A “corrosive culture of leaking” at the heart of Whitehall should be tackled with a robust approach and tougher sanctions, MPs urged.
The damage caused by the unauthorised release of Sir Kim Darroch’s diplomatic dispatches from his role as UK ambassador in Washington showed the “reckless and dangerous” behaviour of leakers, a report said.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee suggested a review of Foreign Office classification measures for sensitive messages and suggested that leakers could face being stripped of their pensions and be made to pay for the cost of investigations.
Sir Kim resigned as UK ambassador to the US after his candid assessments of Donald Trump’s “inept” administration were made public.
The US president lashed out at “wacky” and “pompous” Sir Kim – and the UK Government – after his diplomatic telegrams were revealed.
The Foreign Affairs Committee said: “The unauthorised disclosure of material sent by Sir Kim Darroch makes one thing very clear: those who leak are reckless and dangerous.
“In this case they have caused the resignation of a dedicated and skilled public servant, undermined the influence of the United Kingdom around the world and, potentially, caused a damaging rift with our most important ally.”
Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said: “The Foreign Affairs Committee condemns this leak completely. We greatly regret that it resulted in the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch after such a long and distinguished career.”
The committee called for a “zero tolerance approach to leaks” and called for all unauthorised disclosures of information to be treated robustly and with an “absolute determination to identify and punish the source”.
The MPs said: “Leaks are a canker in the civil service and if permitted at any level will corrode the heart of the institutions that deliver Government policy.”
They said that when leaks appeared to be favourable to the Foreign Office “the Department’s determination to find the source of the leak has not been sufficiently robust”.
The MPs said the Government “must not pick and choose with leaks: if it sends out a message that some leaks can be tolerated it helps create a culture where those who are tempted to leak are emboldened to do so”.
Mr Tugendhat said: “Confidentiality is at the heart of our diplomacy. The effective functioning of Government depends on it.
“Leaks are corrosive and undermine the work of the FCO, the civil service and the wider Government at home and abroad. They place civil servants in untenable situations and betray the trust placed in us to serve our nation.
“The FCO must commit to rooting out all sources of leaks; there must be consistency in approach, sending a clear signal that leaking will not be tolerated at any level.”
Deeply saddened to hear of the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch. Standing up for Britain means standing up for the finest diplomats on the world. It should never have come to this.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 10, 2019
The MPs also called for Sir Kim’s successor as ambassador to face a pre-appointment hearing from the committee.
There has been speculation that new prime minister Boris Johnson could fill the Washington vacancy with a political appointment for an ally rather than a career diplomat.
The committee said that “given the importance of the appointment” the MPs should be allowed to scrutinise – but not veto – the choice.
“At a time when the civil service is being thrust into the centre of the political debate, including an additional layer of scrutiny to the appointment process would provide extra protection against unfair and unfounded claims of political bias of civil servants that incidents such as leaks can generate,” the MPs said.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We take the security of our diplomatic reporting extremely seriously and continue to review our processes.
“It is important our ambassadors and high commissioners around the world can provide ministers with an honest, unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country and we will respond to this report in due course.”