Former top-ranking diplomats have expressed concerns that integrity in some parts of the diplomatic service could be “eroding” following a row over leaked memos written by former ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch, and raised the prospect of fining officials for leaks.
Appearing before parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, the ex-diplomats welcomed the government's response to the leak. Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald has said the Cabinet Office will lead a government-wide inquiry into the leak that led to Darroch’s resignation last week, and the Metropolitan Police opened a separate investigation on Friday.
Sir Adam Thomson, former UK permanent representative to NATO and director of the European Leadership Network, told MPs that when it came to preventing leaks, “my strong view is that this is really all about the integrity of the working practices of the British diplomatic service and the British government.
"My sense is that that is eroding a bit, although leaks are still more the exception than the rule.”
Sir Peter Westmacott, former UK ambassador to the US, France and Turkey, said it was “terribly important” that the inquiry uncovered how and why the leak happened, and said introducing powers to fine any civil servants responsible for leaks could help to prevent them in future.
“[The cause of the leak] might be something absurd, ridiculous and accidental, or an act of malevolence or a so-called whistleblower, but it might be something a great deal more sinister,” such as hacking by a "malevolent government", he said.
“If it is about a culture of individuals, for political or other reasons, who think, ‘I can just do that to ensure that the civil service is no longer a bunch of namby-pamby professionalised, apolitical creatures, and we can get real believers into the key positions of authority'. We need to know that as well.”
Asked whether he thought civil service contracts should be amended to introduce fines for officials who are found to have leaked confidential information, Westmacott said 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.
“That would be helpful, but it is also about people feeling loyalty to government, colleagues, the system and the integrity of their profession so that they do not want to do it.”
Thomson said it was “very welcome to see… that stern action is being pursued” after Darroch’s memos, one of which described the Trump administration as “uniquely dysfunctional”, appeared in the press earlier thins month.
“If somebody is sacked for damaging disclosures that contravene the Official Secrets Act, that is healthy for the functioning of our system. Confidentiality is absolutely the lifeblood of doing diplomacy,” Thomson said.
Asked whether the existing classification system for secret documents was still fit for purpose, he said the Foreign Office used the same classifications as the rest of government. "That makes sense; there are reasons for that.
“It is hard to imagine that changing easily. It is not that FCO communications are uniquely more sensitive than those of other agencies or departments.”
Westmacott said he did not believe a review of the classifications “would be much help”. “You could [carry out a review], but you would spend a lot of time and a lot of money looking at it. We did that not very long ago,” he said.
“The fundamental thing, I am afraid, is the culture of integrity and loyalty of the people who see this stuff and handle it,” he added.
The former officials also told the committee that there had been a varied approach to handling leaks during their time in government.
Thomson said that some leaks had been investigated, “usually if there has been enough of a media storm around it”, but in other cases he had not been aware of “any particular follow-up” to a leak.
“If the chairman will forgive me, I found the Ministry of Defence particularly leaky, and any follow-up to that appeared to be very rare, in terms of trying to control it,” he told the committee.
And Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK permanent representative to the EU, said that as far as he knew, there had been no inquiry into the leak that led to his resignation in December 2016. Rogers stepped down after a minute he had written to Theresa May was made public, which he said detailed “basically my reaction of surprise and some shock at the prime minister’s party conference speech on the four red lines” for Brexit negotiations.