Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the leaking of confidential messages from Sir Kim Darroch and their subsequent publication.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this issue. I should perhaps apologise to the Minister and other Front-Bench spokespeople for bringing them to the Chamber at the end of a busy time when the summer is beckoning, but I hope that he and others agree that this is an important issue which we must not lose sight of. I am glad that many colleagues have been keen to contribute to this Question for Short Debate.
I want to begin with my own brief tribute to Sir Kim Darroch. I know how highly he was regarded in the Foreign Office during my own time as a Minister there. I also know what great service he has given over a long and successful career.
The circumstances of his departure from his post have caused great concern across both Houses of Parliament, throughout our embassies abroad and the whole of our Diplomatic Service. Included in the excellent briefing prepared for us by the House of Lords Library is an article by our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, who I know regrets that he is unable to be with us today. He wrote:
“The scandal surrounding the reporting from British ambassador Kim Darroch … is not that he was sending home his unvarnished analysis: that’s what good ambassadors have done for centuries. It’s that someone inside the British system deliberately amassed a stash of his assessments, then chose the moment of maximum impact to leak it. This was not a spontaneous decision to make public a single document: it required premeditation and therefore an agenda”.
What that agenda might have been I will come to shortly.
The Government responded quite properly to the leak by setting up an immediate inquiry and stating their full confidence in Sir Kim. They also said that the inquiry would investigate whether criminality had occurred and expressed their fear that such a leak undermined the professionalism of the Diplomatic Service as a whole and risked making ambassadors wary of giving honest assessments of situations in the countries in which they serve—not all of which are friendly, and some are even dangerous to operate in. The Minister who is responding today said in this House that the inquiry would be concluded in the shortest possible timescale. I would be interested if he could give us any further clues about that timescale today.
As the Minister will know, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place is conducting its own inquiry. On 8 July, the chairman of that committee, Tom Tugendhat, wrote a number of letters, respectively to Jeremy Hunt, who was then Foreign Secretary, to Theresa May, who was then Prime Minister, and to Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police, requesting some detailed information. Have any replies been sent to the committee as a result of those inquiries?
We know that the leak coincided—surely deliberately —with the Conservative Party’s leadership election. The failure of Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, to defend our ambassador when asked to do so in one of the TV leadership debates caused deep alarm and much comment. Sir Alan Duncan, the former Europe Minister, accused him of throwing the ambassador under a bus, and comments from former ambassadors and others subsequently indicated that one factor which led Sir Kim to resign his post, despite the Government’s initial reaction in his defence, was that he felt he could not rely on the support of the likely future Prime Minister.
I was interested to see the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Hague, to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the other place last week, where he was asked by the honourable Member for Edinburgh South, Ian Murray, whether the resignation had set a dangerous precedent if people thought that leaking could get rid of someone whom they did not like. The noble Lord replied:
“I certainly think it has set a dangerous precedent … I think it was most unfortunate that not all former Foreign Secretaries could give robust and unequivocal support, but there is an opportunity to put that right. As I say, there will be, in some form, a new Cabinet next week. Again, I would suggest that that is a good moment to make it clear how the British Government will approach these things”.
Can the Minister tell us today whether the Government will make a Statement about how they will support our professional Diplomatic Service in future? Will the Prime Minister take a different approach now that he is in 10 Downing Street?
The newspaper that published the leak claims that it was in the public interest. I assume the Minister does not agree, but can he confirm that this is the Government’s view as a whole? As many colleagues across Parliament have pointed out, the assessments of Sir Kim Darroch were very similar to much that had already been published both here and throughout the United States over a long period, so, in that sense, publishing the assessments did not provide us with new information. However, the effect of the leak was to harm UK relations with our close ally at a difficult and challenging time for our country as well as to make our ambassadors throughout the world nervous about doing their job objectively and honestly. Is that in the public interest? I think not.
In any case, who should judge the public interest? I am sure that some newspapers are responsible in approaching these issues, but they also want to sell newspapers by publishing juicy stories. Is there an agreed view of what constitutes the public interest?
