by Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 9 october 2023
Documents on Keir Starmer’s high-level meetings in the US while he oversaw Julian Assange’s possible extradition to Sweden have been removed from the public record – but the CPS tells Declassified it doesn’t even know what it has destroyed.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), England and Wales’ public prosecutor, has no knowledge of what records it has destroyed related to its previous head Keir Starmer, it can be revealed.
In June, Declassified revealed that the public body had deleted all records of Starmer’s four trips to Washington while he was Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Starmer made trips to Washington in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 at a cost to the British taxpayer of £21,603. It was his most frequent foreign destination while in post and included a meeting with the US Attorney General.
Starmer served as DPP from 2008-13, a period when the body was overseeing Julian Assange’s proposed extradition to Sweden to face questioning over sexual assault allegations.
During Starmer’s time in post, the CPS was marred by irregularities surrounding the case of the WikiLeaks founder, destroying key emails related to the Assange case, mostly covering the period when Starmer was in charge.
Declassified recently submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request asking for an account of what documentation was prepared – and later destroyed – for Starmer’s four trips to Washington.
The taxpayer-funded organisation replied last week that it “does not hold a schedule of destroyed material and we therefore do not have any information within the scope of your request.”
CPS document retention policy states that material for destruction should be of “a routine business nature and can be destroyed when the business need for retaining the information has expired”.
By contrast, documents to be preserved have “historical value” and “may be offered to [The National Archives] for permanent preservation and be made available to the public”.
It is unclear why visits to high-level personnel in the US by the head of the CPS would be judged as “routine”.
Declassified also requested the CPS perform an internal review of our original information request asking for details of Starmer’s Washington trips.
The review, conducted in August, stated the “information was correctly destroyed in line with the CPS Retention Schedules, being now over 10 years since these events occurred.”
It is unclear where the 10 year retention figure comes from as it does not appear in the policy referenced by the CPS.
Starmer’s last trip to Washington was in September 2013, the month before he stepped down as DPP. Ten years had not elapsed by the time the CPS answered Declassified’s request in June 2023, so it is unclear why information related to this 3-day trip had already been destroyed.
The CPS internal review also stated that the Starmer files were destroyed because the information “would have fallen into the category of administrative records”.
Again, it is unclear why records of Starmer’s visits to the US would be regarded as “administrative”.
A CPS spokesperson told Declassified: “We have a clear and consistent retention policy. Effective disposal of information once it has reached its retention date ensures we are complying with various data protection and Public Record Acts.”
US records show that on 9 November 2011, Starmer met the senior law officer in the US, Attorney General Eric Holder, at his office at the US Department of Justice. The meeting lasted for 45 minutes.
Starmer was part of a five-person British delegation, including Gary Balch, then UK liaison prosecutor to the US, who dealt with extradition.
Also present was Patrick Stevens, then head of the international division at the CPS, in which he developed and led CPS activities worldwide “in support of UK national security”. Stevens states that, at the time, he was “at the heart of the UK government’s national security and international justice strategy”.
Alongside them sat Susan Hemming, then head of counterrorism at the CPS, who was in charge of issues related to – among other things – “official secrets”.
For other public bodies—such as the Foreign Office—meetings between British and foreign officials are deemed of “historical value” and, subject to vetting, deposited in the National Archives.
Maurice Frankel, director of Campaign for Freedom of Information, told Declassified: “It’s inconceivable that records about a high-profile case, with major domestic and international implications, could properly have been destroyed while proceedings were and remain live.”
Frankel, a former member of the Lord Chancellor’s advisory group on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, added: “Emails about where Keir Starmer would lunch in Washington are one thing, but records about discussions between the most senior British and US officials would have been historically significant and possibly relevant for business and legal reasons.”
He concluded: “The CPS may have grounds to withhold these from an FOI request – but destroying historically and politically significant records is a different matter. The timing of any destruction is also critical. If they were destroyed while an FOI request for them was being considered that may have been a criminal offence.”