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United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States: Leaked Messages - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 25th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 1:53 pm, 25th July 2019

My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for tabling this important debate. I put on record my thanks for her long-standing commitment to international affairs over many years, including during her time as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Her introduction reflected her insights and experience in this regard.

There was a pregnant pause in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Collins. He said, “The new US ambassador”, then he said, “the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie”, and paused. That brought a look of concern—or it may have been delight, but certainly surprise—to my noble friend’s face. That decision, which several noble Lords asked about, remains to be made.

Rightly, the question has been asked about the relationship between Ministers and our diplomats—and about Ministers across the board and the Civil Service. It is a most important relationship—a sacred relationship. I have been a Minister in four departments, and the advice offered by our civil servants, officials and diplomats across the world is invaluable. They provide invaluable insight into the lay of the land and, yes, they must be candid, as Sir Kim Darroch was. Like the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, among others, I have worked with Sir Kim. I remember his time as a National Security Adviser. On very sensitive issues, his guidance and advice were invaluable. I join the noble Lord, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and others in paying tribute to Sir Kim. We wish him well in every respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the new Foreign Secretary and the new Prime Minister. I am sure we all wish them well in their new roles. I disagree with the description of the new Cabinet by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. I know many of them well, not just as colleagues but as friends, and I assure him that many reflect the true values and traditions of one nation Conservatism. Turning to the new Foreign Secretary, the noble Baroness may not know that he served a tenure as a Foreign Office diplomat: he was a legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so he is well versed in both sides of the equation. I can speak for both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in putting on record that our Diplomatic Service has our utmost trust and unstinting support in all it does. I am sure that reflects the sentiments of all noble Lords.

As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, diplomatic cables provide invaluable insights. There is an enormous number of dip tels—as they are abbreviated—which Ministers have to read, but the leak of diplomatic cables in this case was a serious and totally unacceptable breach. It was, as my noble friend Lord Cormack described it, a despicable leak of classified information. It is an important principle of the Diplomatic Service that posts can report frankly and in confidence. That is key to the Government being able to promote and protect UK interests around the world.

The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked some specific questions about the inquiry. I am sure noble Lords will respect the fact that this is an ongoing inquiry, so there is a limit to what I can share at this stage, but on 12 July, Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner Basu announced that a criminal investigation had been launched into this malicious link under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act, and it is right that the perpetrator should face the consequences of their action.

Questions were raised about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in this respect. He said:

“It is absolutely vital that the advice that civil servants give to ministers should not be leaked”,

and expressed the strong sentiment that the perpetrator should be fully held to account for the consequences of their action. Questions were asked about timing. I am not yet aware of when the inquiry will be concluded.

Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, also raised the important principle of the freedom of the press. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, it defines our democracy. Anyone who works in journalism or on the press circuit will also respect the fact that, as he said, with it comes responsibility. It is also important that the rule of law is respected.

I have been clear on this issue as far as I can. I am sure that as we receive updates, we will share them with noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked specific questions about the letters written by the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The permanent under-secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, and the former Foreign Secretary have responded to the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who wrote to them after the leak. Sir Simon also appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee shortly after the leak. We now await the full conclusion of the MPS investigation and will also look at the conclusions of the FAC inquiry, which was published earlier today.

I put on record some key points from the letter from Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent under-secretary. It is not necessary for a Minister or any official to have signed the Official Secrets Act, but they must be bound by it—that was a specific reference he made. The leak of a diplomatic telegram, as published in the Sunday Times, was investigated by the FCO’s secretary, but the results were inconclusive. All staff receive training on these important issues.

I speak as a Minister. A Minister is responsible and accountable, and we need to ensure that that sacred bond between civil servants and Ministers is protected; the responsibility is on both sides.

Among others, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the US-UK relationship. We have been clear with the US Government that we deeply regret the leaks that happened. These leaked extracts of embassy reporting do not reflect the closeness of, and esteem in which we hold, our relationship with the United States.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, mentioned comments made by the US ambassador. As we have said to the US and would say to any country, we expect our ambassadors, high commissioners and diplomats to be candid, as they would expect of their own diplomats. The perpetrator of this criminal offence was the person who made these leaks. As I have said, we need to ensure that we totally support our diplomats and the excellent job they do, wherever they serve, but, equally, that we do so understanding that it is an important relationship that needs to be not only protected but, in light of recent events, strengthened.

Did the leaks cause damage? As has been mentioned, they triggered the resignation of the UK’s excellent ambassador to the United States. That is a critical role in defending and furthering the UK’s interests in Washington and providing valuable insight into and understanding of US policies and intentions. The leak also risks undermining the good will generated by the state visit. But, as I experienced for myself directly when I visited Washington last week—we had discussions at the White House and I attended the international conference on freedom of religion—the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is strong. It has withstood many challenges and will withstand this one. The strength of our relationship is underlined by not just our common history but the shared values we express. Our close ties also extend into the economic sphere, with 1 million Americans going to work for British companies in the US every day and 1 million Brits doing the same for American companies here—as I used to.

I turn briefly to the actual resignation of Sir Kim Darroch. It is a matter of great regret that Sir Kim felt it necessary to leave his post. He has given an absolute lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and I join other noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin—in not only thanking Sir Kim but saying, “We owe you a great deal and thank you for your service to the Foreign Office and the Government”. Sir Kim made the decision to resign to act, as he has always done, in an honourable fashion and to relieve the pressure on his family. Importantly, he also thought of his colleagues —an act of selfless duty that epitomised yet again the best of diplomacy.

I conclude by making clear that, in the wake of Sir Kim’s resignation, we strongly encourage our ambassadors around the world to continue to give full and frank assessments of politics in their country and not to set out on a path towards self-censorship. I share the sentiments expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, about ensuring that we reach a prompt conclusion to the inquiry being undertaken so that we can work towards restoring confidence, not just between diplomats and Ministers but between the two states as well. That is what the UK Government and the British public should expect and what we will be determined to deliver. A muted Diplomatic Service is not in anyone’s interest; it is not in our national interest.

Ambassadors’ views do not necessarily always match those of the UK Government—I accept that—but honest reporting is essential for any Government to make informed decisions. For the sake of this principle we must send a clear message to the perpetrators of this leak, and indeed to anyone who perceives that leaking is somehow helping or will further a personal cause: such betrayals of confidence are unacceptable and will rightly be fully investigated. The leaking of Sir Kim’s reporting was totally unacceptable and manifestly damaging to UK interests. It is therefore right that we hold the perpetrator to account for these unconscionable actions.

As we near the end of this debate, I thank all noble Lords for their expert insights yet again. I shall see whether it is indeed my responsibility to update noble Lords accordingly, but—in this debate and others I have had the opportunity to respond to—the insights of your Lordships’ House are invaluable. In my role as a Foreign Office Minister, I put on record my personal thanks to my very able Foreign Office Whip, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, with the backdrop of the challenges of travel. I am grateful as well to the outgoing Chief Whip for his support in granting me those precious slips. I have been honoured to represent my country in the best way I was able to. I also put on record my particular thanks to the Front Benches opposite. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, among others, for their support and advice. When it comes to foreign affairs and to standing up for our country on the international stage, we come together as one. We have our respectful differences and debates, but I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords for their support. Finally, I put on record my thanks for the very kind remarks I have received from various quarters during this debate and yesterday.

We often ask, “What does the future hold?” I end with perhaps an apt phrase when we talk about the relationship between the UK and the US: in God we trust.