The journalist who claims that he was the author of the article has said that his “trusted source” neither asked for nor received any payment. Does the Minister have any information about this or is the inquiry still looking into that aspect?
Different Ministers have said different things about whether the newspaper was right to publish. For example, Amber Rudd said that she supported the paper’s decision to disclose the information, adding that we have very precious freedom of press information here.
There was also controversy surrounding the statement of Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, who said that publication of leaked communications when the damage they are likely to cause is known may be a criminal matter. This provoked an outburst from George Osborne, editor of the Evening Standard, who said that Cressida Dick, the head of the Met, should distance herself from this stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who did not appear to understand much about press freedom. However, I thought that, if the Official Secrets Act has been breached, the law as it stands means that criminal prosecution is possible. Was not the Act amended in 1989 to revoke the public interest defence previously in place, so that Neil Basu was simply saying what the current law is? If I am correct, for him to be lambasted and criticised is quite unjustified. I am not aware of any further reaction by Cressida Dick, but perhaps the Minister could let us know if such further statements have been made.
None of us should be above the law and all should be equal before it, and if the law itself is at fault then it should be changed, but the police’s duty is surely to uphold the law as it is. Incidentally, the organisation Hacked Off, for which I have much respect, has been in favour of a such a change in the law so as not to hamper investigative journalism, but, again, it quite rightly stresses that no one should be above the law. It also calls for the Leveson recommendations to be implemented in full, which I support—although I realise that it is not an issue I can deal with in this debate.
Our democracy would be much the poorer without investigative journalism, but I am not convinced that publication of the leaked messages was in the public interest and am concerned that it undermined the work of our Diplomatic Service as well as bringing an end to the career of one of our most able ambassadors. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, that Sir Kim should be replaced by another professional and that those with political agendas and those who want to see ambassadors appointed on the basis of their political views—including whether those views coincide with those of the Governments of friendly countries—should not prevail.
This remains a serious situation which I hope the Government will act effectively to address once the inquiry into who leaked the information is concluded. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. We are all in her debt for obtaining this debate and for the measured and sensible way in which she introduced it. I associate myself entirely with what she said about the leak; “despicable” is the right word to use. It was a despicable act, designed to embarrass and cause damage to a particular cause at a very sensitive time. It is appalling that leaking on an ambassador who is merely doing his diligent best to fulfil his duty should be in any way rewarded. I also agree with what the noble Baroness said about those who publish. I yield to no one in my support for a free press, but it must also be a responsible press that has regard to the national interest. To cause a potential rift between two major allies can never be in the national interest.
We are all indebted, not just to Sir Kim for being an exemplary ambassador but to all those who have served this country professionally and sensibly in the Diplomatic and the Civil Service. I deplore the way in which, over the last few years, so many professional diplomats and civil servants have been effectively sidelined by a proliferation of spads. Of course there is a role for the special adviser, but a proliferation of spads can only damage the standing of the Diplomatic and the Civil Service, which have done so much to uphold our country’s interests over so many years.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, in hoping that the new Prime Minister—to whom I wish success, for all our sakes—will recognise that it would be a blow to the professionalism of the Diplomatic Service if a political appointee was sent to Washington. It is very important that a professional diplomat of Sir Kim’s stature and accomplishment should be replaced by someone similar. There are many men and women in our Diplomatic Service who would be a candidate for such an extremely important and sensitive role. We have a new Foreign Secretary; he is a very political one, but I hope that he will heed this. In passing, I pay tribute to Jeremy Hunt. I regret his going. He conducted himself as a Foreign Secretary should and I wish him every success in the future. I sincerely hope that my noble friend Lord Ahmad will remain in his present post; since he took it up, he has served with great diligence and accomplishment.
