The government has declined a Commons instruction to release information about the decision to make Evgeny Lebedev a peer, saying this would undermine the confidentiality of those nominated and could degenerate into “political point-scoring”.
Labour called the decision “a cover-up” and promised more action over what it called a contempt of parliament.
The government announcement said information had instead been provided to parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC). This prompted an immediate rebuff from the ISC, which said its request for details about Lebedev was separate and should have remained classified.
In March a humble address motion tabled by Labour was passed by the Commons amid a threatened Tory rebellion, directing ministers to release information about the elevation of the Russian-born businessman and son of a former KGB officer.
The vote, in which Tory MPs were instructed to abstain given the extent of backbench Conservative disquiet on the issue, followed revelations that the intelligence services had concerns about a peerage for Lebedev awarded by Boris Johnson, a close friend.
But a Cabinet Office document released on Thursday, running to nine pages, contained no new information beyond a handful of redacted emails, including one in which Lebedev confirmed he had completed a form, and another in which an unidentified official congratulated him on the peerage.
The only other information was already known, such as a full list of people made political peers in 2020 alongside Lebedev.
In a parallel written statement of explanation, the Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis said that while the government “is and remains committed to openness and transparency”, it would not abide by the Commons request.
Ministers had provided a more detailed response to the ISC “following a separate request from them for information relating to any national security matters arising”, he said.
In response, the ISC said it was “surprised” by Ellis linking the two requests in his statement, adding: “So far as the ISC is concerned, at this stage our request for information should have remained a private – and classified – matter of oversight.”
In his statement, Ellis said ministers had to balance openness with “the wider public interest”, and it would not be helpful to publish details about the scrutiny given to prospective peers.
“I can assure parliament that proper consideration would be given to any information which indicated national security concern arising from a prospective appointment before a decision was made,” he wrote.
“It is essential that the confidentiality of these arrangements is maintained as it is this that ensures the vetting procedures are suitably robust and command confidence, whilst also protecting the private and personal data of those individuals who have entered into the vetting process.”
In what was almost a veiled warning about the consequences of agreeing to the request, Ellis wrote: “Honourable members should be conscious that requests for information on the internal correspondence of the [House of Lords appointments] commission could also be applied to such opposition recommendations (including those which are rejected or withdrawn). I do not believe it would be in the public interest for such internal correspondence to be used in the future for political point-scoring.”
He ended: “Lord Lebedev is a man of good standing.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “This looks like a cover-up and smells like a cover-up because it is a cover-up. If the prime minister is claiming he was not involved in forcing through the award of a peerage to an individual of concern to our intelligence services, he should come clean and publish the documents as parliament instructed.
“The government is once again seeking to hide in the shadows from the sunlight of scrutiny. We will take steps to rectify this contempt of parliament.”
Boris Johnson’s deputy spokesperson defended the decision. “It’s our responsibility to protect the integrity of the vetting process which, as you know, is voluntarily entered into on a confidential basis,” they said. “We are committed to transparency, but the disclosure we have made reflects the need to maintain the integrity of the system.”