Yesterday afternoon at 4.10pm there was this debate in Parliament under the title of Security of Ministers’ Offices and Communications. Peter Bone was the person who asked the question and it was very clearly directed to a man who is known as Michael Gove but rather disturbingly he was not available and so his colleague, Julia Lopez was the Minister who responded. The question nevertheless was very clear “To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on security arrangements relating to ministerial offices and communications.” but before it was asked the Speaker of the House of Commons made a statement to try to reassure the MPs and also limit the area of questions.
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.
So back to some of the questions and answers that took place after the question from Peter Bone. The first few sentences from Julia Lopez were
I appreciate your comments, Mr Speaker, about matters in relation to the House. I am grateful to my hon. 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.
One may wonder if the Government took these seriously if they would send a more senior Minister to respond, after all if Michael Gove was not able to attend, perhaps Boris Johnson could have arrived to sit in his place. Julia then goes on to say
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.
Part of the response from Peter Bone was
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.
And this was some of the words from Julia
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.
The next person to speak was Angela Rayner and her question covered two other subjects. The issue of the Matt Hancocks email behaviour and the action by Boris Johnson and his mobile phone use.
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?
Julia: 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.
She then goes on to suggest that because the COVID situation has been so busy for Ministers that “a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses, their parliamentary email addresses and their ministerial email addresses.” a bit later on in the debate there were some comments from two other MPs. One is the Conservative MP for Redcar, Jacob Young and then a few moments later there was a comment from the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Jamie Stone
JY: 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?
JS: 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?
And the two responses from Julia Lopez included these few words:
My hon. Friend raises an important point about covert devices, and we all seek the same reassurances as him on these matters.
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.
So let us hope that in due course the return of the senior Ministers will happen very soon and there will be some clear answers regarding the use of CCTV and microphones and the use of email and perhaps in due course how the images and audio got presented to the Sun newspaper!