It is sad to have to debate this issue on the last day before we rise for the Summer Recess, but it is important. The reputation of our Diplomatic Service is at stake and I very much hope that the new Foreign Secretary—whom I congratulate—will recognise the strength of feeling on this subject in all parts of this House.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for securing this debate. I am almost tempted to say that I agreed with so much of her speech that I could forgo my four minutes. However, I do slightly disagree with her on one point. She expressed concern at dragging the Minister to the House to answer questions this afternoon. During yesterday evening’s last business debate, it appeared that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, might have been acting Foreign Secretary. Most of us around the Chamber thought that this would be a very good thing. This debate is not only important but extremely timely. We have a new Foreign Secretary, but we do not yet have Ministers of State or more junior Ministers —nor, I assume, do we yet have a new ambassador to the United States. Therefore, it could not be more timely to raise the issues mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and to send some messages back to the Prime Minister.
I agreed with a couple of the Prime Minister’s points. The Government have finally made a commitment to the over 3 million EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom. That was a positive statement, made on the steps of No. 10 yesterday and in the House of Commons earlier today. However, we have heard no real commitment to foreign policy. When the leak happened, the response of Boris Johnson—then a candidate for the Conservative leadership—was strange. I would have assumed that, in the context of a leak, the person who is at fault is not the one who has been leaked but the one who has done the leaking. As the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, made clear, the Government suggested that they were conducting an inquiry into the leak. However, what we heard was real criticism not of the person who may have leaked but of Sir Kim Darroch. In his statement at the time, the then Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan, pointed out that we pay ambassadors to be candid. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, pointed out that Sir Kim,
“reflects the best of our diplomatic capabilities, the best of diplomacy, and we stand by him”.—[Official Report, 8/7/19; col. 1685.]
The former Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary did stand by Sir Kim Darroch. He is no longer in post because he realised that his position was untenable, in the light of the comments by the candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, and now Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. So will the Minister confirm that the current Prime Minister and incoming Foreign Secretary believe that it is vital to support our Diplomatic Service; that cables, emails and other forms of communication sent from national capitals back to London should be confidential; and that leaking should not be endorsed in any way, unless there is a clear public interest? Do the Government understand the dangers of conflict of interest if there are too many links between the media and the political class, in particular between those who are reporting and those who are being reported? I trust that the current Prime Minister is no longer employed by the Daily Telegraph, but it would be useful to know.
My Lords, Sir Kim Darroch is a great public servant. All noble Lords who have had the privilege of dealing with him as ambassador to Washington, and before that at UKREP, would support that view. UKREP is at the cutting edge of the practical application of government policy. As a Minister, I dealt with him frequently when he was head of UKREP; I would not have been nearly as effective in my post without him. We pay unreserved tribute to him. His reputation has not been damaged in any way by what happened. He was doing his job to the best of his ability. An ambassador who did not send back cables of the kind Sir Kim sent would not have been doing their job, and that is the end of the matter.
On the impact of the leak, I slightly part company with my noble friend in her forensic opening speech. I do not think it has done any damage to relations between Britain and the United States. There is nothing in those telegrams that would surprise anybody on either side of the Atlantic. It is no different from the commentary that can be read in the papers.
I severely deprecate any application of the Official Secrets Act to the leak. The leak was, I fear, a very good scoop in journalistic terms. How the leak came to be furnished to the Sunday Times is a matter of acute public interest, but I do not for a moment support any view that the Sunday Times should not have published it. I do not see a national interest in suppressing the views of diplomats on President Trump or, indeed, the views of American diplomats on Mrs May. It became an issue because President Trump chose to politicise the leak. What should have happened, and would have happened had we been dealing with a normal American Administration, is that the President of the United States would have made a joke about the leak, something like, “Goodness, you should hear what our ambassador says about your Prime Minister”. That would have been the end of the matter and Sir Kim would have continued in post. In fact, as it happens, he was due to leave the United States in a few months anyway. The reason it became a diplomatic fracas was because of the way the President of the United States chose to mobilise the leak for a political agenda.
