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Red box (government)

A pair of Despatch boxes

Red boxes, or sometimes ministerial boxes, are a type of despatch boxes[1] produced by Barrow & Gale and are used by ministers in the British government and the British monarch to carry government documents. Similar in appearance to a briefcase, they are primarily used to hold and transport official departmental papers. Red boxes are one modern form of despatch boxes, which have been in government use for centuries. Despatch boxes of a considerably different design remain in use in the lower house chamber of the British and Australian parliaments; these boxes hold religious books, but are also used as lecterns by front bench members.

Ministerial boxEdit


According to HM Treasury,

Ministers are permitted to use ordinary lockable briefcases to transport information which has been classified 'Confidential' or below. For information with a higher security level (such as 'Secret') they are required to use dispatch boxes, which offer a higher level of security, and which are usually red. However a travel version of the box is also available in black, which offers the same level of security as a red box, but is designed to be less conspicuous. In practice Ministers use despatch boxes for transporting the majority of their documents due to the greater level of security they offer.[1]


The design of ministerial boxes has changed little since the 1860s. The boxes are manufactured in London by Barrow & Gale. Covered in red-stained rams' leather, they are embossed with the Royal Cypher and ministerial title. The 2–3-kilogram (4–7 lb) boxes are constructed of slow-grown pine, lined with lead and black satin and, unlike a briefcase, the lock is on the bottom, opposite the hinges and the handle, to guarantee that the box is locked before being carried.[2]

The colour red has remained the traditional covering of the boxes.[2] The lead lining, which has been retained in modern boxes, was once meant to ensure that the box sank when thrown overboard in the event of capture.[3] Also bomb-proof, they are designed to survive any catastrophe that may befall their owner.[4]

Exceptions to the red colouring are those carried by the government whips, which are covered in black leather.[4] Discreet black boxes are also available for ministers who need to travel by train.[2]


One box cost £865.43 in 2010.[1] Between 2002 and 2007 the British Government spent £57,260 on new boxes.[2]

Other variationsEdit

Budget BoxEdit

Gladstone's Budget Box, made around 1860

Perhaps the best known red box is the Budget Box, which is held up for a photoshoot outside 11 Downing Street, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces the Cabinet's annual budget plans. The first budget box was made for William Ewart Gladstone around 1860 and is lined in black satin and covered with scarlet leather. This box has been used by every Chancellor until 2011, with the exceptions of James Callaghan (1964–1967) and Gordon Brown (1997–2007), who had new ones commissioned in 1965 and 1997 respectively.[5] Gladstone's budget box was used by Alistair Darling (2007–2010) and by George Osborne in June 2010. It was subsequently retired due to its fragility, and will be displayed in the Cabinet War Rooms.[6] Since March 2011, a new budget box commissioned by The National Archives has been used.[7]

The Budget Box of 1997 is made of yellow pine with a brass handle and lock, covered in scarlet leather and embossed with the Royal Cypher and the words Chancellor of the Exchequer directly beneath it.

Royal red boxesEdit

Other red boxes of note are the ones delivered to the British Sovereign every day (except Christmas Day and Easter Sunday) by government departments, via the Page of the Presence. These boxes contain Cabinet and Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents,[citation needed] most of which the monarch must sign and give Royal Assent to, before they can become law.[citation needed]

Green boxEdit

Permanent Secretaries, who are civil servants rather than MPs or Lords, have similar boxes but coloured green. These have exactly the same function as the ministerial red boxes.

Use in SingaporeEdit

Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was said to have used a red box similar to the British ones, the exception being the logo. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, formerly Principal Private Secretary to Lee, revealed in a Facebook post that Lee continued using the red box until 4 February 2015, the day before his final hospitalisation.[8]

Use in Sri LankaEdit

Until the late 2000s the Minister of Finance used a red box with the national emblem to carry the Cabinet's annual budget plans, similar to the Budget Box of the British government.


  1. ^ a b c "Red Boxes - GOV.UK". HM Treasury. 1 March 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d Vaidyanathan, Rajini (23 March 2010). "Thinking inside the box". BBC News.
  3. ^ Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems: Chapter 14, Physical Tamper Resistance, p. 278 (Online text on the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory website)
  4. ^ a b Kevin Brennan MP. "Black Box Business". Archived from the original on 24 November 2009.
  5. ^ The Budget Box
  6. ^ Shipman, Tim (18 June 2010). "Gladstone's box set to be pensioned off after next week's Budget". Daily Mail. London.
  7. ^ Read, Simon. "The Budget: Red Boxes and Booze!". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 24 May 2013.
  8. ^ [1]

External linksEdit