Security of Ministers’ Offices and Communications

– in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 28th June 2021.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission 4:07 pm, 28th June 2021

Order. Before we come to the next urgent question, I want to say something about the implications for this House of the apparent security breach involving the Department of Health and Social Care. We do not comment on the detail of security arrangements on the Floor of the House. However, I want the House to be reassured that I have directed senior officials to consider what implications there are for security arrangements in the House from the recent event in Whitehall and to take any necessary steps with urgency. I will not take any points of order on this matter.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 4:11 pm, 28th June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on security arrangements relating to ministerial offices and communications.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I appreciate your comments, Mr Speaker, about matters in relation to the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Bone for his question and for the chance to address concerns felt across the House about the security of ministerial offices and communications. These are concerns that the Government also take very seriously.

As has been the practice of successive Administrations, the Government do not generally comment on internal security matters. On the specific incident relating to the leak of footage from a security camera to the media, given the public interest in the case I can confirm that the Department of Health and Social Care has launched an investigation that is supported, as appropriate, by the Government security group based in the Cabinet Office. Until the investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to give further details. I am sorry to hon. Members who will understandably be seeking a lot of details on this matter. It is the case, however, that robust safeguards are in place around the security of Ministers, parliamentarians and Members of devolved legislatures.

My hon. Friend may also want to ask about ministerial communications, which I am happy to go into. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information. Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business, but each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way. How that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question and for your comments. I thank the Minister for her response, but it seems to me that the revelations over the weekend that the Secretary of State for Health’s personal office had recording devices in it should be of national concern. If Government and parliamentary offices have recording devices in them—whether audio, visual or both—it is of the utmost concern. Since the disclosure, several Cabinet Ministers have gone on the record to say that they had no knowledge that their offices might be subject to surveillance.

It is totally unacceptable for private conversations between Ministers, civil servants, Members of Parliament and members of the public to be secretly recorded. It also brings into question whether the Wilson doctrine has been broken. Since the premiership of Harold Wilson, it has been a long-standing rule that secret recordings of Members of Parliament by the police, security services or state are outlawed, so I have a number of questions for the Minister on which I hope she will be able to be a little more forthcoming.

First, do the offices of Ministers or Members of Parliament have recording devices in them? If so, who authorised them? Who has access to the recordings? What is the purpose of the recordings? How long are they kept? Has the Wilson doctrine been broken? Are there currently any Members of Parliament under surveillance by the police, intelligence agencies or the state? What measures are taken to ensure that there are no illicit recording devices in ministerial and parliamentary offices? Are they routinely swept for those devices?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I appreciate that clarification, Mr Speaker, which is important.

I wish to assure my hon. Friend that we do endorse the Wilson doctrine, and I agree that it is unacceptable should there be any secret recordings within Government offices. My understanding in this case is that this was a CCTV camera operated by the Department of Health and Social Care, which is why it is being investigated by that Department. We do not believe that there are covert concerns at this moment, but there is an ongoing investigation into this, which, unfortunately, we are going to have to be patient on and wait for the details of. But once that investigation has been completed, notwithstanding the security concerns, we will want to provide him with reassurances on a number of the extremely important questions that he has raised.

My hon. Friend also asked about the extent to which offices are regularly swept. There is an organisation called UK NACE—UK National Authority for Counter Eavesdropping. It is the Government lead for counter-eavesdropping and this includes the technical manipulation of protective security systems, including CCTV. This is an area where it works very closely with the Government Security Group. My understanding is that it takes a risk-based assessment when it comes to sweeping, so in Departments where there are particular security sensitivities and concerns, those sweeps are taking place on a relatively regular basis, but Departments are accountable for the way in which their security is maintained within the Departments. The Cabinet Office plays a supporting role through the Government Security Group, setting out standards to which Departments are expected to adhere.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I congratulate Mr Bone on securing this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for her opening comments regarding CCTV and the limitations, but, given how little we currently seem to know, will she come back to the House when she does have some answers regarding this?