The political agenda was clearly to destabilise Her Majesty’s Government. Let us be very clear what is going on. This is all part of a Brexit strategy, which I am afraid includes the Trumpian part of the United States, President Putin and others in this international nexus, who have leapt on Brexit as a means of destabilising our politics and our policy. We should be cognisant of the fact that the people who are propagating this Brexit policy internationally and mobilising leaks, which may include the secret services of Russia playing some part—we do not know where the inquiry is going to go but I would not be at all surprised if it ended up there—are part of a serious destabilisation strategy. The fact that the leak reached the Sunday Times through the Brexit Party—it is laughable, a 19 year-old journalist claiming to have senior contacts in the Civil Service; that is clearly not the case—which is an established route, we now know, for information and destabilisation from Russia, is a matter for concern.
To touch on the wider issues, the bigger issue underlining this is not the position of Sir Kim Darroch, whose reputation is secure, or the standing of our Diplomatic Service; it is the fact that the Government are conducting a policy—Brexit—that has so little confidence among the diplomatic community and in the Civil Service. The undermining and weakening of the Civil Service, which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to, including the parachuting in of an unprecedented number of special advisers to essentially take over No. 10, and the resignation of the Principal Private Secretary, which is unprecedented in the transition between Prime Ministers, is because of the fundamental unviability of the Brexit policy. That is what underlies this leak. It is the big cancer at the heart of British government and it will not be solved by a leak inquiry. It needs a fundamental change of policy on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lord, I have the advantage, in language that might recommend itself to the now Prime Minister, to adopt, brevitatis causa, the most well-argued submission made by the noble Baroness who began this debate. I will therefore confine myself to three points.
The first is that this was done with malice. The precise motive is unclear, but the results were inevitable. On these occasions it is interesting and often fruitful to ask who has profited from the leak. I very much hope that those who are responsible for the investigation are pursuing that principle. Not least important is the fact that a number of people who have an interest in undermining the Civil Service sought to impugn the integrity of the Foreign Office. I doubt if anyone in the Chamber has not had some experience of officials in the Foreign Office or that any of us regard them as having acted in anything other than the public interest.
My second point is that events of this kind may well have an adverse effect on other ambassadors and inhibit their performance of their duty to send back to the United Kingdom a precise and comprehensive assessment of conditions in the countries in which they serve. There is an interesting comparison here, because what we do not know is what the United States ambassador says in private. That leads me to adapt a phrase: people in White Houses should not throw stones. However, we know what Mr Woody Johnson has said publicly. In a radio interview of 31 December last year, he opined: “The United Kingdom is in need of leadership”. It seems to me that that rather comprehensively sums up precisely what Sir Kim Darroch was saying about the United States and President Trump.
My third point concerns the conduct of the now Prime Minister, reference to which has already been made, and his abject failure, when asked on five or six occasions, to give support to Sir Kim Darroch. That is as shameful an omission as I can remember, and it was compounded by the disingenuous explanation he offered days later. The now Prime Minister is sometimes keen to use the language of empire. I have an expression from the days of empire which I think suits him rather well: he is not the kind of man to take on a tiger shoot. Members of his new Cabinet would be well advised to take account of that.
My Lords, I applaud my noble friend Lady Quin for bringing this Motion to the House. I shall focus on what the leak means for relations between Ministers, officials and special advisers. For 15 years of my life I worked closely in that capacity with officials, eight of which were spent working with the Foreign Office and its diplomats. I have spent many hours enjoyably and informatively reading diplomatic telegrams—it was one of the delights of being an insider.
I have great concern about what this episode means for the relationship between politicians, officials and diplomats. It seems to me that the new Government are going to test this relationship to the limits. In politics, you always get leaks where there are disagreements and people want to put forward their own point of view, to position themselves more favourably vis-à-vis someone else. We have always had Cabinets which are, essentially, a team of rivals. It seems that the new Cabinet is a team of sycophants and to be a member of it you have to have the essential quality of faith, as the old evangelical preachers wanted you to have: if only you had faith and you believed something strongly enough, then you could make it true. That is the sycophancy that is at the heart of our new Prime Minister. How is that going to work with officials? I think it will work very badly and that is why the Darroch leak is so serious. I pay my own tribute to Sir Kim, with whom I worked closely over many years.
