HL Deb 05 December 1991 vol 533 cc343-5
Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer which has been given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to a Private Notice Question in another place on diplomatic bags. The Answer is as follows:

"We learnt some days ago that bags containing Canadian diplomatic mail had been discovered by staff at Wandsworth Prison. Diplomatic bags are routinely sent to Wandsworth Prison for laundering. On this occasion the bags in question had been inadvertently included in such a consignment sent to Wandsworth. Steps were immediately taken to recover the diplomatic mail and to investigate the incident".

My Lords, that concludes the Answer.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, for repeating the Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place. I must say that it is the most extraordinary Statement that I have heard in this House, having dealt with many in my time.

Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the bags in question belong to the Foreign Office or to the Canadian High Commission? If they belong to the Foreign Office, is it common practice to send these diplomatic bags for laundering, to use the noble Lord's expression, at Wandsworth Prison? What other Foreign Office dirty linen is sent to Wandsworth Prison for laundering? How long was the matter undetected? What representations have been made by the Canadian High Commission to the Foreign Office? Was any of the confidential material copied; and if so, by whom and with what motive? What is the state of the investigation which I understand is taking place? Will further Statements be issued? Finally, will the noble Lord kindly tell the House whether it is sensible that Foreign Office material, whether bags, dirty linen or anything else, should be sent to Wandsworth Prison for dry cleaning?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I associate myself with the gratitude expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, for this very interesting Statement. Can the noble Lord confirm that these documents were sent to Wandsworth Prison with the full collaboration of the North Staffordshire Police and the Home Secretary?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for his acknowledgement of what he described as an extraordinary Statement. I thank, too, the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I can confirm that the bags belonged to Canada and not to the Foreign Office. We handle them on Canada's behalf. I believe that the incident occurred about 10 days ago. It was only revealed as material came to light, because the bags were opened in Wandsworth. We have no knowledge of the information being copied. An investigation has taken place but no report has been published as yet. I cannot tell the noble Lord whether it is the kind of report that is normally published.

We regularly handle diplomatic bags on behalf of the Canadians and others. The bags were delivered from the Canadian High Commission inside a larger white bag which also contained bags for laundering. This consignment was added to other bags awaiting delivery to Wandsworth for laundering. Steps have been taken to prevent repetition of this incident. For instance, bags in the outward bag office are now turned inside out. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, so far as I know there was no involvement by the local constabulary.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, can my noble friend say what on earth people put into diplomatic bags that requires their regular laundering?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I do not think mail of any kind—and certainly not diplomatic mail—has any immunity from dirtying the vessel that carries it. Therefore, I imagine that it is good practice to keep diplomatic bags clean, as it is with other items.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, can the Minister say who opened the bag at Wandsworth? Further, is there a security precaution that is normally taken? It does not take too much imagination to realise that all kinds of things could have been going there for a long time in diplomatic bags. Is security so lax? Although it may seem very funny, there is a serious side to the matter if there is a security problem at Wandsworth. I repeat, who opens the bags and who is in control of the operation?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, this was a matter of human error. The responsibility for seeing that the bags do not contain any material rests with the Foreign Office. We believe that prison officers open the bags at Wandsworth. I agree with the noble Lord that it is a serious matter. I should also say, in reply to the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that we have been in touch with the Canadians throughout this episode and indeed have apologised to them.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can the Minister explain who was in charge of this laundered bag? Further, what is the noble Lord's definition of "laundering"? What does laundering articles in diplomatic bags mean?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, the object of the exercise is not to launder the contents of the diplomatic bag; it is to render clean the bag.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, if the Government wish to publicise the diplomatic mail of other countries, might they not do better in future to leave such bags in an open prison?

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I note the suggession made by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew.