I regret the fact that the Minister’s Statement contains no hint of the thought that anything is required other than to reiterate existing procedure. It sounds complacent. I suggest that the House needs to know more about enforcement. Good security does not require a genius to achieve it. It is not complex and it is not difficult; it is simple. Departments have rules and those rules need to be obeyed. To ensure observance, the rules should be actively monitored. Departments check the credentials of people on entry and often take away the visitor’s telephone, so why had they not been applying proper perimeter security to the inmates? The knowledge that briefcases will be really, and not just theoretically, opened on a random basis and irrespective of rank would act as a real deterrent to the flouting of regulations.

It is time that the Government got a grip of the lax security culture that has been allowed to develop in Whitehall, which seems to be part of a broader procedural sloppiness of sofa government. This instance of the loss of the Government’s own information, and the state’s secrets, is the moment to do it. The Government should enforce sound procedures for handling all information. In addition, they should ensure watertight special handling of the state’s secrets, the leaking of which prejudices the security of the entire nation. They should increase governance in this area by permitting on a permanent basis independent inspection by suitably cleared people of the effectiveness of the security procedures in place. Moreover, I am sure that the House would find it helpful if the Minister were to give a progress report before the Summer Recess on Sir David Omand’s findings.

My Lords, I concur with some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, in particular in congratulating the BBC on being responsible about this information—thank goodness the member of the public took the material to the BBC and not to some of the more irresponsible media. The first shock about this disclosure is that it happened in the Cabinet Office, which has been commissioned to review data-handling procedures in government following a series of data breaches over the past year. How can we have any faith in the department responsible for clearing up the messes when it is in the middle of perpetrating another one?

I will not gainsay the expert analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, on the threat posed by this lapse in security, but I regret that she is not going to take part in the ensuing debate on data protection and the measures that the Government should put in place. We have a couple of hours this afternoon to explore some of the positive things that could be done about the situation, in which it is quite evident that there is a cultural failure. Nowadays we usually think of technological advances in data protection and the fact that the tools have not kept up with the technology, but this case concerns sheets of paper in an orange folder. The failure even to keep them in a locked briefcase absolutely beggars belief. There is a whole raft of other issues, such as memory sticks that can be left on mantelpieces, CDs whose material can be downloaded and the laptop that was stolen. The list is endless.

The Cabinet Office accommodates the Intelligence and Security Committee, which provides recognised formal training and development for IT security professionals and others. Surely that security regime has to be looked at again. We must ask whether it is sufficient for the Government to appoint one person to conduct an inquiry when there is a systemic failure of this degree in the very department that is supposed to enforce these standards. The Security Commission, which I believe also comes under the Cabinet Office, is tasked to investigate and report on possible or actual breaches of security, but I realise that generally it does not deal with them. I believe that, at the moment, the commission is chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. However, in this case an internal inquiry really is not enough because clearly there has been a systemic failure. Would it not be better to have that body look at this instance, as well as at any other potential cultural failures that are running through the department, and then make suggestions?

I understand that the police were involved in this case at first, but the investigation now seems to have gone off on a complete tangent. Perhaps the noble Baroness could explain why the police are now conducting a forensic investigation when it is clear that the member of staff left the stuff on the seat. Why is police time now being taken up on a forensic investigation of something that is quite obvious? I hope that as many Members of the House as are able will take part in the ensuing debate because there are some serious questions to be answered at greater length.

My Lords, I thank both noble Baronesses for their comments and I shall try to respond to the questions that have been put to me. I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government take this breach of security very seriously indeed. I appreciate the points about the loss of personal data, about which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, reminded us, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham made a full and honest Statement to the House. That loss is also something that the Government regret deeply. However, I am not convinced that it is right to suggest that there is a culture across Whitehall that joins this incident with that event. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, is well aware of the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee and, although I do not want to state the obvious, I point out that the kind of information that we are talking about is handled by the staff of the JIC, who understand very well their responsibilities as Cabinet Office staff. I would not want to detract from that at all: they are all trained and have to sign a personal agreement on appointment that they will abide by the rules. However, there has been a breach of those rules here.

In order to offer all those concerned about this issue an appropriate reassurance, we have set up an investigation under the leadership of Sir David Omand. That investigation will keep the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliamentarians informed, and my right honourable friend Ed Miliband has said that he will keep Members of another place informed. It is therefore right that noble Lords should ask to be kept informed, and that will happen. Moreover, I want to assure noble Lords that the investigation by the police was set in train immediately and is continuing, although I do not want to speculate about what the investigation might turn up. On the specific question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the Security Commission, the chair has been consulted and is content with the approach that we are adopting.

