The government should consider imposing financial penalties on civil servants who leak in an attempt to turn around a culture in which people feel “emboldened” to divulge confidential information, a committee of MPs have said.
The Foreign Office in particular must take a “zero-tolerance” approach to leaks, parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has said, after an inquiry found “not all leaks have been treated equally” to date.
Government should consider the “availability and utility of other sanctions” for leakers, whether civil servants, politicians or anyone else, beyond those set out in the Official Secrets Act, the MPs said in a report published today.
“These sanctions could include loss of pension or other employment-related benefits, and retrieval of costs for damages caused by leaks and for the expense of investigating them,” the report, published today, said.
And the government should also examine the sentencing framework set out in the Official Secrets Act itself. Penalties for the most severe breaches “must be severe enough to deter others from taking such reckless decisions”, the MPs said.
The report concludes an urgent inquiry into Foreign Office leaks, triggered by the publication in the press of confidential memos detailing former ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch’s assessments of the Trump administration.
Giving evidence to the inquiry last week, Sir Peter Westmacott, former UK ambassador to the US, France and Turkey, said introducing provisions to fine people responsible for leaks into civil servants' contracts could help to prevent them in future.
Westmacott told the committee there was “scope for having some very firm language, perhaps including financial penalties”.
“It could also be about disqualification from future employment in the public sector if you are deliberately and consciously breaking the rules, even if that stops short of a criminal prosecutable offence under the Official Secrets Act,” he said.
The committee concluded that the recent leak, which led to Darroch’s resignation, arose from a “culture where those who are tempted to leak are emboldened to do so”, given that some leaks are investigated less thoroughly than others, or in some cases not at all.
“Leaks are a canker in the civil service and if permitted at any level will corrode the heart of the institutions that deliver government policy. Not all leaks have been treated equally in the recent past across government and specifically in the FCO,” the MPs said.
“It is difficult not to conclude that where leaked information appears to show the FCO in a favourable light, then the department’s determination to find the source of the leak has not been sufficiently robust,” it said.
But government, particularly the Foreign Office, must not “pick and choose” which leaks to investigate, and must instead pursue all leaks with an “absolute determination to identify and punish the source”.
As well as examining sanctions, the government should review the way it classifies and distributes sensitive information to determine whether it is fit for purport, the committee said.
The committee also demanded the opportunity to hold a pre-appointment hearing with Darroch’s replacement, “given the importance of the appointment”. Until now the government has not allowed select committees to quiz ambassador nominees but the MPs said they believed “strongly that it would be beneficial, as a matter of practice, to have candidates for senior appointments give oral evidence to the committee”.
Such a hearing would not give the committee a veto over the appointment, the report said. “However, it would allow for a better-informed decision to be taken; and at a time when the civil service is being thrust into the centre of the political debate, including an additional layer of scrutiny to the appointment process would provide extra protection against unfair and unfounded claims of political bias of civil servants that incidents such as leaks can generate.”
Condemning the leak that led to Darroch's resignation, committee chair Tom Tugendhat said: “Leaks are corrosive and undermine the work of the FCO, the civil service and the wider government at home and abroad. They place civil servants in untenable situations and betray the trust placed in us to serve our nation.
“The FCO must commit to rooting out all sources of leaks; there must be consistency in approach, sending a clear signal that leaking will not be tolerated at any level.”