French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C-R) speaks with Angus Lapsley (C-L), Director for Defence at the Foreign Office 2018. (Photo by Christophe Petit Tesson / EPA POOL / AFP)
Artillery Row

Major Lapse

How can a man who leaves state secrets at the bus stop keep his job?

In June, Angus Lapsley, a senior diplomat then “responsible for defence policy on NATO,” left a pile of 50 pages of highly sensitive Ministry of Defence papers in a soggy heap behind a bus stop in Canterbury. The same diplomat had reportedly been tipped for promotion to the key role of UK ambassador to NATO, something that is now apparently “unlikely”.

Some may be prepared to overlook this as an isolated mistake, accept he has been punished enough by losing his promotion, and move on. I would not be so generous. The question here for the civil service is whether he should remain in any role within HM’s Government.

Why was a senior diplomat taking sensitive papers home with him, and walking with them down routes he is happy to publicise?

Mr Lapsley is a well known figure in official foreign policy circuits, regularly speaking at conferences and at think tanks. We also know — courtesy of his social media feed — that he lives in Canterbury, regularly walks to work, and often using footpaths around the town. Although seemingly he also uses a bus when it rains.

You may ask whether it is sensible for a senior official to broadcast his everyday moves. I accept we are no longer in the Cold War or faced with mainland IRA violence but it does raise questions. If his location, seniority, and role are broadcast onto the internet, these facts are broadcast to the world.

It is worth remembering that these were not any old papers. These were detailed discussions concerning the course of HMS Defender as it sailed past occupied Crimea, as well as details about the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the former, the very fact that there was discussion in the FCDO as to whether it was wise to sail close to Russian occupied lands would give heart to Russia. It was not a self-confident done deal, but something upon which the Foreign Secretary deliberated. The message to Russia would thus be: push harder and next time the FCDO might stop such a move. Just in case the Russian were not aware, a helpful map was included indicating the exact route.

While on one level it is rather depressing that the member of the public that found this bundle of classified material handed it into the BBC to publicise them. But if they had not, then there would have been no story and Mr Lapsley may have escaped public chastisement and be on his way to Brussels.

Having worked in a professional services firm and in a junior role in the TA, I am certain that if a junior had been found taking highly sensitive documents home for walks around their home town and  depositing them behind a bus stop, they would be sacked. 

If it was the Army, a junior rank would be disciplined, interrogated, possibly court marshalled and very likely discharged. In a professional services firm the client would demand their head and the firm would oblige.

The Government needs to get a grip on its officials and civil servants of all ranks

So why has Mr Lapsley survived in the FCDO?

We don’t know. But the fact that he is senior should not be allowed to cloud judgements. In the past, organisations that have been betrayed from within have often been betrayed from the top. For every Melita Norwood — the photocopier who betrayed the UK’s nuclear secrets to the Soviets — there was a Cambridge educated spy operating in plain sight undetected for years. Nobody suspects Mr Lapsley is anything other than what he appears to be — a fool — but the stakes are so high that it would be odd if the civil service took such a risk. Seniority should be no shield from discipline and procedure. If a junior would have been sacked, so should the senior.

Which takes us to a wider question, how seriously does the Government take security and confidentiality? If a senior civil servant can take sensitive papers home, lose them, and still keep their job, what other security lapses are going on undetected?

During the fractious Brexit wars, the idea of the neutrality of the civil service broke down, with leaking and spinning from within the machine becoming an everyday occurrence. During the negotiations with the EU, the split loyalties of some of the senior officials were on full display and seemingly tolerated by ministers. 

Secret documents are secret for a reason and protocols on their handling must be followed. Civil servants should also realise that they are employed as servants of the elected Government to ensure that their policies are enacted. Those who join the civil service to further their own agendas or the agendas of outside organisations should no longer be tolerated. Nor, for that matter, should civil servants who believe that foreign laws and organisations have an equal claim on their loyalties to that of their own state. They are entitled to follow other interests and loyalties outside of Government.

We live in an information age where data is at the cutting edge of conflict between states. There can be no room in the civil service for those who do not understand the need to handle secret information.

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