UK Politics

Ex-security minister recalls court-martial for losing confidential material

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Media captionLord West reveals he was in court martial 30 years ago for "losing something that was classified"

Lord West, the Labour peer and former security minister, has revealed that he was court-martialled about 30 years ago for losing confidential material.

The former First Sea Lord and head of the navy was commenting on the government's move to simplify how government documents are classified.

The designations Unclassified, Protect, Restricted and Confidential are to go, but Secret and Top Secret are to stay.

The peer said it was a subject that went "straight to my heart".

On the BBC's Daily Politics programme, he explained: "Some thirty years ago I was court-martialled for losing something that was classified, so as you can no doubt imagine, I pay particular attention to classification of these issues."

The new regime will have just three classifications: Official, Secret and Top Secret.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude noted that the previous system had been designed "decades ago".

The reforms would "speed up decisions, make it easier to share information and save hard-working taxpayers' money," he added.

"There has been a tendency to over mark documents rather than to manage risk properly. This can devalue the basic security principles.

"We think the most important and sensitive materials should be protected as Top Secret or Secret but for other information the new Official category, with its renewed emphasis upon personal responsibility and accountability, will be appropriate for most of what government does."

Lord West said: "It's time that this was done, and it's right that this was done."

He continued: "It's quite clear that we have too much that's over-classified, and when you're working in an area where quite a lot of things are secret people think: 'Hmm, I'd better make that secret just in case.'

"We end up with a plethora of these documents, and handling them, either on computers or sending them to someone else, is incredibly complex and expensive. You have to have special rules for doing it, specials ways of doing it.

"I did discover... that if I really wanted a minister to look at something I didn't just have it top secret, I would make a code word.

"And then they had to be indoctrinated into it, you would make them sign a piece of paper, and then they really wanted to see it.

"But if you gave them something that just said confidential, then they weren't so fussed."