Vetting advice on peerage for Lebedev to be published

The UK government has been forced to commit itself to disclosing the vetting advice provided to the prime minister on the nomination of Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev for a peerage.

Boris Johnson has faced mounting calls to explain his decision to nominate Lord Lebedev, a close friend and proprietor of the Evening Standard newspaper, in spite of initial national security concerns.

On Wednesday, the opposition Labour party used a parliamentary motion called a ‘humble address’ to force ministers to publish the advice given to the parliamentary committee that vets peerages. The motion was approved by MPs after the government decided not to oppose it amid fears of a sizeable rebellion by Conservative MPs concerned over accusations of a lack of transparency.

The decision comes as the government faces increasing scrutiny of Russian influence in the UK. The Sunday Times has reported that the UK intelligence services warned in 2020 against Lebedev being given a seat in the House of Lords on national security grounds, but security services changed their position after Johnson’s personal intervention.

The House of Lords Appointments Commission, which vets political nominees to “ensure the highest standards of propriety”, advised Johnson in March 2020 not to press ahead on the basis of the initial security advice.

But it later changed its conclusion after receiving an update from the security services that the awarding of a lifetime peerage to Lebedev was no longer deemed by them to be a problem.

Following the approval of the motion on Tuesday, the government has until April 28 to publish the advice. However, the documents may be redacted on national security grounds.

Lebedev, the son of a former KGB officer, tweeted his support for the advice to be published, saying: “I have nothing to hide.”

“Openness and transparency are pillars of our democratic system, so I welcome the call for security advice about me provided to Holac to be released.”

The crossbench peer also tweeted a text sent to him by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, following his appointment to the Lords, which read: “Congratulations on your elevation to the House of Lords. All best wishes, Keir.”

Opening the debate in the Commons, Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, said “serious questions” surrounded Lebedev’s peerage.

“The commission concluded it could not support his nomination. Forty-eight hours later, the prime minister visited Lebedev at his home in London,” she told MPs.

“Details of that meeting have never been released to the public and questions remain about whether the security services knew about this meeting or whether their assessments show that the Kremlin were keeping tabs on these activities.”

Responding on behalf of the government, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis accused Labour of whipping up “anti-Russian feeling”. He told MPs that disclosing the security advice would “undermine the very role” of Holac.

Challenged on why Conservative MPs had not been instructed to vote against the motion, he responded: “It’s quite normal practice to ignore opposition motions. They are given the careful attention that they deserve. That is a matter that is common practice.”

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