Incredibly, this is not even the biggest scandal of the day when it comes to ministerial security and communications, and the Minister alluded to this comments. This morning, a Government spokesperson claimed that all Ministers only conduct Government business through their departmental email addresses yet I have, right here, the minutes of a departmental meeting in which senior civil servants report Government contracts being approved from a Minister’s private email address. Who is telling the truth? It is a pity that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could not be here in person, given his personal experience of the perils of using his private emails to conduct ministerial business and to try and avoid freedom of information laws.

And it goes well beyond one Department. Last week, the Cabinet Office refused to answer my questions about the Prime Minister’s mobile phone. Today, it has been reported that he, too, will not deny using private email addresses. Can the Minister now say from the Dispatch Box, categorically and on the record, that no Minister or Prime Minister has used, or does use, private email for Government business, especially when it involves spending public money?

This morning, the Justice Secretary agreed that private email was a huge security issue. He admitted that this revelation does raise legitimate questions. On this, he is right. Now it is time to answer those questions. Will those involved refer themselves to the Information Commissioner so that a genuinely independent investigation can take place? If any Ministers have used private email for Government business, what action will be taken and what will be done to prevent it from happening again? What steps have been and will be taken to preserve private emails as evidence for the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?

Our country faces daily threats from hostile foreign states that have already, for example, hacked the private email account of Dr Fox. What advice have the Government taken on the security of Ministers’ private email accounts? What does it say about this Government that they will launch an inquiry into leaks of CCTV but not into their own Ministers?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank the right hon. Lady for her important questions, which I will seek to answer. It is important to understand that Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information. Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business. Each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way, but how that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

The right hon. Lady asked about the procurement of personal protective equipment, I believe, or a covid contract that was conducted allegedly via a private email address. I am happy to look into that. But there needs to be understanding of the fact that when we were at the height of the pandemic, a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses, their parliamentary email addresses and their ministerial email addresses.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not suggesting that there is something we should not be looking into. My point is that—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could wait for me to finish. Some 15,000 offers of help to secure PPE came in following the Prime Minister’s call for assistance. Obviously people wanted to respond to that call, and then we needed to manage the sheer volume of correspondence. The important thing to note is that when PPE offers did come in, they went through the same eight-stage process, so no matter which way those things were communicated, they went through the same process, and that should provide assurance.

Insofar as there are questions to answer, I want to assure the right hon. Lady that we have conducted a number of internal and external inquiries into this matter. There is the Boardman investigation into contracts and there was a National Audit Office investigation into contracts, so I assure her that this matter has already been looked into. She is absolutely right to ask questions and I am absolutely right to reassure her.

I would add that there have been a number of debates on covid contracts in this House, one of which took place in Westminster Hall. I was on maternity leave at the time of the pandemic. I shared the right hon. Lady’s concerns and wanted to understand what had happened, so I responded to a debate in Westminster Hall on those questions and I set out very candidly some of the concerns and challenges that we faced at the height of the pandemic. A number of hon. Members engaged in that debate and asked very legitimate questions to which I responded to the best of my ability. I am not aware that the right hon. Lady has ever engaged in any of those debates. If she wishes to generate a lot of hue and cry over this, that is understandable from a political point of view, but it is my duty to set out the challenges we faced and the ways we are addressing some of the concerns.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the Dispatch Box to answer the urgent question from my hon. Friend Mr Bone. As she will know, the Wilson doctrine covers deliberate surveillance, so what safeguards are there for whistleblowers who may inadvertently discover material that is in the public interest?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It is important that a distinction is made between material that was inappropriately sourced and then leaked and people who are trying to raise legitimate concerns that require public transparency. I shall look into the concern that my hon. Friend has raised to make sure that there is no blurring of those two very important and distinct issues.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

I will follow your strictures precisely, Mr Speaker—all my questions are about ministerial offices.

