Press release

Radical overhaul for Whitehall security

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The government security classifications will be fundamentally overhauled for the first time since World War II.

This change will speed up Whitehall and save the taxpayer money.

The shake-up will see the 6 existing levels of protective marking replaced with 3: Official, Secret and Top Secret.

The new markings will be used by over 700,000 civil servants and military personnel from April 2014, and are set to be adopted by the wider public sector in due course. The changes are part of the government’s Civil Service Reform programme, designed to strip away bureaucracy and give civil servants greater responsibility for the work they do.

The new system is specifically designed for the digital age - it will be more straightforward than the current one for staff to understand. Greater clarity and an emphasis on personal responsibility will deliver better security. The current system dates from a time when civil servants worked exclusively with paper. Carrying forward essentially clerical processes into our IT has led to unnecessary controls, complexity and misunderstandings that obscure common sense protections. Reforming the system will help save the taxpayer money, enabling government to buy standardised IT rather than costly bespoke solutions.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said:

Whitehall uses a security classification system designed decades ago. We are changing that and introducing a new system fit for the digital age. It will speed up decisions, make it easier to share information and save hard-working taxpayers’ money. 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.

The 3 distinct and clear protective markings will enable information to be classified in a more consistent way, minimising the scope for error, and making it easier to share information between departments and with partner organisations without undermining security.

Notes to editors

The 3 new security classifications are:

OFFICIAL – The majority of information that is created or processed by the public sector. This includes routine government businesses, public service delivery and commercial activity. The new ‘Official’ classification will cover 90 per cent of government business and is based on commercial good practice. The new system gives managers the opportunity to be clear in their expectations of staff. In turn, civil servants will be required to use their own judgement much more actively rather than just over-classifying in order to avoid responsibility.

SECRET – Very sensitive information that justifies heightened protective measures - for example, where compromise could seriously damage military capabilities, internal relations or the investigation of serious organised crime.

TOP SECRET – The most sensitive information requiring the highest levels of protection from the most serious threats – for instance, where compromise could cause widespread loss of life or else threaten the security or wellbeing of the country or friendly nations.

The 6 current security classifications which are to be replaced are:

  • Unclassified
  • Protect
  • Restricted
  • Confidential
  • Secret
  • Top Secret