Classified information in the United Kingdom

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Classified information in the United Kingdom, previously called Protectively Marked Information, is a system used to protect information from intentional or inadvertent release to unauthorised readers. The system is organised by the Cabinet Office and is implemented throughout central and local government and the critical national infrastructure. The system is also used by private sector bodies that provide services to the public sector.

A new classification system, the Government Security Classifications Policy, replaced the old Government Protective Marking Scheme in 2014.


Policy is set by the Cabinet Office. The classification system was formerly included in the Manual of Protective Security (MPS) which specified the impact of release and protection level required for each classification. Departments issued localised versions of the content of the MPS as appropriate to their operational needs. The Security Policy Framework (SPF) now supersedes the Manual of Protective Security[1] and contains the primary internal protective security policy and guidance on security and risk management for HM Government Departments and associated bodies. It is the source on which all localised security policies are based.

Government Security Classifications Policy[edit]

The Cabinet Office issued the Government Security Classifications Policy in 2013; it came into effect in 2014. It replaces the old Government Protective Marking Scheme.

Top secret
Information marked as top secret is that whose release is liable to cause considerable loss of life, international diplomatic incidents, or severely impact ongoing intelligence operations. Disclosure of such information is assumed to be above the threshold for Official Secrets Act prosecution.
This marking is used for information which needs protection against serious threats, and which could cause serious harm if compromised—such as threats to life, compromising major crime investigations, or harming international relations.
All routine public sector business, operations and services is treated as OFFICIAL. Many departments and agencies operate exclusively at this level. (As of April 2014 the OFFICIAL classification replaces Confidential, Restricted and Protect.)
A limited subset of OFFICIAL information that would have more damaging consequences (for individuals, an organisation or government generally) if it were lost, stolen or published in the media is classified "OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE".[2]

Government Protective Marking Scheme[edit]

The older system used five levels of classification, supplemented with caveat keywords.[3]:Annex One The keyword must be placed in all capital letters in the centre of the top and bottom of each page of a classified document. In descending order of secrecy, these are:

Top secret
Information marked as Top secret is that whose release is liable to cause considerable loss of life, international diplomatic incidents, or severely impact ongoing intelligence operations. Prior to the Second World War, the highest level was "Most Secret"; it was renamed so that both the UK and U.S. operated to a consistent system.
This marking is used for information whose side-effects may be life-threatening, disruptive to public order or detrimental to diplomatic relations with friendly nations.
The effects of releasing information marked as Confidential include considerable infringement on personal liberties, material damage to diplomatic relations, or to seriously disrupt day-to-day life in the country.
Information marked as Restricted is at a level where the release of the material will have effects such as significant distress to individuals, adversely affecting the effectiveness of military operations, or to compromise law enforcement.
Such information will cause distress to individuals; cause financial loss or improper gain; prejudice the investigation of, or facilitate the commission of, a crime; or disadvantage government in commercial or policy negotiations with others.
Unclassified[3]:p. 22
The term "UNCLASSIFIED" or "NOT PROTECTIVELY MARKED" may be used in UK Government documents to indicate positively that a protective marking is not needed.


Access to protectively marked material is defined according to a vetting level which the individual has achieved.

Vetting is intended to assure the department that the individual has not been involved in espionage, terrorism, sabotage or actions intended to overthrow or undermine Parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means. It also assures the department that the individual has not been a member of, or associated with, any organisation which has advocated such activities or has demonstrated a lack of reliability through dishonesty, lack of integrity or behaviour. Finally the process assures the department that the individual will not be subject to pressure or improper influence through past behaviour or personal circumstances.[4]

Protectively marked material must be accounted for in a manner appropriate to its classification level and disposal must be in accordance with the SPF. The act of destruction or disposal is included in the accounting process.


Protectively marked material may also be marked with a descriptor, or privacy marking, which identifies sensitivities around distribution and handling.

Examples of descriptors include, but are not restricted to:

  • Budget
  • Commercial
  • Honours
  • Management
  • Medical
  • Personal
  • Policy
  • Staff
  • Visits (domestic or foreign royalty and ministers)

Nationality caveat[edit]

Protectively marked material may bear a nationality caveat, a descriptor defining which nationality groups it may be released to. By default material in the UK is not caveated by nationality, the classification being sufficient protection.

Examples of nationality caveats include, but are not limited to:


Dissemination of already protectively marked material may be further limited only to those with a legitimate need to know using compartmentalisation by use of codewords. Examples of compartmented material would include information about nuclear warheads, fusion, and naval nuclear propulsion. In some cases the existence of a codeworded compartment is itself classified.

Examples of codewords include, but are not limited to:

  • LOCSEN: has local sensitivity, and may not be shown to local officials.
  • NATSEN: has national sensitivity.
  • DEDIP, DESDEN: may not be shown to certain named officials.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Government Security Classifications April 2014, Version 1.0 - October 2013. HMG Cabinet Office. October 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "HMG Security Policy Framework". V8. Cabinet Office. April 2012. Retrieved April 29, 2013. 
  4. ^ Hansard, Written answers 15 Dec 1994 Hansard online