Was the former Health Secretary aware, and indeed, was the security officer in his Department aware, of the CCTV camera in his office? Is the Minister aware of similar CCTV cameras in any other ministerial office? Who installs such systems in Ministries and who monitors them and has access to their feeds? Do they record video only or is it sound and vision? Given that there were reports of this footage being touted on Instagram for some time, is it true that staff from private companies manage those systems and monitor the footage? If it is true, who is responsible for vetting, and what is the process for vetting, such staff?

Finally, and most importantly, how confident is the Minister that others—states and non-state actors who would do us harm—have not already compromised other staff or gained direct access to some of these CCTV feeds?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Those legitimate concerns will be raised and, I hope, addressed through the Department of Health and Social Care investigation. As I say, the Cabinet Office is there to set the standards, on which we have regular correspondence and engagement with Departments.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points—who installs such machines and so on—that we need to look into via the Department of Health and Social Care investigation. My understanding is that it was a CCTV camera, not a covert device. There are obviously questions to answer about the way in which civil servants are vetted—they do go through stringent vetting processes—and in respect of a risk-based approach as to which Departments need to be more regularly swept. I hope that some of the answers that the hon. Gentleman seeks will be answered by the Department of Health and Social Care investigation into this matter.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

During a pandemic, the position of Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is one of the most safety-critical roles. People should have been able to have the frankest of conversations with him regarding the nation’s health without fear of being recorded. Throughout this awful crisis there have been a number of leaks, with the most notable being the one before the second lockdown in November last year. Will the Minister assure the House that, along with cameras, ministerial offices should not have microphones hidden in them, and that any review of security will ensure that all ministerial offices are checked for them regularly?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important point. As I have said, sweeps are conducted across Departments. Ultimately, the permanent secretaries of Departments are accountable for security within them, but the Cabinet Office sets out clear guidance and continues to liaise with Departments about how that is adhered to. My hon. Friend raises an important point about covert devices, and we all seek the same reassurances as him on these matters.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Crikey, Mr Speaker—who would be a Minister on a day like today?

I do not want to go into the detail of what happened on the day in question, but it occurs to me that the security camera—I think we are accepting that it was a security camera—must surely to goodness have been pretty covert. I know where the security cameras are in my local high street where I live in the highlands. The more we go into this matter, the odder it gets. The public deserve an absolutely open explanation as to what has happened. If the cameras are covert, or semi-covert, why are they? Why does a Secretary of State not know, on a need-to-know basis, about this sort of thing and where the cameras are?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My understanding is that the camera was not covert, but, as I say, the Department of Health and Social Care is conducting an investigation and that will answer some of these questions.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

There is currently a lot of speculation in the newspapers about the implications in respect of foreign powers using these sorts of surveillance tools. Will my hon. Friend confirm that at this stage there is no reason to believe that foreign powers have been involved in respect of this particular camera at the Department of Health and Social Care but that the investigation will look at whether there is any connection?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My understanding is that there have been some reports about whether there is anything to be concerned about in relation to covert surveillance; I think some of that is just speculation. I am afraid I cannot comment on security matters, as my hon. Friend will understand, but I assure him that all these questions are being asked within Government to make sure that we have watertight systems.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I accept the need for external CCTV coverage to ascertain entry and exit, but have any checks been made to establish whether any other internal offices, where Ministers, MPs or staff could be monitored, have a device installed covertly? Has the country of origin of the device used in this instance been established?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I speak on behalf of the Cabinet Office. I asked questions about my own office today and received assurances, and I imagine that Ministers across the Government estate will be asking the same. As I say, the Department of Health and Social Care has launched its own investigation and will be accountable for that.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

The leaking of footage from inside private ministerial offices raises two important questions. Why had a camera been installed? If it had been done legitimately, how did the footage come into the public domain? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the matter will be investigated with the urgency it requires?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I can provide my hon. Friend with those assurances, as I have provided them to the House this afternoon.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