My Lords, I have two questions to put to the Minister. First, while I appreciate that it is entirely appropriate that the identity of the person who lost the documents should not be revealed at this stage, can she give some indication of the level or rank at which that person was operating? I think that that is relevant to the cultural question referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones. Without specifying the exact rank, can the noble Baroness give us some idea of how high or low in the hierarchy of the JIC the person operated at? Secondly, without in any way impugning the integrity of the BBC, may I ask whether there is any knowledge of how wide or narrow has been the circulation of information concerning the contents of these documents? Were copies taken and has an undertaking been made at the appropriate level as to non-disclosure? If not, will the Government consider taking any action in the civil courts that might be appropriate?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not answer his first point. It would be inappropriate at this stage for me to say anything that could result in the identity of the individual being made known. On his second question, about the circulation of the document, there was a gap between the documents going missing on Tuesday morning and the Cabinet Office being notified. The police investigation will of course look into the circumstances around the whole incident. However, I do not want to speculate on what may result from that.

My Lords, may I probe the point made in the Statement that the officer concerned broke rules by taking the documents out of and away from the office? I think that subsequent to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, the Minister said that on appointment to relevant posts, including this officer’s post, documents are signed giving an undertaking to abide by the rules. How frequently is an officer reminded of this matter? Will my noble friend pursue the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, on the inspection of briefcases when they are taken from the office to the outside world? Finally, why, if these documents are important and sensitive, should they be available in loose form that can be taken out of the office in a briefcase or under one’s arm rather than being available only to be looked at, studied and commented on in some secure part of the office in Whitehall?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I believe that my right honourable friend was trying to make it clear in his Statement that, although there was a breach of the rules, that was not because the document was taken outside the premises. It is extremely rare that such documents should ever be taken from specified secure government premises. The point is that, if such a rare occurrence were to be required, clear authorisation should be sought in advance and there should be specific compliance with security procedures around the removal of such a sensitive document. It is true that from time to time it is necessary to take such documents out of the secure premises, which is why there are clear rules about how that should happen, but we have asked Sir David to look at all the circumstances around the incident and to keep the Intelligence and Security Committee informed. The Joint Intelligence Committee will be involved in any outcomes of such a review.

My Lords, I have two questions. The first is about the conversations that the Cabinet Office had with the BBC on Wednesday afternoon. It appears from the Statement that the BBC was requested only not to broadcast the documents’ contents. Does that mean that the Cabinet Office agreed that it could make reference to the fact that it had the documents in its possession, and could those documents have been covered by a D-notice? My second question goes back to an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, on our relations with our allies. From what we have heard on the BBC, these documents were caveated for the eyes only of citizens from certain countries. That has serious implications for our relations with those countries. I would be grateful if the Minister could reply to the question put to her by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, our allies have of course been informed of the breach of security. They were informed on Wednesday and they have therefore had the opportunity to take whatever steps they feel are right. I am not sure whether I have made it clear so far, but those that we have informed to date include the US, Canada and Australia. The documents’ content was covered by a DA-notice but what the BBC said was not, so we communicated to the BBC that we would prefer that it did not broadcast. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, pointed out, it has complied to date with our request.

My Lords, will my noble friend comment on the suggestion that there should be an interim report? It is vital that Parliament should be informed on such an important subject. If there is to be an interim report, when can we expect it?

My Lords, I am going to disappoint my noble friend. It would not be appropriate for me to place a timescale on Sir David’s work. I do not want to second-guess what my right honourable friend will say, but the Government would want Sir David to have the opportunity to undertake a full investigation and we should give him the opportunity to do that without creating an undue restraint. As I said, my right honourable friend has said that Parliament will be kept informed and I will ensure that noble Lords are, too.

My Lords, I apologise for not being in at the start of the noble Baroness’s repeating of the Statement. Will she say whether the documents that were found were original or photocopied and whether they were numbered? I have had some experience of dealing with such documents and I wonder whether at this stage she knows the answer to those questions.

My Lords, despite being tutted about answering the question, I am aware that the documents have been recovered and that they are the originals.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, referred not only to the political damage but also to the fact that such documents could be life-threatening because of the information that they contain. The Minister used the word “authorisation” on a number of occasions. It is mind boggling that such information can so casually be taken out of more secure areas. When she talks about authorisation, is there an established procedure? Does an officer who wishes to take information home ever so rarely have to have a countersigned authorisation from a senior member of the department? Is there a set procedure and is it part of the investigation whether the set procedure was followed?

My Lords, I make it clear to the House and the noble Lord that the set procedure was not followed: the rules were broken. The reason why we have asked Sir David to undertake an investigation is that we want to offer reassurance that we do not take this matter lightly. Had the rules been followed, I am convinced that this would not have happened. There are strict protocols about how information of such sensitivity can be taken out of secure government premises. Let me be absolutely clear: the rules have been broken.

My Lords, it is clear that rules have been broken. There has been an unauthorised removal of papers, which shows that there is a problem with the rules themselves if the papers can be withdrawn. Does this not show that the Cabinet Office has less security than the average supermarket? If we walk out of a supermarket with something that we should not have, it can set off an alarm. It is possible to tag papers so that they set off an alarm if they are being removed from a secure area. Rather than waiting for an interim report, should we not, given the nature of the problem, be pursuing something like that, which could be implemented fairly quickly?

My Lords, the Cabinet Office is not placing any constraints on Sir David Omand’s investigation of the circumstances of this extremely regrettable breach and I do not want to second-guess what he might want to look at. I am sure that your Lordships will have heard what the noble Lord has to say.