Security of Ministers’ Offices and Communications - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 29 June 2021.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 28 June.

“I am grateful to my honourable friend the Member for Wellingborough (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 apologise to honourable 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 honourable 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 Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues)

The former Secretary of State used his private email account for work, which jeopardises security, accountability and transparency. Did the Permanent Secretary know and what action was taken? How many other Members, including in this House, use private emails? Will all these emails now be copied in to the department’s secure archive and retrieval system? Finally, how many people had access to the CCTV and were they security cleared?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, on private emails, government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communication 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. The specific quantitative points the noble Baroness raised I cannot respond to at this point. But, in answer to another of the noble Baroness’s questions, the official information held in private email accounts is subject to FoI.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the government guidance seems to be not entirely clear. When Ministers are using private emails for official business, does this mean that their officials, including their own private offices and Permanent Secretaries, have access to these or are they outside the regard of civil servants? Can we be sure that CCTV is securely held? Are private contractors engaged in this? Is the technology—hardware and software—also secure or is some of it procured from, for example, China?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness opposite for not answering the question on CCTV, which was a lapsus memoriae—we are not supposed to use Latin, but it was. As I understand it, the Department of Health is looking into the specifics here. It constitutes a leak and is a serious matter with security implications. I can tell the House that our understanding is that this is certainly not a covert camera, nor is there a general policy of such cameras across Whitehall. As far as the question of emails is concerned, Ministers will have informal conversations from time to time in person or remotely, but significant contact relating to government business from such discussions should be, and is, passed back to officials. That would be in line with the relevant guidance on information handling and security. The Cabinet Office has previously published guidance on how information is held for the purposes of access to information. We obviously review this from time to time. I would expect all Ministers to seek to conform to the guidance.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

Does my noble friend share my concern—indeed, great surprise—that the former Secretary of State for Health, who was in post for some three years, was apparently unaware of the CCTV camera that was recording in his office all that time?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I cannot comment on the circumstances. The Department of Health inquiry, I would imagine, would look into all these matters, including who was and should be responsible for making the Secretary of State aware, if he was not aware, of this device.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, the use by Ministers of private means of communication is dangerous on all sorts of grounds, and Ministers need good advice about that. Following on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is there a review of ministerial private use of the internet, so that departments can identify which parts of such correspondence are subject to FOI so that they can deal with FOI requests?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, there is guidance. Obviously, guidance, as the noble Lord with his great experience will know, is reviewed from time to time. That is also the case in relation to FOI, on which I have already commented. The Cabinet Office responded to 92% of FOI requests within 20 working days. As to the boundaries, Ministers are also parliamentarians—MPs and Peers. There are distinctions between official classified information and the day-to-day management of a Minister’s life. One needs to be aware in office of those barriers and those responsibilities. I take note of what the noble Lord has said.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, with 5G and the internet of things, CCTV cameras become much more than just a camera. They can store data, record conversations, compromise passports, identify phone numbers et cetera. Thousands of pieces of Chinese Hikvision equipment are already installed across the country and connected to our networks. They will all be enabled by 5G. They sit in many offices and corridors, and everything that they see, whether it is on a desk or people going by, can be recorded and monitored. I ask the Minister whether any of these Hikvision cameras has been fitted anywhere on the Parliamentary Estate, as was originally the plan. Or were plans altered after my warning of the dangers, on the Floor of this House, on 18 October 2018?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, as a Minister, I cannot comment on matters on the Parliamentary Estate, but I understand that the Lord Speaker has recently written to colleagues. This is a security breach—I repeat what I said earlier. DHSC is running an investigation, which will be done with support from the government security group and will take into account all the considerations that the noble Lord has mentioned.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, having been both a private secretary and a Minister in my time, I had always thought that the private offices were there to protect and assist Ministers. Does my noble friend find it odd that this does not seem to have applied in the office of the Secretary of State for Health?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. I have referred to the different bounds and responsibilities that take place within the normal life of a Minister. I am not going to comment on what may or may not have gone on within the Department of Health, not because it is not my responsibility to answer on behalf of the Government but because those matters are currently being investigated.

Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Labour

My Lords, if the person with the former Secretary of State had been a would-be terrorist, some would have a very different attitude to the CCTV in the department. There will always have to be a balance between privacy and security, but the ministerial statement says that there are “robust safeguards” in place around the security of Ministers. You could have fooled me. Will the investigation try to find whether those in charge of the CCTV sought to tell the Minister that he was risking being blackmailed? On the use of private emails between Matt Hancock and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will there be a full- scale investigation into their use to ensure that they are available for a future public inquiry on the pandemic—particularly if they involve government contracts? Will the Information Commissioner be invited to investigate?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, in the first part of her question, the noble Baroness followed on slightly from earlier questions. There are issues of clarity, and Ministers should understand what is being done. My view is that the Government Security Group is obviously responsible for existing departments in securing Ministers’ security across Whitehall, and that work continues. As for the use of private machines for emails, I have referred to that, and they are subject to FoI.

Photo of Lord Howard of Rising Lord Howard of Rising Conservative

My Lords, I make no comment on Matthew Hancock, but what happened to him raises questions. Is the recent filming of the Secretary of State for Health in his office part of a systematic intrusion into ministerial offices? Is it appropriate to have cameras in the offices of a Secretary of State or, indeed, any other Minister? It is quite possible that highly classified documents might be photographed. What happens to the recordings? Are they erased? If they are, what method of security is there to ensure that they are erased? The recent sale to the Sun is evidence that not all is as it should be for the security of these recordings. Are there bugging devices as well as cameras located in ministerial offices? Could that explain why there are so many leaks from all sorts of government departments—senior, junior or wherever? Might that indicate that there are a lot of recording devices all over the place? The mind boggles about where all this could end up.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, it is meant to be a short question.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, my noble friend reflects a concern that has been expressed across the House about the potential security implications of such devices being in ministerial offices, the capture and use of such material and how wide it might be. That has been commented on by a number of noble Lords. I am sure that those responsible for the investigation, which is being supported by the Government Security Group, will take those points into account.