adequate mechanisms are not yet in place.
Obvious and dangerous issues arise from this kind of failure to comply with basic procedures, and the fact is that there may beI should be grateful for the Ministers comments about thisa real problem with civil service morale, leading to laxity in the way in which procedures are not complied with.
The Cabinet Office has responsibility for information security across the whole Government, and the Minister for the Cabinet Office is its ministerial head. I am sorry to have to say that there is no evidence that he takes this crucial part of his responsibilities nearly seriously enough. When we have asked questions in the past, he has allowed his junior Ministers to reply on this crucial issue. It is clear that he did not even read the Coleman report when it was published last summer. Does he understand that he must himself take very direct personal responsibility for this latest shocking failure at the heart of his own Department? Ministers cheerfully claim credit for anything good that happens, but all the failures are someone elses fault. Does the Minister understand that this buck really does stop with him?
Edward Miliband: My reason for coming to the House at the earliest opportunity was precisely to inform it of what I know about this serious situation, and, indeed, to take responsibility on behalf of the Government for sorting it out.
Let me deal with the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). Some, obviously, will be the subject of the continuing investigation by the police, and also the investigation by Sir David Omand.
The right hon. Gentleman asked when I was informed, and when the Prime Minister was informed. We were both informed yesterday afternoon. Then, fairly quickly, I spoke to Alex Allan, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the copies of the documents that were returned were the original copies. They were, but obviously the police will investigate the question of the originals and how they found their way from the train where they were lost on Tuesday to the BBC.
Why did the individual concerned remove the documents? That is and should be a matter for the current investigations, but, as I have said, I think that it is an important point. There was a clear breach not simply of the rules, but of rules to which people sign up when they join the assessment staff.
The right hon. Gentleman asked why copies of such documents were provided. A very small number of copies are provided, some of them for people who attend JIC meetings. As the right hon. Gentleman knows,
information security of all kinds is not without its risks, although I take his point about the need to minimise the number of documents that are produced.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I was aware of any problems relating to the work of the JIC. I think that the JIC does an extremely good job for our country, and I was not aware of any problems.
There were clear rules in this case. I have set out those rules, and the way in which people sign up to them when they go to work for the assessment staff. This is a case in which those rules were not followed, and it is a matter of deep regret that they were not followed. As I have said, the rules are in place; but to provide the necessary reassurance, we have asked Sir David Omand to consider whether any more can be done to provide the necessary safeguards. We will of course await the outcome of his investigation.
I think that the right hon. Gentlemans point about civil service morale was slightly beneath him. Civil servants do an extraordinary job, particularly in the intelligence services. I do not believe that that is the reason why the documents were left on a train.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for coming to the House at the earliest opportunity. When issues of this kind arise, Ministers ought to make themselves available to answer questions in the House. However, I am somewhat concerned about one part of my right hon. Friends statement. He said there was a clear breach of well-established security rules that forbid the removal of documents of this kind outside secure Government premises. Members of the House of Commons who serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee have to go to the Cabinet Office to read the documents there. They may not be removed. Why on earth does someone who works in the Cabinet Office need to remove documents at all?
Edward Miliband: My right hon. Friend has raised an important point. I can tell him that there are circumstances in which people must have meetings outside secure premises and documents need to be transferred from one place to another, but the most stringent rules exist, although I will not go into the details. As for the briefcases and other secure items in which documents are carried, I can reassure my right hon. Friend that it is exceptional for documents to be taken out of the building. Authorisation needs to be sought, and if it is given, it is given only in the most secure circumstances. As I said earlier, it was not sought in this case.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD):
All of us are probably appalled that we have to be here today because of a breach of security on this scale. A tribute has been paid to the BBC for its prompt response, but perhaps we also owe a tribute to the finder of the documents, who could presumably have taken them to some other
less responsible parties, perhaps in return for remuneration. Thank goodness the person who laid hands on them had some good sense.
We are all aware that this is not the only loss of informationthe leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), counted some 37 million pieces of personal data that went missing last yearbut I have to say that this is on a different scale and of a different order, and perhaps we should not conflate the two issues.
I noted the slight irony that the Department that the Government have asked to review data-handling procedures is the Cabinet Office. Looking at ones own home first may, in fact, be an appropriate step.
I have only a few questions to add to those that have already been asked. It is, perhaps, possible to be almost too glibly certain that the documents never passed into the wrong hands, and I hope those conducting the investigation will consider that carefully rather than dismissing what happened as simply chance and accident. Although I think we all overwhelmingly believe that that is what it must have been, any other possibility should not be ruled out at this early stage, and I ask for this possibility not to be mentally dismissed or treated in a trivial way.
