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UK’s Ambassador to the USA - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 8th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 6:43 pm, 8th July 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas to an Urgent Question in another place on what steps he is taking to ensure that the apparent unauthorised disclosure of communications from the UK’s Ambassador to the USA are fully investigated by all relevant agencies. The Statement is as follows:

Her Majesty’s Government utterly deplore the serious breach of classified information; it is totally unacceptable. As the Prime Minister has already said, we retain full confidence in the British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, for whom we have enormous respect as a distinguished and long-serving diplomat.

The Prime Minister and the British public expect our ambassadors to provide Ministers with an honest and unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country. We pay our ambassadors to be candid, just as the US Ambassador here will send back his candid reading of Westminster politics and personalities. That does not mean that it is the same as what the British Government think.

We have announced a leak inquiry, which I can reassure the whole House will be thorough and wide-ranging and will ultimately report to the Cabinet Secretary. A cross-government investigation led by the Cabinet Office has been launched, which I can reassure the whole House will be thorough and wide-ranging”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:45 pm, 8th July 2019

My Lords, the leak of the diptel cable will do extraordinary damage to the UK’s interests abroad, and the confidence of civil servants will now be marred by knowing that they cannot freely feed back their insights. The Government are right to launch an inquiry. On an issue of such significance, speed is of the essence. Can the Minister outline the timetable for the inquiry? In the immediate term, will the Minister detail what steps the Government will take to ensure that diplomats feel safe to pass on information to the FCO?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, as I have said, we rely on our diplomats to provide insights into the lay of the land. As a Minister I have visited a number of countries over the past two years in post, and in my other responsibilities as a Minister I have benefited greatly from the insights and candid nature of such diplomatic telegrams. On the specific questions the noble Lord has raised, I can say that we will seek to complete this inquiry at the earliest possible time. As the noble Lord may be aware, the cross-government investigation is being led by the Cabinet Office and will include the Foreign Office. That inquiry will report to the Cabinet Secretary. We have some incredible diplomats and the best Diplomatic Service in the world. Based on this experience there will, of course, be concern, but we have reassured our diplomats that they should continue to report in the excellent, candid manner they have done over many years.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is deeply shocking that someone decided that it was acceptable to reveal our ambassador’s confidential diptels, thereby undermining our whole Diplomatic Service. Nigel Farage stated this morning that Sir Kim Darroch was an unsuitable ambassador to the US because he was not a Trump supporter. I assume that he would send a mini Putin to Russia and a mini Assad to Syria. Will the Minister clarify what Jeremy Hunt is reported as saying: namely, that diptels are simply the personal view of the ambassador and not the position of the Government? Surely he recognises that we require from members of our Diplomatic Service absolute honesty in their professional assessments and complete confidentiality, and that we must defend them when they cannot speak out. We need a full investigation to discover who did this and to bring them to book.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Baroness’s assessment. I put on record that the Government, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, Ministers at the Foreign Office and all of us have full confidence in the work of Sir Kim Darroch. I will put on record my personal reflections. I have known Sir Kim for a long time. I have worked with him on various issues of a very sensitive nature. He reflects the best of our diplomatic capabilities, the best of diplomacy, and we stand by him.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister accept from someone who spent 10 years at the head of two of Britain’s largest missions that this sort of leak would have made my work completely impossible? Does he also agree that whoever was responsible for the leak—let us hope that they are found and, if necessary, prosecuted—has done grievous damage to one of our most important overseas relationships, and that that is unpardonable? Does he also agree that President Trump’s reaction shows just why confidentiality between the ambassador and the Government here is necessary?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord in his various diplomatic responsibilities, which he discharged with great aplomb during his tenure as a Foreign Office diplomat, including of course at the United Nations. I agree with him. Whoever is responsible should be brought to account for these actions. As Ministers and as a Government, we rely on the insight that our ambassadors and diplomats provide.

Our relationship with the United States is strong and is based on mutual recognition and respect. I played a part in receiving the President of the United States at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Where we have disagreements, as we have had recently on climate change and the JCPOA, we respect each other’s differences and recognise that there are times when we may have a different perspective or view from that of our closest ally.

My personal reflection is that our work with the United States will withstand this. We work on a number of important issues. Today, the report of an independent review of Christian persecution has been launched. I am looking forward to being in Washington next week to meet my counterpart, Ambassador Brownback. We have been working on the issue of Christian persecution around the world and on standing up for the rights of the persecuted, and we are seeing results. The relationship between the US and the UK is special, deep and strong. It has spread over many years and will continue to withstand any challenges, including the latest one.

Photo of Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke Labour

My Lords, like a number of noble Lords, I have walked on both sides of the street as a Minister and as a member of the Diplomatic Service. I can testify to the significance to both sides of having frank and unblemished advice from our ambassadors. However, when I became a member of the Diplomatic Service, I was subjected to detailed, developed vetting, to the extent that a bank account my mother had opened when I was eight was uncovered. I am not aware of any equivalent vetting when I became a Minister. Will the Minister give the House a guarantee that, should it transpire that a politician was responsible for these leaks, action will be taken against that politician with the full force of the law in such a way as to ensure that we are not bandying around terms such as “honourable” and “right honourable” without any honour being present?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will recognise that when you take up responsibility as a Minister of the Crown, you are bound by the duties and responsibilities of that office, including by the Official Secrets Act, and that you should seek to discharge your duties in that manner. The noble Baroness is quite right to raise the issue of who is responsible. I am not going to speculate on that. The inquiry will be thorough and, if there is evidence of criminality, at that stage the police will be involved. We need to ensure that we get to the bottom of this to restore the confidence that Ministers have in the diplomatic telegrams that we receive, and so that our diplomats can continue to report in the exemplary and candid manner they do.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, this event is of course to be deplored. Is it recognised that blockchain might have a role to play in moving forward, utilising users’ parameters? What assessment has been made of the whole question of secure communications generally, and what processes have been considered to ensure that our embassies and consulates are secure, following events at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, events such as this mean that we look again at the essence and confidentiality of our communications. Beyond that, it would be inappropriate for me to comment.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I very much welcome the noble Lord’s unequivocal support for our ambassador. I am slightly surprised that President Trump should take it quite so seriously, because it is pretty well what CNN says about him seven days a week. I, like others, deeply abhor the notion that an ambassador should be chosen on the basis of his or her acceptability to the head of the state to which he or she might be given credentials. That surely must not happen, and the covert ambition of, for example, Mr Farage should undoubtedly be treated in the same way.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I assure the noble Lord that the question of who is appointed as a diplomat to any country is a matter for Her Majesty’s Government and no one else.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

My Lords, I think that everybody will be very pleased to hear the robust statement of confidence in our ambassador in Washington that the noble Lord has just delivered. Does he agree that there would be no point at all in having ambassadors or a Diplomatic Service abroad if they were not allowed to communicate back to the Government frankly and fully the reality of countries as they see it? Will he perhaps go a little further and give an assurance to everybody in the Diplomatic Service that no one’s career will be damaged by virtue of a leak that is no doubt made with personal or political motives, such as occurred in the last few days in relation to our embassy in Washington?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I can certainly give the noble Lord an assurance on his first question. As to his second question regarding motives, I have said that we should await the full inquiry, where I am sure that that will be addressed in full.