The Minister did not give a straightforward answer to my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner, so I will ask her again: is she confirming that Ministers did use private email addresses to approve contracts and that the Department of Health and Social Care therefore misled the public in its statement denying categorically that that happened? Given just how serious this is, will she agree to refer it to the Information Commissioner so that there is an independent investigation, not another Government whitewash?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My understanding is that it is not within the Minister’s power to approve contracts—that goes through the approval of civil servants. I would like to offer the hon. Lady that assurance, but I am happy to look into the particular incident she highlights further if there are concerns that need to be looked into.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Ministers will often need to discuss matters of the highest confidential nature and see highly confidential documents, so does the Minister agree that Ministers should be able to make such decisions in the British interest, without any fear or favour?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I quite agree with my hon. Friend. In the decisions we take throughout this pandemic to tighten the system to ensure that there are no concerns, such as those expressed by hon. Members, it is important that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ministers should have the space to make important national decisions.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Does the Minister know whether there are rules common to all Departments on where security cameras can be sited and where they must not be sited?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My understanding is that the general policy is that cameras are not sited within Ministers’ offices. I think this situation was an outlier in that regard, and we will have a better understanding of why it occurred once the Department’s investigation is complete.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

The shadow Secretary of State asked the Minister directly whether any Minister or the Prime Minister used private emails to conduct Government business, and in response the Minister basically repeated the guidelines, which seem to suggest that, yes, Ministers can use a private email and it is up to them to police themselves. Given the stench of cronyism around this Government, can she not see how that answer is completely unacceptable? All this needs to be opened up, and transparency must be the order of the day immediately.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My point is that it is not Ministers who make the final decisions on contracts and that important processes are gone through. There may be questions about the direction of email traffic, but the point is that every decision is scrutinised under the same process when it comes to providing covid contracts—if that is the hon. Gentleman’s concern.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

Although I welcome the Department of Health and Social Care’s rapid investigation, this case raises potentially serious concerns about the security of all private offices. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the Department will work with security teams across Government to protect the privacy and security of all Ministers?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As I suggested, the Cabinet Office already works across Government on the standards we expect when it comes to the security of private offices, and Mr Speaker addressed concerns in relation to Parliament.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

It is not acceptable to have covert surveillance at work for Ministers, Members or anyone else, but the public are entitled to transparency on issues raised about things such as private emails. The Government already have answers to give on donations for the Prime Minister’s flat, peerages to donors, tax breaks by text and unlawful contracts to associates, so does the Minister agree that her Government’s murky dealings are the real sordid affair that the public should see a light shone on?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As I say, there have been a number of investigations to look into some of the allegations that have been put to Government over the course of the pandemic, including the National Audit Office’s report. We have conducted our own investigations, because we take seriously some of the allegations that have been put to us. As I say, there are processes in place that people went through. There were a number of other challenges we faced at the height of the pandemic, which I have been candid about in Westminster Hall and in other places, but the public should be assured that their money has been spent with care. As I say, there were challenges we went through, relating to the sheer number of items of correspondence and emails that were coming in. It is not for Ministers to conduct and make decisions on contract awards over private email, and we are happy to look into any concerns in that regard.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

If I understood the Lord Chancellor correctly this morning, he said that when he wants to read a sensitive document, he goes to a separate room in his Department to do so. Could we have a look at what procedures are in place across Government to make sure that Ministers can read sensitive documents safely?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As my hon. Friend will be aware, there are different levels of document classification, so procedures are already in place to ensure that Ministers can read such documents in privacy and with great security, but if there are concerns about whether those safeguards are robust enough, we will look into them.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

