Defence: Anger over armed forces review leak

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A DISPUTE over the controversial leak of the Government's Strategic Defence Review erupted yesterday when George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, accused the Tories of failing to co-operate with the official inquiry to identify the culprit.

He also hinted that the Conservatives were responsible for making further copies of the document and passing them to journalists after they were leaked a copy of the 56-page review on the eve of its official publication. Publication of details in papers before the official announcement on 7 July was a huge embarrassment to Mr Robertson and he was forced to apologise to MPs.

Opening a two-day Commons debate on the review, Mr Robertson said the Tory frontbench team had initially pressed for the inquiry set up by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, but had subsequently failed to give evidence. He went on to complain that the Tories had given no indication to the Government that they had received a copy of the long-awaited document before it appeared in several newspapers.

He said: "The investigators concluded on 7 July [that] a photocopy of the White Paper was sent by an authorised recipient within Government to the Opposition front bench ... the House will draw its own conclusions about the way in which the White Paper subsequently found its way on to the front pages of the newspapers." Mr Robertson added that the inquiry had failed to establish who leaked the review to the Tory front bench. "The leak was a gross discourtesy to Parliament, and I once again express my anger and my apologies that it occurred."

Senior Tory sources confirmed that they had received a photocopy of the document but refused to say whether any member of the William Hague's team had been involved in leaking it to the press.

They denied Mr Robertson's claim that they had refused to speak to the two independent investigators who carried out the inquiry and accused the Government of trying to divert attention way from their planned cuts to the Territorial Army under the SDR.

A senior party source said: "Any leak of a government document must have come from within the government machine.

"They clearly failed to identify the leak and now they are trying to spread confusion to divert attention away from their cuts to the TA."

Earlier, in a Commons written answer, Mr Robertson said that he was "disappointed" that the Conservative front bench had declined to co-operate with the inquiry.

He added: "I regret that, after extensive inquiries, the investigators were not able to identify the person responsible for the leak."

Although Mr Robertson stopped short of actually blaming the Tories for passing copies of the document to journalists, his answer suggested strongly that they could have been involved.

He said the two independent investigators who carried out the inquiry had established with a "high degree of probability" that a photocopy of the document was passed by an authorised recipient to the Tory front bench.

Mr Robertson said: "The investigators found no evidence to suggest that, in addition to the copy sent to the Opposition, a second authorised recipient sent copies to the newspapers."