It seems plausible that the leak occurred as a result of an intervention, as my noble friend Lord Adonis said, with a political, Brexiteer purpose in mind. Sir Kim’s offence in their eyes was that he provided honest analysis of the confusions and contradictions at the heart of the Trump Administration, with whom the Brexiteers want to establish a close relationship while ditching our relationship with Europe. The essence of civil servants is that they must be able, in confidence, to speak truth to power. My fear is that the Johnson Government will not want to be told that their prejudices are wrong; they have no real time for the facts and all that matters to them is the power of the will. This House could play a considerable role in the next few months in trying to launch an inquiry into the relationships between the Civil Service and Ministers. As constitutional guardians, that would be an appropriate role for us, as well as trying to hold the new Government to account. We need to ensure that one of the things that we very much value about this country—the principle that civil servants and diplomats are prepared to give, in confidence, their honest advice—is maintained.
My Lords, it is obvious that the leaks were contemptible and that they were intended to corrupt the process of deliberation within the British Embassy in the United States by giving the impression that the embassy is leaking and therefore cannot be trusted. If one looks at the leaks, it is striking that there is nothing worrying there. No state secrets have been leaked; all that has been leaked is somebody’s view of somebody else. The view leaked is that the ambassador thinks that the American President, or his Administration, is dysfunctional, and asks the British Prime Minister to be careful. I am sure that the American President does not need our ambassador to tell him that—he is smart enough to know what people think of him. What seems to have happened is that he took those charges seriously, not in order to answer them but to use them as a stick with which to beat the British people, and the British Prime Minister in particular, who had dared to question him on one or two occasions, and to make abusive remarks.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion at one level, because the American President, who is thin-skinned and rather touchy, decided to take absolutely ordinary, normal remarks by a professional ambassador as an occasion for abuse. That is the first point I want to make: we should not get these leaks out of proportion. They are not leaks involving state secrets or anybody’s personal life.
My second point is that these leaks are not systematic, nor can they be compared to whistleblowing. Sometimes we have leaks which are intended in the public interest to disclose things that are going on. This is not a case of whistleblowing, because the leaks are the product of a systematic attempt over a period of time to gather together a particular kind of case against the British Government. Since this is the intention behind the leaks, a question arises. I do not want to question the freedom of the press but to look at the morality of it. Somebody leaks these things to a journalist. What is the responsibility of that journalist? If somebody sells or passes on to me stolen goods, what is my responsibility? Is it to say, “I didn’t know”, when of course I knew that they were stolen? Am I completely free to do what I like with them? This is what liberal society tends to think, but many of us who are critical of liberal society want to ask: what about the ethics of the individual recipient of these secrets? Could he or she not alert the Government or say that they will not accept them? Should the journalist be completely absolved of any responsibility for dealing with these leaks?
That second point is just as important. Leaks become public because a newspaper or a public medium takes them seriously and prints them. Does the newspaper editor have absolutely no responsibility? After the leaks have been published, they say that the leaks have damaged the country—but they did so because they were published. Should an editor not have asked themselves that question earlier? I hope that I am not talking as an enemy of liberal freedom; I am simply saying, let us introduce some sense of ethics and personal morality into public life, and ask ourselves what the obligations of a journalist are. If it is a case of whistleblowing, it is fair enough that things might have to be disclosed, but it must be justified. Can a journalist or newspaper justify publishing this in the public interest?
My Lords, I will follow my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem in asking about the malice with which this leak was clearly intended. It was clearly intended to undermine the position of our ambassador in Washington, and it did so very effectively. It therefore takes us to the question of the relationship between officials and Ministers. One has to look at people close to the new Administration who wanted to undermine someone who was seen as not entirely one of them.
