Prime Minister’s Meeting with Alexander Lebedev - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 2:28 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister for Africa.

Alexander Lebedev is a well-known former KGB officer and a former owner of the London Evening Standard newspaper. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee, in response to questions from the right honourable Member for Kingston upon Hull North, that he had met Mr Lebedev

‘on a very few occasions’.”

I understand that the Prime Minister confirmed that where he had met Mr Lebedev without officials present, he had subsequently reported those meetings to officials as required. I do not have any information about the content of any discussions that may or may not have been held with Mr Lebedev.

I understand that the Prime Minister has committed to write to the Liaison Committee with further details.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:29 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, the truth about this meeting must come out. This person has been sanctioned by our allies for enabling the invasion of Ukraine and been described by the Russian intelligence agency FSB as a “useful asset”. In the other place, Vicky Ford was unable to offer any clarity; I hope the Minister will do so now. When she was asked whether Boris Johnson informed officials, she could not really answer. She corrected the Statement, which the Minister has just read out, saying that Boris Johnson could not remember whether he told officials. We need to know the truth.

First, did the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Security Service know about this meeting in advance and did they try to stop it? Secondly, the record of Ministers’ interests says that the then Foreign Secretary accepted hospitality in Italy for himself and a guest, but he travelled home alone. Who was the guest? Finally, it was reported that Alexander Lebedev was trying to arrange a phone call from Italy between the then Foreign Secretary and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Did that call take place? I note what the Minister said about Boris Johnson writing to the committee, but we need more than that letter—we need a thorough investigation to be held by the Cabinet Secretary. We need to know the truth.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a number of questions. As he will have seen, in the Liaison Committee session my right honourable friend the Prime Minister promised to write to the committee on those very questions and similar specific ones asked of him. I think it is best that we wait for that letter. I note the noble Lord’s last point; one thing I absolutely believe in is the importance—I hope noble Lords will regard and respect this—of any Prime Minister or Minister acting with integrity. Of course there are occasions where someone seeks to meet one on one; as a Minister, you would immediately and diligently report that back and record those issues, because it is important that all parts of a conversation are recorded fully. However, as I said, it is best that we wait for that letter. I am sure there will be other occasions on which the noble Lord may return to this subject.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, as the Minister knows, when we debated a tranche of Russia sanctions, I raised the fact that Alexander Lebedev is now sanctioned by the Canadian Government, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. As part of those sanctions, it is a criminal offence in Canada to help him refinance, reconstitute or restructure his affairs. Did the Prime Minister bring this meeting with Alexander Lebedev to the notice of the Minister or any officials, when one of our Five Eyes allies was putting sanctions in place which meant that any interaction with him would be an offence in that country? Given that we are now getting more information regarding the former Prime Minister, it is now not only time to publish the information from the Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference but appropriate to publish the information and advice provided to the Prime Minister before he nominated Alexander Lebedev’s son to this House. These are very serious issues that concern our key allies’ criminal law. The Government need full disclosure.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s earlier point, I revert to what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins: it is important to wait for the response the Prime Minister assured the Liaison Committee that he would provide, and whatever details are contained in it. The noble Lord is right to talk about sanctions; without going into the specific nature of particular sanctions, I assure him that we act in co-ordination with our allies. I am happy to update him with additional information if he so requires. We act in a co-ordinated fashion, and the application of a sanction imposes particular limitations on the individual or organisation concerned. As I have said previously and written in response to various questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in a letter, if there is further detail that can be shared on the ISC report, I will write to him, but I believe the Government have responded to the issues raised in it.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, if I am right, the visit to Alexander Lebedev came in the wake of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, which involved two Russian agents bringing, effectively, a chemical weapon through Heathrow, a commercial airport. Can the Minister give any assurance it could not happen again, and what assessment have the Government made of that episode and the dangers it caused for potentially thousands of people?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am sure the right reverend Prelate will appreciate that I cannot talk in detail about national security matters, but I assure the right reverend Prelate and all noble Lords that there is a very robust approach across government, with all the key departments concerned, to ensure any threats to our nation and our citizens are fully identified and mitigated. In an ultimate sense, we want to prevent all of this, so any information and lessons learned from previous occasions are fully applied. I assure the right reverend Prelate that agencies as well as government departments work together on ensuring that we keep our citizens safe.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat

My Lords, do the exchanges of the last moment or two simply confirm the fact that the now Prime Minister should leave now?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

There is a set procedure. My right honourable friend has taken the decision to leave office; there will now be a process that will be followed to allow for a transition to a new Prime Minister in an orderly fashion, and we are following exactly what has happened previously.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour

My Lords, there are profound national security issues involved in what has now been disclosed almost by accident in the Liaison Committee yesterday: that the current, temporary Prime Minister, while Foreign Secretary, had these meetings without officials being present. What attempts are now being made to check out how many other meetings he had when he was Foreign Secretary, or as Prime Minister, with people who might well affect the national security of our country?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As the noble Lord will know from his own detailed experience and insights on national security matters, all agencies take a very robust attitude in terms of ensuring full scrutiny. As I have already said, the Prime Minister will write to the Liaison Committee on the broader issues that the noble Lord has raised. I am sure the noble Lord will also realise from his own experience of being a very senior Minister that, yes, there are rules and obligations that we as Ministers have to adhere to. I mentioned previously the issue of integrity, and it is for all of us, whether we are Ministers, or in your Lordships’ House or in the other place, to uphold them—and equally, where there are meetings which take place, that they are minuted or documented to allow for an assessment of records. Let us await the response from my right honourable friend, and I am sure there will be details provided in that.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

My Lords, does this call into account the whole question of the use of private phones by Ministers in meetings, and in other matters of official import? Could it be assured that the questions asked today are added to the questions put to the Liaison Committee, and the appropriate people are encouraged to respond accordingly?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

On the noble Lord’s second point, of course there were questions asked directly of the Prime Minister, and I am sure Hansard will be read, and officials will feed back also on the discussions we have had. On the point on the use of devices, be they personal or official, I can speak from experience that, whenever you travel to particular parts of the world, in terms of the IT you carry there are quite robust procedures deployed by officials at the FCDO, which ensure that whatever checks and balances need to be done for security and protecting the integrity of what is contained within the equipment, it is also safeguarded.