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Exclusive: ‘Secret’ legal advice given to Grant Shapps over sanction-busting Russia flight from Inverness

Image: DC Thomson
Image: DC Thomson

Tory minister Grant Shapps received secret legal advice after a private jet departed Inverness on a sanctions-busting flight to Moscow, we can reveal.

The UK Government is attempting to block the release of the correspondence between lawyers and Mr Shapps, who was transport secretary at the time.

It argues the documents cannot be disclosed because they are “protected by legal professional privilege”.

But the Westminster government was accused of making “strenuous efforts” to withhold relevant information about this flight because it would rather the public was “kept in the dark”.

Mystery continues to surround the private charter that was allowed to depart the Highland capital on February 26, bound for Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.

On social media, Mr Shapps publicly accused Inverness Airport of having “failed to comply” with a ban on Russia flights, which was introduced through a Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) the day before the departure.

However, he faced calls to apologise to the airport after we revealed the flight was cleared for take-off by the UK Government’s Border Force, the police’s Special Branch and national air traffic controllers.

Inverness Airport. Image: Sandy McCook / DC Thomson

While the Scottish Government has released its ministerial communications about the flight under freedom of information (FOI) laws, the UK Government has twice refused.

It initially said it would be too expensive and time-consuming to disclose the correspondence.

Transparency battle

Our second FOI request only asked for the disclosure of Mr Shapps’ communications relating to the flight on February 26, 27 and 28 this year.

But in response, the Department for Transport (DFT) said releasing the information could have “detriment to the UK’s world standing and ongoing diplomatic relations relating to the wider Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

It added: “The detriment would be caused by countries not trusting the UK with their information and in some cases be in breach of international conventions of sharing information between countries.”

The P&J has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office about the decision.

The Estonian-registered plane which travelled from Inverness to Moscow.

Ahead of the commissioner’s investigation, the DFT applied two more exemptions which it argues justifies the refusal of our request.

One of the exemptions relates to protecting the names of junior officials, and the other concerns legal advice.

“This exemption is being applied as some of the information in scope of your request is protected by legal professional privilege,” the DFT said.

It added that while releasing the communications would show it had “correctly obtained legal advice whilst dealing with these matters”, there was also a strong public interest in safeguarding legal privilege.

‘Legal risks’

“Officials and lawyers have to be able to share all information that is available to them frankly and in confidence, to enable effective decision-making based on the facts and an informed assessment of the legal risks,” the DFT said.

Mr Shapps must have received the legal advice in question on February 26, 27 or 28.

Richard Thomson, the SNP MP for Gordon, previously challenged Boris Johnson about the flight at prime minister’s questions in the Commons.

He said: “It’s now over six months since I was promised by the then PM Boris Johnson that he would make sure the House was properly informed about the questions which arose from this event.

“It’s therefore quite extraordinary that we are still waiting for answers to the basic questions of who was on that flight, and also over the role played by the UK Government in not preventing the aircraft from leaving Inverness for Russia, in apparent breach of its own sanctions policies.

“It’s not good enough – as a previous transport minister attempted – to place the blame for this onto Inverness Airport.

“It’s also increasingly clear from the strenuous efforts being made by the UK Government to withhold information about this flight that they have relevant information that they would rather the public was kept in the dark about.”

The plane left the Highland capital just two days after Russia invaded Ukraine and only 12 hours after a ban on Russian flights came into force.

The jet travelled from Moscow to Geneva then onto Amsterdam on February 25.

It flew to Inverness, Moscow and back to Geneva on the following day

We previously reported that Panaviatic, the charter company, was linked to a bank at the centre of an Estonian money laundering probe.

On June 30, the SNP challenged Mr Shapps about the flight during a Commons exchange.

The Conservative minister said: “As a pilot, I understand how NOTAMs – notices to aviation – work: they are the responsibility of either the pilot or the aviation operator, which in this case was the airport, to follow.

“There is simply no excuse for not following them.”