The basis of central government in Britain is that Ministers decide and officials advise, and the officials provide expert advice based on the evidence as they understand it. That is what Kim Darroch was doing. I am concerned about the extent to which evidence is currently swept aside by a number of leading people in politics. Faith, optimism and the dismissal of evidence as the product of gloomsters and doomsters undermine democratic and good government, and public confidence in the quality of government, and take us away from the necessary hard detail of Parliamentary democracy. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that we need to come back to the question of the overall impartiality of the Civil Service and the importance of defending it, as it is now under attack, both from the right and the left.
I have some worries about the press, and I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken about its behaviour on this. We have a free press, but it has a degree of responsibility, and the question of what you publish—which pieces of evidence you get that you decide are in the public interest—is something that even the Daily Mail should consider on occasion.
I am also worried by what Tim Shipman said in the Sunday Times:
“There are lots of rumours that Farage is choreographing this”.
Farage was the first to demand that Kim Darroch should go. I noted a later report stating that when President Trump sent his congratulations to our new Prime Minister, Nigel Farage was with him. That begins to worry me quite a great deal, and it would worry me if I were a Conservative who wanted this Government to succeed. One is not entirely sure that one wants the “idiot right” to get at the Conservative Government from alongside them, with privileged access to the President of the United States. The test to come of who now replaces our ambassador is extremely important for those of us who want to have some confidence in there being a foreign policy of some sort for the new Government—no political appointee.
I note that Kim Darroch spoke in one of the leaks of the “diplomatic vandalism” of the Trump Administration. I fear a degree of diplomatic vandalism in this new Administration, particularly in their attitude to the European Union, and in the attitude of our new Prime Minister, who says that if the European Union is not sensible enough to accept what we are going to propose, it will be its fault and we will have to walk away. That is not the way in which anyone who wants to conduct successful diplomacy should be thinking.
In these circumstances, we wish to see, as far as possible, reasonable voices within the Foreign Office. I think that all of us within this Chamber recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is one of the reasonable voices in the Foreign Office, and we very much hope that we will see him in his current post, or better, as one of those who is trying to keep the thing on track in September.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Quin for giving us a second bite of the cherry on this issue. We already had the opportunity to address it when we had the repeat of an Answer. I had the opportunity to cite Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who said it was essential that we all stand up for those who we send abroad. I repeat what I said then: it is deeply shameful that Boris Johnson was unable to do that, despite the six opportunities he had in the TV debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, who is in her place, responded to the Urgent Question by saying that it was important that the process for replacing the ambassador was done in the usual way—by the Prime Minister on the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation, with the approval of Her Majesty. Obviously, so many changes may delay that, but I hope that the Minister will be able to say exactly when we can expect a replacement for that important post. Like many noble Lords, I think it is really important that the replacement is a professional diplomat, so that we can restore confidence in our Diplomatic Service. My noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Liddell are absolutely right to be concerned about the underlying issues here.
The last time we discussed this, I found it deeply distressing that a former permanent secretary in the Foreign Office, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, had to ask the question: will the Prime Minister and his Government remain committed to the political independence and impartiality of the Diplomatic Service and the Home Civil Service? The fact that that question had to be asked should concern us all.
What are the other impacts of this political leak? As noble Lords have said, including my noble friend, it was not a matter of security or even public interest; it was a political leak deliberately designed to cause damage. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who is in his place, who said at the time as chair of our International Relations Committee:
“From now on, all ambassadorial communications will inevitably to some degree be self-censored to make sure that, in the event of a leak, the career of the ambassador concerned does not come to a rapid halt, and the Government will therefore no longer be in receipt of the uninhibited frank advice which is essential to good policy-making”.
I hope the noble Lord will confirm that there will not be that impact and that we will be able to restore confidence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, said:
“It is vital that the inquiry lifts the drains to find out who was responsible for this completely unacceptable conduct. It is also right that if the miscreant is identified and found, appropriate proceedings should follow”.—[Official Report, 11/7/19; col. 1889.]
