Ministers accused of cover-up as release of Lebedev peerage details is blocked
The Government has been accused of a “cover-up” by Labour after withholding detailed security advice over Russian-born businessman Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage.
Ministers cited the need to “protect national security” and to maintain the “integrity” of the honours system after withholding key details linked to the peerage of the media mogul.
The appointment has been shrouded in controversy after The Sunday Times newspaper alleged security services withdrew an assessment, that granting the peerage to the son of a former KGB agent posted a national security risk, when the Prime Minister intervened.
Lord Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and a shareholder in The Independent, and son of oligarch Alexander Lebedev, was appointed to the House of Lords in November 2020.
The House of Commons approved a Labour motion in March seeking to force the Government to release documents about Mr Johnson’s involvement.
But ministers simply released the blank form Lord Lebedev was required to fill in by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the public citation announcing his appointment.
They also published a list of the other peerages awarded at the same time, and a couple of email exchanges with almost all content redacted apart from a note congratulating him on the news.
Ms Rayner said: “This looks like a cover-up and smells like a cover-up because it is a cover-up.
“If the Prime Minister is claiming he was not involved in forcing through the award of a peerage to an individual of concern to our intelligence services, he should come clean and publish the documents as Parliament instructed.
“The Government is once again seeking to hide in the shadows from the sunlight of scrutiny. We will take steps to rectify this contempt of Parliament.
“The public have a right to know the truth about Boris Johnson’s interference in the appointment of his friend Lord Lebedev, the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent, to a seat in the heart of our Parliament. It is time to get to the bottom of this whole murky business.”
The Lebedev announcement, made on Thursday by Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis, also angered Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) which said it was “surprised” its “classified” request for information about Lord Lebedev was revealed by the Government.
Mr Ellis said in a statement the Government was “committed to openness and transparency”, but said it had to take into account security concerns as well as the need to maintain the “integrity” of the honours system.
“It is also the case that when considering requests for information from Parliament, the Government has a responsibility to consider whether it is in the public interest to place information into the public domain,” he said.
“As laid out in today’s House of Commons paper, the disclosure of these documents reflects the need to protect national security, to maintain integrity in the system for the awarding of honours and dignities by the Crown, the vetting of nominees for probity and the data protection rights of individuals.”
Mr Ellis said that in response to a separate request, the Government would be sending information relating to “any national security matters arising” to the ISC, which normally sits in private.
“I believe this sharing of information illustrates the Government is acting in good faith in responding to Parliament’s request for information,” he said.
Mr Ellis added: “Lord Lebedev is a man of good standing. No complaint has been made about his personal conduct. He has been vocal in his criticism of the Putin regime.”
However, the ISC released a statement to say it had made its request for more information “on a classified basis”.
The committee said it was too soon to determine whether the information received is “sufficient” having only received it on Wednesday, despite having set an April 28 deadline to align with one set by the Commons.
“So far as the ISC is concerned, at this stage our request for information should have remained a private – and classified – matter of oversight,” the statement added.
Downing Street sought to defend withholding the security advice linked.
A No 10 spokesman said: “It’s our responsibility to protect the integrity of the vetting process which is voluntarily entered into on a confidential basis.
“We are committed to transparency but the disclosure we’ve made reflects the need to maintain the integrity of the system.”