Something really does not add up here. As I understand it, the Minister is saying that the camera in the office of the Secretary of State was not covert. In other words, the Secretary of State knew it was there, yet we have all seen the video. If that is true, he must be the stupidest man on earth. Is the Minister really trying to persuade us that he knew that there was a camera in his office? When he had meetings with other Ministers, were they informed that those meetings were being recorded? Is that really what she is trying to suggest? It blows my mind, this idea.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s mind is blown. I am a Cabinet Office Minister who is responsible for overall adherence to Government security rules. When it comes to the placement of the camera in that office, I am afraid that it is for the Department of Health and Social Care to account for itself when it comes to what happened. It is already conducting an investigation, which we will want to look at.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

As a former Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care with the previous Secretary of State, in candidness, no one ever told me that our meetings were being observed. I never asked, it is true, but I was certainly never told. The issue, to my mind, is of course that they were being recorded, but more, who had access to those images? Does the Minister think that things would be made much easier for everyone as the Department of Health and Social Care begins the investigation if the, let us remember, profit-making media organisation involved simply made it clear how it was able to see inside a senior Minister’s office?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my hon. Friend for his pointed and important question, and I hope that during the course of the investigation led by the Department that some of these answers will come through so that we can scrutinise them ourselves.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

The Minister has astonished us all by saying that this was not a covert device, yet we have just heard from a former Health Minister that he did not know about it. The Minister is somehow asking us to believe that the now departed Secretary of State somehow knew about it, but clearly if he did he would not have behaved in the way he did right in front of it, so I think that she is stretching credibility. When I was a Minister, we were not allowed to use our own inboxes or our own private emails for Government business. We were told very, very bluntly at the beginning of our ministerial career that this would not be allowed. Why on earth is it different now?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s question, but I am not asking her to believe anything. I am asking her to have patience while the Department conducts its own investigation into exactly what happened. On the use of emails, there are clear guidelines to which Ministers should adhere, but we have to accept that there was a situation in which we all had to move online, and we all have to account for the way in which we handled ourselves in that period.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I have lost count of the number of times my colleagues and I have raised issues about the lack of transparency, honesty and integrity under which too many Government Ministers operate. The ministerial code is not worth the paper it is written on. The whole sordid affair follows on from the former Health and Social Care Secretary being found to have acted unlawfully in his disclosure of contracts for personal protective equipment, contracts for mates, and now the revelation of the use of private emails. This, as others have said, smacks of his covering his tracks.

On the cameras, if Ministers were unaware of them, that is nothing short of Big Brother. What other Department buildings have similar cameras of which we are not aware?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think that will form part of the investigation, and it is something that the Government’s security group will actively look into.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

On the use of private emails for Government business, will the Minister confirm the legal position under the Freedom of Information Act? My understanding is that if a public authority—the Secretary of State clearly is a public authority—uses a private email for Government business, that private email and those emails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and the destruction of any emails in order to prevent them from being disclosed would be a criminal offence. That information will obviously be of some reassurance to people. Is she able to confirm that from the Dispatch Box?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Yes, I can confirm that official information held in private email accounts is subject to FOI.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

When the investigation into this matter is concluded, will the Minister come back and tell the House whether this leak has reached the threshold to warrant an investigation by the intelligence agencies?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The investigation is being led by the Department of Health and Social Care. The hon. Lady raises an important point about the threshold at which it is subject to security and intelligence investigations. I will get back to her on that, but I hope that we will be able to update the House when the substantial findings have been reported.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