Tell us then when the inquiry will be completed. How quickly will we see the result? Are we certain it will be conducted in the way that we hoped it would be under the previous Government? We are all concerned about the impact this will have on future relationships.
I hope that we will not have any further leaks. We read in the Sunday Times in the early days of the investigation that unnamed government sources said that a suspect had been identified. Is the Minister concerned that we have ongoing leaks, clearly designed to cause political damage? We all want answers soon. I hope that the Minister will be able to give them to us.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for tabling this important debate. I put on record my thanks for her long-standing commitment to international affairs over many years, including during her time as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Her introduction reflected her insights and experience in this regard.
There was a pregnant pause in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Collins. He said, “The new US ambassador”, then he said, “the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie”, and paused. That brought a look of concern—or it may have been delight, but certainly surprise—to my noble friend’s face. That decision, which several noble Lords asked about, remains to be made.
Rightly, the question has been asked about the relationship between Ministers and our diplomats—and about Ministers across the board and the Civil Service. It is a most important relationship—a sacred relationship. I have been a Minister in four departments, and the advice offered by our civil servants, officials and diplomats across the world is invaluable. They provide invaluable insight into the lay of the land and, yes, they must be candid, as Sir Kim Darroch was. Like the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, among others, I have worked with Sir Kim. I remember his time as a National Security Adviser. On very sensitive issues, his guidance and advice were invaluable. I join the noble Lord, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and others in paying tribute to Sir Kim. We wish him well in every respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the new Foreign Secretary and the new Prime Minister. I am sure we all wish them well in their new roles. I disagree with the description of the new Cabinet by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. I know many of them well, not just as colleagues but as friends, and I assure him that many reflect the true values and traditions of one nation Conservatism. Turning to the new Foreign Secretary, the noble Baroness may not know that he served a tenure as a Foreign Office diplomat: he was a legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so he is well versed in both sides of the equation. I can speak for both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in putting on record that our Diplomatic Service has our utmost trust and unstinting support in all it does. I am sure that reflects the sentiments of all noble Lords.
As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, diplomatic cables provide invaluable insights. There is an enormous number of dip tels—as they are abbreviated—which Ministers have to read, but the leak of diplomatic cables in this case was a serious and totally unacceptable breach. It was, as my noble friend Lord Cormack described it, a despicable leak of classified information. It is an important principle of the Diplomatic Service that posts can report frankly and in confidence. That is key to the Government being able to promote and protect UK interests around the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked some specific questions about the inquiry. I am sure noble Lords will respect the fact that this is an ongoing inquiry, so there is a limit to what I can share at this stage, but on 12 July, Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Basu announced that a criminal investigation had been launched into this malicious link under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act, and it is right that the perpetrator should face the consequences of their action.
Questions were raised about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in this respect. He said:
“It is absolutely vital that the advice that civil servants give to ministers should not be leaked”,
and expressed the strong sentiment that the perpetrator should be fully held to account for the consequences of their action. Questions were asked about timing. I am not yet aware of when the inquiry will be concluded.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, also raised the important principle of the freedom of the press. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, it defines our democracy. Anyone who works in journalism or on the press circuit will also respect the fact that, as he said, with it comes responsibility. It is also important that the rule of law is respected.
I have been clear on this issue as far as I can. I am sure that as we receive updates, we will share them with noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked specific questions about the letters written by the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The permanent under-secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, and the former Foreign Secretary have responded to the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who wrote to them after the leak. Sir Simon also appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee shortly after the leak. We now await the full conclusion of the MPS investigation and will also look at the conclusions of the FAC inquiry, which was published earlier today.
I put on record some key points from the letter from Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent under-secretary. It is not necessary for a Minister or any official to have signed the Official Secrets Act, but they must be bound by it—that was a specific reference he made. The leak of a diplomatic telegram, as published in the Sunday Times, was investigated by the FCO’s secretary, but the results were inconclusive. All staff receive training on these important issues.
