The UK government has resisted calls by the opposition Labour party to release the advice given to Boris Johnson by the security services before the prime minister nominated Lord Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB officer, for a peerage.
Ministers released nine pages of documents on Thursday relating to the process, some heavily redacted, but they did not include the confidential advice from the security services.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis released a separate document describing Lebedev as a “man of good standing”, but said any further details must remain secret to “protect national security”.
Routine disclosure of confidential information could have “long term and damaging consequences” for the peerage appointments system, he added.
In March, the government said it would publish the relevant documents after Labour used a parliamentary motion called a “humble address” to force ministers to publish the advice given to the parliamentary committee that vets peerages.
Johnson decided not to oppose the motion amid fears of a rebellion by Tory MPs concerned about accusations of a lack of transparency.
He had faced growing calls to explain his decision to nominate his friend Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent, for a peerage.
Lebedev, 42, was born in Moscow and moved to London as a child. He became a dual national in 2010 and a non-party crossbench peer in July 2020.
The Sunday Times revealed that the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which vets nominees to the upper chamber, advised Johnson in 2020 not to recommend the Russian-born businessman on the basis of advice from the security services. However, the committee changed its conclusion after receiving an update from the security services that the peerage was no longer deemed problematic.
The documents released on Thursday included a blank consent form, a citation explaining Lebedev’s background, an email containing a commission consent form and an email to Lebedev explaining the procedure for being introduced into the Lords.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, said the government had failed to comply fully.
“This looks like a cover-up and smells like a cover-up because it is a cover-up,” she said. “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.”
In a written ministerial statement, Ellis said the release of some information showed the government was “acting in good faith” in responding to parliament’s request for information.
But he added that the disclosure of the documents had taken into account the need to “protect national security”, the data protection rights of individuals and the need to “maintain integrity in the system for the awarding of honours and dignities by the Crown”.
Ellis added in his statement that Lebedev was a “man of good standing”. “No complaint has been made about his personal conduct. He had been vocal in his criticism of the Putin regime.”
However in 2014, Lebedev defended Russian president Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, telling the BBC the area had been part of Russia “for many years” and arguing that the situation was “very complicated”.
Ellis said in the statement that proper consideration would be given to any information indicating “national security concern” arising from a prospective appointment. If the prime minister had recommended a peerage against the commission’s “formal advice on propriety” it would have had to write publicly to the cross-party “intelligence and security committee (ISC)”. “That was not the case in this appointment,” he said.
But the ISC responded to Ellis’s statement, saying it had made a separate classified request for information pertaining to Lebedev’s appointment. This response was only met on Wednesday and the committee was now mulling whether the information was “sufficient”, it said.