Like my good and hon. Friend Steve Brine, I joined the Department of Health in moving into this new building, 39 Victoria Street, at the end of 2017. Will the Minister ask the Department to consider in its internal investigation whether the devices were installed as part of the new build or subsequently? Will she also please develop a protocol from the Cabinet Office across Government that all Ministers, and frankly all people working in Government buildings, are notified of any official listening, visual or other sensors in their place of work, so that they are aware of it rather than, as we have been today, surprised by it?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Those are very pertinent questions, and ones that I have asked in advance of today and to which we will all want answers. My right hon. Friend makes an important and useful suggestion when it comes to the protocol in relation to CCTV or any other device that might be found in a Minister’s office. I am sure that other Ministers across Government will want that assurance.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The Secretary of State, engaged—at least as we thought—on matters essential to our national security, health and wellbeing is filmed, unbeknownst to him, and that film is leaked to a national newspaper when it could just as well have been a foreign power. I have to say that I find the Minister’s complacency incomprehensible. Can she at least confirm that the Government know where each Government CCTV camera is, who has access to them and whether outsourcing has led to a plethora of private security firms and other contractors having access to the footage?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I assure the hon. Lady that I am not complacent. This is a fast-moving situation. We found out about this device on Friday, and I have sought a number of assurances. Some of them cannot be answered at the moment because a live investigation is under way, but these questions are being asked and we do want to understand the situation so that we can assure the House. I am placed in the rather frustrating position of not being able to provide the clarity that people understandably demand on a day like this. I will have to ask the House’s forgiveness while the investigations are under way.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

The truth is that the days when officials asked Ministers for instructions via papers placed in locked red boxes are long gone. The truth of the matter is that officials in Whitehall Departments expect Ministers to be in contact with them 24/7. It can be very difficult for Ministers in those positions to access secure devices to look at things. May I ask the Minister to instruct the Cabinet Office to really challenge the guidance that is given to officials and Ministers about this, so that Ministers are not finding themselves unwittingly having to use private emails, as I found quite often as a Minister in the Department of Health?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That is such an important point. We are living in different circumstances where electronic communications mean that we are contacted at all hours of the day on different email accounts, different devices and so on. We are trying to clarify the guidance on this, because this is a situation that we are perhaps not as best prepared for as we should be, but we are not complacent. My hon. Friend also raises the important point that there are lots of different systems across which Ministers have to operate. I had my parliamentary account and my Cabinet Office account, for example, and we also have to engage in meetings across different systems. Trying to move between those systems can provide a real challenge, and this is something that we need to provide clearer guidance to other Departments on.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The Government’s lax security has resulted in information and communications ending up in the wrong hands, and the Government’s lax procurement processes via text, private email and a word down the pub have led to billions of pounds of public money ending up in the wrong hands. Sensitive information and public money are neither safe nor secure, so how will the Minister ensure that there is an end to this casual approach to information and communications relating to security and spending? And for the third time, what discussions have taken place with the Information Commissioner over these casual communications since these revelations have come to light?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have not personally discussed this with the Information Commissioner over the weekend. As I say, a number of issues have come to light that we need to be on top of, and I hope to assure the House on these matters in the coming days.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

Our Prime Minister has had to have his phone wrested from him by the security services for conducting Government business by WhatsApp, and now a Health Secretary has been using his Gmail for official purposes. Can the Minister please answer the second question posed by Mr Harper and confirm to us that it would be a criminal offence for any Minister to destroy communications they have made about Government business on private emails or private messaging apps for the purpose of defeating the ends of justice regarding our freedom of information request or, indeed, defeating the ends of justice in any future inquiry into the covid crisis?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As I say, official information held in private email accounts is subject to freedom of information and all the rules and restrictions around that.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