Both the BBC and The Guardian have reported that, under strict proceduresthe Minister mentioned some of themofficials can take secret documents out. Perhaps we need to know a little more about what those procedures are in order to have an idea of whether or not they made sense in this case. A mere locked box, for example, does not seem terribly appropriate.
The main question that I want to ask, however, is this: to what extent are the procedures fine while the culture is not? A much more casual culture can easily develop, in which someone dumps the contents of an in-tray into a briefcase to read or to work on at home, having lost the sense that certain key documents carry real importance and real concern. At that point, even if all the procedures are in place, if the culture has led to the loss of that senseand I doubt that this was a one-off; the loss may have been, but I bet the taking home was nota much more fundamental problem exists, which must be examined.
Let me pick up something that was said by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). I am anxious that this episode should not become a slur on the civil service as a whole. Presumably, it involved someone who made an error or did something wrong at a
Susan Kramer: At a very senior level. We do not need to treat this incident as suggesting that the civil service at large is not conscious of these issues. However, I would like the question of the culture to be thoroughly addressed.
Let me start by associating myself with the hon. Ladys comments about the civil service. As she says, it is easy in such circumstances to attach general opprobrium to the civil service. That would be wrong, because the vast majority of civil servants not
only do a very good job, but do it with a proper regard for information security. It is important to put that on the record.
The hon. Lady made a point about the rules for taking documents out of buildings. Let us be absolutely clear: in this case, there was no authorisation for the documents to be taken out of the building. The rules were absolutely clear: authorisation should be sought. Such documents should be taken out of buildings in the most exceptional circumstances only, and in the securest of briefcases and with other such security attached. As I have said, there was no authorisation in this case, and there was no such security.
The hon. Lady also raised the issue of culture. Let me return to the first point I made: it would be a bit too easyand also wrongto say that because one out of 40 or 50 members of the assessment staff took a document out of the building without authorisation, that is a part of a general culture either there or elsewhere. Having said that, however, we want Sir David Omand to look at the necessary procedures and safeguards precisely in order to ensure both that that is not the case and that any necessary safeguards are in place.
Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I will not follow the Opposition spokesmans stance of sentence first and trial afterwards, but that does not mean that there are not some serious questions to pose. Although I accept that the Minister will not be able to answer all of them today, I think they should form a part of the Omand investigation. There are top secret documents not only in the JIC and the Cabinet Office, but in other offices across Whitehall. Will the message that classified documents cannot be taken out of a secure environment except under certain conditions be strongly reinforced? Secondly, what explanation is there about the gap between the alleged leaving of the documents on Tuesday morning and the notification to the Cabinet Office on Wednesday morningwill that question be asked? Thirdly, the inquiry must look at the question, which will be in peoples minds, as to whether those documents were taken from the office for the purpose of being leaked.
Edward Miliband: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his contribution. On his first point about classified documents, he is right that we should reinforce that message, and because of the gravity of this incident we are taking steps to do so not only to the assessment staff, but to all staff who handle intelligence-related material. That message is, as we speak, being conveyed by the Cabinet Secretary and other permanent secretaries across Government. My right hon. Friend asked about the timeline. It is for the police investigation to trace exactly what happened, and I think he will understand why I do not want to comment on that. Finally, let me say to my right hon. Friend that there is a need to improve the information security culture. We want Sir David Omand to conduct a review in order to look at questions to do with the security of intelligence-related material, and that is what he will do.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con):
I am rather astonished that no reference has been made to the searching of individuals as they enter and leave premises where top secret material is held. Why should somebody who works in such premises not be searched
on leaving premises to check that they are not removing classified material? Is that routinely done, and if so, do people of a sufficient level of seniority think themselves above such procedures?
Edward Miliband: All issues will, of course, need to be looked at by Sir David Omand. Searching each individual from the assessment staff who leaves the building each evening would clearly be quite an onerous task.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Many of us have been campaigning for many years for more transparency in Government, but this is not what we had in mind. I welcome the Ministers decision to come to the House so speedily and to set up the inquiry so quickly, given the terms of reference that he has mentioned. Only the most partisan person would feel that he was in any way responsible for what happened: he was not on the train; he was not reading the document; and he did not take the documents out of the relevant Department. Will he undertake to ensure that he has discussions with other colleagues who are most closely involved with these matters? I saw that the Home Secretary was sitting beside him a few moments ago. Has he had discussions with her, and will he ensure that when the inquiry is completed, it will be publishedat least those facts that can be put into the public domainso that we know what the process was and whether it was followed? Also, will he undertake to come back to the House with that report?
Edward Miliband: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who takes a great interest in these matters as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He asked about my discussions with other colleagues; I have discussed this matter with the Home Secretary. My right hon. Friend will know that in the past such inquiries have had an element that must remain classified, which is why I mentioned the Intelligence and Security Committee, but I will, of course, keep the House informed of Sir David Omands conclusions.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I recognise that such mishaps can occasionally happen. I was in the Foreign Office for five years, and I was aware ofindeed, involved inoccasional lapses of this kind. Incidentally, may I say to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that I would not have favoured being searched when I left the Foreign Office. What is important is to learn from these experiences and to try to make improvements, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has said there has now been a pattern of failure over many monthsthere have been many incidents. That suggests to me that the mistakes are not being addressed, despite the many inquiries that have doubtless been set up. Therefore, may I say that it is the business of the right hon. Gentleman and of senior officials to bear down on what I suspect is a very casual attitude that is now being taken with regard to documents of this kind?
Edward Miliband: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his comments. He can take up with the hon. Member for New Forest, East whether he would have wanted to have been searched on leaving the Foreign Office. No doubt, Sir David Omand will consider the matter. As for the question about culture, let me make the point that this matter relates to one individual within the assessment staff. Because of the gravity of this issue, we have taken action to remind all the assessment staff and those across Government dealing with such sensitive material about security, and we have asked Sir David Omand to conduct his investigation in order to look at whether more can be done to put the necessary safeguards in place.
Let me say a few words on information security. Regrettably, I would not be being honest if I were to give a guarantee that no such incidents will ever occur. What I can say, however, is that we should take the necessary action and take all the steps we can to prevent them from happening. That is why I have come before the House today.
Andrew Mackinlay: Is it not a fact that this official was a seconded MI5 officer, and that, therefore, all this business about him being part of the assessment staff is part of an attempt to play this incident down? Although the Minister is innocent of responsibility for this cock-up, he is responsible for addressing the investigation and the remedy. I have no confidence whatever in Sir David Omand; he is a safe pair of hands, and will be involved in a cover-up. Does the Minister recall a conversation I had with him three weeks ago, when I told him there was no parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services? He promised to come back to me, but he did not. I reiterate my point: unless or until there is a Committee of Parliament looking into these matters, we can have no confidence about the veracity of the security and intelligence services and the so-called investigations. Let us have a parliamentary Committee now.
Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has very strong views about the status of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I recall our discussion, and it will no doubt be a continuing part of his discussions with the Government and those people who are responsible for these decisions.
Edward Miliband: I am not going to get drawn into a discussion of the status of the individual concerned. Apart from anything else, I do not think that would be fair to that individual. As for my hon. Friends comments about Sir David Omand, I met Sir David this morning and he is determined to conduct a rigorous investigation to ensure that, as far as possible, we have the necessary safeguards in place.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP):
I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance notice of it, and for his candour in saying that no authorisation was sought for the removal of the documents and in describing the breaches in guidelines, procedures and rules. In any number of the answers that he has given, he has said that the latter needed to be beefed up. My concern is not about guidelines, but about the fact that there appears to be no physical or technical restriction preventing
people from getting documents in the instance of a rule breach. Rules will always be breached, either innocently or out of malice. So, will the Minister assure me that when the Government examine this properly, they will examine not only rules, guidelines and instructions, but physical and technical restrictions that will simply prevent a document from being accessed or handed over when the rules have been breached?
Edward Miliband: Again, I want to be slightly cautious in what I say about the circumstances of this case, for reasons that the House will understand. When individuals are closely involved in the production of a document, they will clearly have access to itit is hard to prevent that from happening. The hon. Gentleman made a wider point about Sir Davids review and its examination of what can be done. I am not coming to this place promising magic solutions, and, in a way, we must let Sir David do his work. He is experienced and expert in these matters, so we must allow him to examine what can be done, to make his judgment about the safeguards and the rules that are in place, and to report accordingly.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The security of information, whether electronic or on paper, clearly must be given higher priority by all organisations, both in the public and private sectorrecent lapses have also occurred in banks and so on. Sir Edmund Burton was charged with looking at the problem that occurred in the Ministry of Defence when a laptop was left on the back seat of a car. Has my right hon. Friend seen a report from Sir Edmund Burton? Can lessons be learned from that? Can we have a discussion in this House about information assurance in its broader sensenot necessarily in terms of things that are covered by the Official Secrets Actto convince us that a proper process, led by his Department, is under way that will comfort the public, who are concerned about how the Government handle data?
Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend obviously has expertise in these matters. First, Sir Edmund Burton is reporting to the Defence Secretary, and that report is a matter for him. More important than that is the broader issue, which relates to the ongoing report by Sir Gus ODonnell into the wider lessons that we should learn about information assurance. A number of hon. Members on both sides have talked about culture change, and that particular question needs to be addressed in relation to data issues, which have obviously been the subject of much discussion over the past few months. There are also obviously issues to be addressed on the handling of paper documents, as we have discovered in the course of the past 48 hours. My hon. Friend is right to say that these issues need to be taken very seriously by this House and by others.