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Secret Documents

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 28 June.

“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.”

The Minister will know that this is the third known MoD security breach this year including documents marked “UK eyes only”, so it is no wonder that an investigation is needed. Can the Minister confirm that all the documents lost have been recovered? How can evidence of preparations for future Armed Forces conduct around the world have been leaked? Can she reassure our excellent Armed Forces personnel that there has been no jeopardy to current or future operations as a result of the breach? Will she also ensure, as was said in the other House, that the investigation is completed by early next week and the results are published as promised at that time? The public and the House need to be reassured that Ministers have taken all the necessary actions to stop this series of breaches.

I thank the noble Lord for his points. Let me make it clear that this was a most regrettable breach of security and is being taken extremely seriously by the department, hence the investigation to which he refers. I confirm to him that the BBC contacted MoD to say that it had the papers. MoD then worked with the BBC to ensure that nothing was reported which materially affected national security, and the papers have now been safely returned to MoD.

The investigating team will, of course, consider a wide range of circumstances—the breaches of protocol that seemed to surround the loss of the documents—and whether recommendations need to be made to improve procedures. However, I reassure your Lordships that very robust procedures already exist and documents of such a sensitive nature are accompanied by a very strict management regime. The investigatory team will be looking at all these issues. As to the timing of the investigation’s report, my understanding is that there is a desire to have some initial comment by next week. However, the noble Lord will understand that I am reluctant to be specific about a date, lest other material emerges which the team requires to investigate. But yes, it would be the intention of the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that the team’s conclusions and findings are made available to Parliament.

Anything other than full disclosure—always taking account, of course, of the national interest—would not be welcome, so I am grateful to hear the noble Baroness give that undertaking. I also understand the constraints she has to operate under at the moment, but noble Lords who have served on the Intelligence and Security Committee will recall that there was an absolute prohibition on any documents of any kind being taken out of the committee office. Can the Minister tell us what the policy was in the Ministry of Defence, and in what circumstances anyone was, by way of policy, entitled to remove documents from the main building?

It is within the rules to remove documents from the building in certain limited circumstances, so long as they are recorded and secured in the appropriate fashion. In short, as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, there are policies and procedures in place that allow for the removal of classified information. It will be for the investigation team to determine whether these procedures were followed correctly.

This was indeed an important security breach and really quite concerning, but we bandy the word “secret” around without necessarily understanding what it means. There are different levels of classification, of which “secret” is just one. For example, “UK eyes only” is not a classification; it is a national caveat. However, if it genuinely was a secret document, why did it leave the building when it never should have? Does that imply that we should make this inquiry wider, looking at what exactly the procedures are, to ensure that this really does not happen again?

The loss of MoD documents of this classification is extremely rare and I reassure my noble friend that there has not been such a loss within the last 18 months. Despite that, we take the matter very seriously. We have launched a full and thorough investigation and will look at the actions of individuals, as well as the procedures, policies and processes in place. I reassure your Lordships that any recommendations or lessons identified by the investigation will be considered as a matter of urgency.

My Lords, General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, has said that incidents such as the recent confrontation with Russia in the Black Sea are “giving him sleepless nights” and could lead to a “miscalculation”. Can we assume that yet another MoD whistleblower leaked the documents because they felt that HMS “Defender” sailing so close to the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters was both provocative and dangerous? Can the Minister remind the House how many wars Russia has fought over the centuries to keep Sevastopol Russian, including the Crimean War of 1853?

I am not going to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the documents or their ultimate transmission to the BBC; that is for the inquiry team to determine. I am also not going to discuss the content of the documents, for obvious reasons. As the noble Lord raises issues already in the public domain in relation to HMS “Defender”, and as he will be aware that there was a Written Ministerial Statement on 24 June, I can confirm that HMS “Defender” was proceeding entirely in accordance with international law, behaving entirely appropriately and conducting innocent passage through a stretch of water open to international navigation.

My Lords, breaches of security at such a high level are rightly of concern to members of the public and Members of this House. This Question has important implications regarding blackmail and breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Can the Minister clarify the circumstances in which the documents were found? Can she also say whether it is normal practice to hard copy security materials that can be handled digitally and securely? Will the identity of the negligent official eventually be made public?

As far as the noble Lord’s question relates to the process of investigation, he will appreciate that I am unable to comment on any details pertaining to that. As I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, suitable IT platforms exist across government but it is within the rules to remove documents from the building in certain limited circumstances. However, very strict rules and procedures govern their removal. How the breach occurred is a matter for the investigating team to determine.

My Lords, in the aftermath of the discovery of the papers, the BBC—as the Minister noted—rightly protected operational matters that might have put servicepeople at risk. Its reporting focused on the debate around the decision to send HMS “Defender” on that route. Does the Minister agree that that is a reflection of public interest—in the most genuine sense of the term—in the route decision, which was apparently a subject of disagreement between the two departments concerned? Is it not the case that, while the right of innocent passage may need to have been asserted, the UK might not have been the right country and this might not have been the right way to do it?

Again, I have said that I am not going to comment on the content of the documents, but in so far as matters relating to HMS “Defender” are in the public domain, I will simply repeat to the noble Baroness that HMS “Defender” was acting in accordance with international law and that it was entirely appropriate and legal for the Royal Navy to sail this route; it is an internationally recognised shipping route. Importantly, it is the most direct route from Odessa to Batumi in Georgia. The United Kingdom does not recognise any Russian claim to these waters. The noble Baroness will be aware that, in the Black Sea at that time, there was not only a UK naval presence; allies were present as well.

My Lords, there has been a suggestion that some of the documents were printed on pink paper, indicating the sort of material that should not be removed from the MoD except under exceptional circumstances and according to strict procedures. What were those exceptional circumstances in this case and what are those strict procedures?

The noble Baroness is posing questions about issues that it will be for the investigation team to investigate and determine and, to which it will need to find answers. As I have said, the removal of documents from the building is not unprecedented and, in very strict and regulated circumstances, is permitted. It will be for the investigating team to ascertain in full detail what happened and whether appropriate policies, procedures and processes were duly complied with.

Sitting suspended.