My hon. Friend has said that the ultimate responsibility for security lies with the Department, and that the Cabinet Office sets best practice. Given the importance and sensitivity of security, should we not centralise this to ensure that every Department complies and that there is no aberrant behaviour?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The ultimate responsibility is with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, but it is for the accounting officers to be answerable on these matters for their Departments.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The Minister said that this was not a covert device and that it was known about, but then she said that they only found out about it on Friday in a fast-moving situation, so she needs to get her story straight, not least because we have two respected former Ministers in the Department—Steve Brine and Philip Dunne—in the Chamber who knew nothing about these cameras. Mr Bone rightly talked about the Wilson doctrine and the importance of monitoring the surveillance of Members of Parliament, so would it not be a good idea if the Prime Minister now made a statement to the House to tell us exactly when he first knew about this device and about the content that was on it?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I wish to assure the hon. Member that we maintain the Wilson doctrine and that we wish to ensure that there is no covert surveillance within a Minister’s office. That is extremely important. Some of the questions that people have rightly raised with me this afternoon will want to be answered through the investigation that is under way in the Department of Health, and I am sorry that I cannot provide greater detail on that at the moment.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be aware, as everyone in this House is, how livid Mr Speaker and many people here were at the leaking of the second lockdown and how Mr Speaker asked for a full investigation into the incident. What has emerged over the weekend has blown all that up. The leaking could have involved a whole number of people who were never even considered as part of that investigation, which, as Mr Speaker has informed us on Privy Council terms, is still ongoing. Will my hon. Friend the Minister liaise with her Department and with the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that any information of who had access to that video footage and covert surveillance of that office is fed into the investigation that Mr Speaker has asked for to find out how things were being leaked to the press before this House knew about them?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my right hon. Friend for those very important questions to which we all want answers. I hope that they will be answered as part of this investigation.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Does the Department of Health and Social Care handle its own ministerial office security, or is that done across Whitehall by other organisations such as the police?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

There is a range of different ways in which security is maintained across the Government estate. Some of those are dealt with by the police, some by Government security, and some by the Departments themselves. The mix of those in this particular instance will be looked into.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

As parliament- arians, we all have sympathy for the Minister being sent here to respond to these questions without many of the answers to them. We had all expected that her boss would be here for these questions, as indeed he would have been had he thought he had the answers to give to them. May I ask her, the next time she meets the Cabinet Secretary, to stress how unsatisfactory this situation is, how dangerous it is to the security of this nation, and that the House demands not only that this situation is never repeated, but that we get the answers that she has been unable to furnish us with today?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Those are answers that we will hopefully get once the investigation is complete. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is in Scotland today so he could not be in the House. I share the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety about getting answers, because these are extremely important questions about the security of Ministers’ Offices, which, as a Minister myself, I want some reassurances on.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

Is the Minister able to reassure the House that, in considering the findings of the Department of Health and Social Care’s own internal investigation into this matter, she will not rule out considering whether this leak was a breach of the Official Secrets Act?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my hon. Friend, and I shall want an answer to that question.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

First of all, is a Department-led inquiry sufficient for the gravity of this situation? We need to know whether these recordings extend to other Departments, who all this footage is offered to, and who benefited from the release of the footage. We need to understand the security risks of Ministers doing business by private email, as has been said. The Minister cannot just say, “Oh, it’s complicated.” It is simple. We have a parliamentary email address and Ministers should use it—end of story. Also, it is only because of this leak that we have found out about yet another crony appointment that the Government did not bat an eyelid about, so who is taking the lead in investigating all these other matters?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am sorry that I cannot furnish the House with answers on the matter of security on this day, but I hope to be able to do so shortly.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection, Chair, Committee of Selection

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the urgent question of my hon. Friend Mr Bone. With one Department spreading documents behind a bus stop and another one publishing CCTV, I cannot say that I am terribly surprised if Ministers do not want to use their private offices. Does my hon. Friend, who is doing a very good job at the Dispatch Box, agree that we need a root-and-branch change in the trust and behaviour of the civil service?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

In so far as there are any questions raised in this entire episode about whether a matter was leaked, there will be questions to be answered in so far as they involve any civil servants, who are vetted when they do their jobs and have to adhere to certain codes themselves.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

May  I say to the Minister first of all that this House should take precedence in the priorities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, not travelling to Scotland?

When I was a Minister, neither parliamentary emails nor private emails were allowed to be used for Government business. Will the Minister therefore confirm whether using private email accounts to discuss sensitive Government business is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act or the Public Records Act 1958, which place specific requirements on the use of Government information?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As I have said, Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information, but other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting business, and official information that is held in private email accounts is subject to FOI. I hope that that provides the right hon. Lady with assurance.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Minister for coming today to respond to Peter Bone’s urgent question and for responding to 37 parliamentary questions in total. We will now suspend before the statement on covid.

Sitting suspended.