I speak as a Minister. A Minister is responsible and accountable, and we need to ensure that that sacred bond between civil servants and Ministers is protected; the responsibility is on both sides.
Among others, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the US-UK relationship. We have been clear with the US Government that we deeply regret the leaks that happened. These leaked extracts of embassy reporting do not reflect the closeness of, and esteem in which we hold, our relationship with the United States.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, mentioned comments made by the US ambassador. As we have said to the US and would say to any country, we expect our ambassadors, high commissioners and diplomats to be candid, as they would expect of their own diplomats. The perpetrator of this criminal offence was the person who made these leaks. As I have said, we need to ensure that we totally support our diplomats and the excellent job they do, wherever they serve, but, equally, that we do so understanding that it is an important relationship that needs to be not only protected but, in light of recent events, strengthened.
Did the leaks cause damage? As has been mentioned, they triggered the resignation of the UK’s excellent ambassador to the United States. That is a critical role in defending and furthering the UK’s interests in Washington and providing valuable insight into and understanding of US policies and intentions. The leak also risks undermining the good will generated by the state visit. But, as I experienced for myself directly when I visited Washington last week—we had discussions at the White House and I attended the international conference on freedom of religion—the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is strong. It has withstood many challenges and will withstand this one. The strength of our relationship is underlined by not just our common history but the shared values we express. Our close ties also extend into the economic sphere, with 1 million Americans going to work for British companies in the US every day and 1 million Brits doing the same for American companies here—as I used to.
I turn briefly to the actual resignation of Sir Kim Darroch. It is a matter of great regret that Sir Kim felt it necessary to leave his post. He has given an absolute lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and I join other noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin—in not only thanking Sir Kim but saying, “We owe you a great deal and thank you for your service to the Foreign Office and the Government”. Sir Kim made the decision to resign to act, as he has always done, in an honourable fashion and to relieve the pressure on his family. Importantly, he also thought of his colleagues —an act of selfless duty that epitomised yet again the best of diplomacy.
I conclude by making clear that, in the wake of Sir Kim’s resignation, we strongly encourage our ambassadors around the world to continue to give full and frank assessments of politics in their country and not to set out on a path towards self-censorship. I share the sentiments expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, about ensuring that we reach a prompt conclusion to the inquiry being undertaken so that we can work towards restoring confidence, not just between diplomats and Ministers but between the two states as well. That is what the UK Government and the British public should expect and what we will be determined to deliver. A muted Diplomatic Service is not in anyone’s interest; it is not in our national interest.
Ambassadors’ views do not necessarily always match those of the UK Government—I accept that—but honest reporting is essential for any Government to make informed decisions. For the sake of this principle we must send a clear message to the perpetrators of this leak, and indeed to anyone who perceives that leaking is somehow helping or will further a personal cause: such betrayals of confidence are unacceptable and will rightly be fully investigated. The leaking of Sir Kim’s reporting was totally unacceptable and manifestly damaging to UK interests. It is therefore right that we hold the perpetrator to account for these unconscionable actions.
As we near the end of this debate, I thank all noble Lords for their expert insights yet again. I shall see whether it is indeed my responsibility to update noble Lords accordingly, but—in this debate and others I have had the opportunity to respond to—the insights of your Lordships’ House are invaluable. In my role as a Foreign Office Minister, I put on record my personal thanks to my very able Foreign Office Whip, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, with the backdrop of the challenges of travel. I am grateful as well to the outgoing Chief Whip for his support in granting me those precious slips. I have been honoured to represent my country in the best way I was able to. I also put on record my particular thanks to the Front Benches opposite. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, among others, for their support and advice. When it comes to foreign affairs and to standing up for our country on the international stage, we come together as one. We have our respectful differences and debates, but I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for their support. Finally, I put on record my thanks for the very kind remarks I have received from various quarters during this debate and yesterday.
We often ask, “What does the future hold?” I end with perhaps an apt phrase when we talk about the relationship between the UK and the US: in God we trust.