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National Security Council Leak

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 2 May 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend David Lidington, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Answer is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the National Security Council takes critical decisions about keeping this country safe. It was established in 2010, in part following lessons learned from the Iraq war, to ensure proper co-ordinated decision-making across the whole of government. It operates with the full breadth of expertise in the room, with Ministers from the relevant departments, advisers and officials, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the heads of the intelligence services, and others.

The decisions which it makes are of critical importance to the safety of British citizens and of British interests, both in this country and around the world. For example, it is inconceivable today that the Cabinet could take a decision to commit combat troops without a full and challenging prior discussion in the NSC on the basis of full papers, including written legal advice, prepared and stress-tested by all relevant departments, and with decisions formally minuted.

I am sure the whole House will recognise how important it is that those decisions are taken in an environment in which members of the council and those who advise them feel free to speak their mind, with absolute certainty that the advice which they provide and the conclusions which they reach will remain confidential.

The leak investigation into the disclosure of information about 5G was constituted in order to ensure that the integrity of the NSC in general is upheld and that, vitally, participants in NSC meetings can continue to hold full confidence in its operation and the confidentiality of its proceedings. The Prime Minister has set out her response to evidence from the leak investigation last night and has thanked all members of the National Security Council for their full co-operation and candour during the investigation.

The unauthorised disclosure of any information from government is serious, and especially so from the National Security Council. The Prime Minister has said that she now considers that this matter has been closed, and the Cabinet Secretary does not consider it necessary to refer it to the police, but we would of course co-operate fully should the police themselves consider that an investigation were necessary. The House will recognise that it is the policy of successive Governments of different political parties not to comment on the detail of leak investigations and I will not comment on specific circumstances or personnel decisions”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer on such a serious matter. There are two issues here. One is the potential provider of 5G, where Ministers can argue their corner in Cabinet, in the NSC or with the Prime Minister; if they still do not like the decision, they can resign and make their case from outside the Government. However, what is not acceptable is to leak from the National Security Council to further one’s argument. This is a breach of trust and, probably, of the Official Secrets Act, as well as damaging to our relationship with close allies. Can the Minister reassure the House that our Five Eyes allies will not withdraw any support as a result of the leak? Can he explain on what basis the decision was taken not to refer this to the police, given that the Prime Minister believes there is compelling evidence that the Secretary of State for Defence was responsible for the leak and that we have heard this morning that the Met Police would not investigate this without such a referral?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. On the first issue that she raised, the 5G decision will be made public in due course and will of course be subject to the usual scrutiny. On the question that she raised about the confidence of our allies, the action that the Prime Minister has taken shows how seriously she takes the leak from the NSC. We are now in touch with our allies to reassure them about the steps we have taken to remain confident in the security of NSC discussions, so that they can continue to have confidence in us.

On the second question, I said a moment ago that the Prime Minister considers the matter closed and the Cabinet Secretary has judged it not necessary to refer the matter to the police. However, Ministers and officials would co-operate should the police want to investigate. The Secretary of State for Defence was dismissed for a breach of the Ministerial Code. I believe that the Prime Minister is entitled to have in her Cabinet colleagues in whose judgment she has confidence and whom she can trust. In this case, that confidence and trust have clearly gone.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place. I also fully accept his analysis of the role and responsibilities of the National Security Council but he may be over-optimistic in thinking that this matter is closed, not least because of the continuing vehemence of Mr Williamson’s denial and the continuing public expressions of anxiety from our partners in the Five Eyes. The truth is that whoever is responsible for this leak, it is an illustration of the continuing and corrosive effect of the breakdown in Cabinet responsibility in this Government. There are those who now claim that the decision of the Prime Minister is to be regarded as a vindication of her authority. I cannot resist making the observation that it would be rather better for us all if she had exercised that authority more frequently in the last three years.

I have great respect for the noble Lord, but I did not detect a question in what he said, just some comments. Personally, I deplore all leaks, NSC and Cabinet. Colleagues should be free to express their views frankly around the Cabinet table and, once they leave the Cabinet table, should keep quiet. I hope that what happened will re-establish more discipline and collective responsibility for decisions, and that people will respect the confidentiality of what happens in Cabinet.

I entirely agree with my noble friend and deprecate all leaks. This was absolutely a sacking offence, whoever did it, and it appears that it was Mr Williamson. However, does the Minister also agree that, notwithstanding the outrage of others, this is not a threat to national security? A conversation was leaked that should not have been, but there is no threat to national security. To bring the Official Secrets Act into it is a complete confection.

What is serious is the forum from which the leak emanated. The contributions of individual members of the NSC were also leaked, and both of those are very serious offences.

My Lords, this was a breach of the Ministerial Code, but it also appears to have been a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Would not civil servants who have been dismissed or prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act now feel aggrieved?

The issue of whether the Official Secrets Act has been breached is a matter for the police and, ultimately, the courts. As I repeated in the Statement, the view of the Cabinet Secretary is that it is not necessary to refer the matter to the police. However, if the police want to investigate, we will co-operate fully.

My Lords, as both noble Lords cannot ask a question at the same time, I will ask my noble friend Lord Cormack to speak first.

I am most grateful, my Lords, and I associate myself entirely with everything that my noble friend has said about leaks and the severity of leaks from the National Security Council. I am probably the only Member of your Lordships’ House who knows Gavin Williamson very well, as my successor as Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire. Does my noble friend accept there is a human dimension to this? As we speak, his wife is in her home with the press camped around. Does the Minister accept it would be sensible, in view of the continued protestations of Mr Williamson, to reconsider referring this matter to the police? Mr Williamson has indicated he would welcome that and I think it would be to the satisfaction of all if it were done.

I can also say that I know Gavin Williamson well, having served in Parliament with him for five years and having been Chief Whip in that time. This is a difficult time for Gavin Williamson, his wife and his children, and I hope the media will give them the time and space they need to come to terms with what has happened. On the further steps my noble friend suggested, as I say, the Cabinet Secretary has judged it not necessary to refer the matter to the police, and the Cabinet Secretary will of course read the comments of my noble friend.

My Lords, how is this matter to be definitively resolved? The Government say the former Defence Secretary is guilty as charged. He is the third Defence Secretary to retire under a cloud, and he completely denies that he is guilty as charged. This is not just a question of the National Security Council; the Secretary of State for Defence is in receipt and a custodian of the most sensitive and secretive areas of British foreign policy and defence, even outside the National Security Council, so it has to be resolved one way or another. I do not know whether there is any guilt attached to the former Defence Secretary, but it is in the interests of this country to clarify this by a deeper investigation. If that means a criminal investigation, so be it.

The noble Lord uses phrases such as “guilty as charged”. The Secretary of State for Defence was dismissed because he was in breach of the Ministerial Code, which says:

“Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. She is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards”.

That is why the Secretary of State for Defence lost his job.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a serious side-effect of such incidents is the constant, increasing rotation of Ministers at every level, which militates strongly against effective government?

That raises a broader issue, but I hope that my noble friend is not suggesting that Ministers who have broken the code should remain in office simply to avoid the rotation to which he referred. If confidence has been lost, the Minister should go.

My Lords, 34 years ago today, I dropped some classified papers when I was rescuing a dog from a river. I was court-martialled for that and punished for it. There is a danger of double standards here, where there is no clarity as to exactly what the offence is. Are senior people in Cabinet being treated differently from all those below them in their organisations?

Any Minister who accepts office knows that he or she goes when the Prime Minister so decides—I speak as someone who has left the Government four times. I am glad that the noble Lord has recovered from the incident and that his career appears to have been unimpeded.