The Committee on Standards and Privileges has
agreed to the following Report:
PREMATURE DISCLOSURE OF REPORTS OF
THE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
1. We have considered the issues raised by the First
Special Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee (the text of which
is reproduced in Appendix 1 to this Report) on the premature disclosure
of that Committee's report on Sierra Leone,
and its Second Special Report on the premature disclosure of two
2. The report on Sierra Leone
was agreed to by the Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday 3
February and published on Tuesday 9 February. There was concern
that the report might have been disclosed prematurely to the Foreign
and Commonwealth Office (FCO). On 23 February Mr Ernie Ross, a
member of the Committee, admitted sending the draft report to
the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in January and speaking
to the Foreign Secretary's political adviser about the Committee's
final conclusions. The Committee's First Special Report, to which
it agreed on 2 March, stated:
"The Committee takes
a serious view of this matter, and therefore concludes that this
Special Report should be considered and reported upon by the Committee
on Standards and Privileges".
The Liaison Committee had considered the matter on
25 February and had taken the same view.
3. On 4 March a written answer
by Mr Robin Cook indicated that his office had received the final
version of the Foreign Affairs Committee's report on foreign policy
and human rights shortly before its publication in December 1998;
and that it had received in January 1999 a copy of a draft report
on European Union enlargement, which had been seen by Ms Joyce
Quin and a limited number of officials, but not by him. Mr Ross
acknowledged responsibility for the first leak (which took place
after the text was agreed by the Committee), but the Committee
was not able to establish who was responsible for the second.
The Committee concluded that the possession by the FCO of early
versions of all three of its reports of the present Session was
likely to constitute substantial interference with the select
committee system, a view with which the Liaison Committee concurred.
4. In accordance with the procedure adopted in 1985
both Special Reports stood automatically referred to the Committee
on Standards and Privileges without a debate in the House.
5. We were also asked by the Speaker to consider
the responsibilities of a Member who receives leaked committee
papers. The Speaker's letter and our reply, both of which have
been placed in the Library, are set out in Appendix 2 to this
Report. We replied to her letter in the following terms:
"The Committee has discussed
the matter you referred to us and entirely shares your view that
the fundamental responsibility of a Member who finds himself or
herself in this position must be to act in a way which does not
impede the committee in the discharge of its responsibilities
to the House. In our judgement the Member ought to make no use
of leaked committee papers and should return them without delay
to the clerk of the committee".
6. The Chairman wrote to Mr Ross and to Mr Cook on
10 March asking for written answers to a number of questions about
the leak of the draft report on Sierra Leone. He wrote a further
letter to Mr Cook on the same subject on 31 March. The letters
and replies are printed as Appendices 3 and 4. We received a memorandum
from the Clerk of the House which is published as Appendix 5.
We took oral evidence from the Permanent Under-Secretary of State
and other officials of the FCO, which is published with this Report.
7. Mr Ross explained in his reply to the Chairman's
letter that he had leaked the draft report on Sierra Leone to
Mr Cook and to Mr Tony Lloyd, the Minister of State responsible
for Sierra Leone, because he profoundly disagreed with what the
Foreign Affairs Committee was doing, and that he wished "to
alert the two Ministers that their departments were in for more
criticism". He confirmed that no one had asked him, or any
member of his staff, to disclose Committee papers and that neither
he, nor any member of his staff, had ever discussed possible amendments
to the draft report with Mr Cook or anyone else in the FCO. He
noted that he had become aware during the Committee's deliberations
"that my actions in sending a copy of the draft report to
my two colleagues, had effectively ruled out any opportunity that
I had had of submitting substantial or indeed any amendments to
8. Mr Ross also confirmed that he had disclosed some
of the key conclusions of the final report to the Foreign Secretary's
political adviser, Mr Andrew Hood, at a meeting on 4 February,
after the Committee had reported to the House but before the report
was published. He stated that "Andrew Hood had no prior knowledge
that I would raise this subject at our meeting and I accept that
I placed him in an invidious position and apologise for this".
We do not pursue this matter, or Mr Ross's disclosure of the report
on foreign policy and human rights, any further because, although
improper, they do not raise questions of privilege because the
Committee had already reported to the House.
9. Mr Cook confirmed in reply to our questions that
his office had received a copy of the draft report on Sierra Leone
by fax in the second week of January. It was seen first by his
special adviser (Mr Andrew Hood), who gave it to the private
secretary (Mr John Grant) and to Mr John Williams of the FCO News
Department. Mr Williams then gave it to the Head of the News Department
and another member of the News Department's staff. Mr Cook was
not aware that the FCO had received it until 1 February;
Mr Grant subsequently showed him a copy. Also on 1 February Mr
Williams showed the draft report to the Permanent Under-Secretary
of State, Sir John Kerr. Mr Lloyd, meanwhile, had received
a paper copy in the House of Commons in a plain envelope but "did
not show it to or discuss it with anyone".
10. Mr Cook stated that "no use was made of
either the draft or the additional information from Mr Anderson
or Mr Ross in briefing the media". He also confirmed that
neither he, nor anyone acting on his behalf, had asked Mr Ross
to disclose Committee papers or discuss possible amendments, and
that at no stage did he disclose the draft report to anyone else
or authorise further dissemination of it.
11. In the course of their oral evidence to us Mr
Hood, Mr Williams, Mr Grant and Sir John Kerr explained the circumstances
in which they had come into possession of the draft report on
Sierra Leone. They frankly admitted that errors had been made
and expressed their regret at the way in which the draft report
had been handled within the FCO.
12. Mr Hood, Mr Cook's political adviser, explained
that he had come across the document by chance; that he had not
alerted Mr Cook to it straightaway because there had been no opportunity
to do so; and that he had allowed Mr Williams to take a copy because
he was the most familiar with the subject. He had not thought
it was wrong to retain the leaked draft but he knew it would have
been wrong to have acted on it in any way.
13. Mr Williams, of the News Department, said that
he was unaware that he should not have seen the leaked draft.
He regretted that he had focussed on it too narrowly as a matter
of media strategy. He had given a copy of the draft to his superior
some days later; as for the copy he had made for himself, he had
read it, put it away and taken no further action on it.
14. Mr Grant, Mr Cook's private secretary, said that
he had not appreciated the status of the document and had assumed,
wrongly, that it was reasonable for him to retain it and to use
his discretion about when to consult the Foreign Secretary about
it, as he would do with the large numbers of other documents which
came into the Private Office. He had not immediately alerted the
Foreign Secretary to it because there was no operational need
to do so, since no decision or action was called for upon it.
Likewise he had not informed the Foreign Secretary about the earlier
leak of the draft report on EU enlargement because there was nothing
in the substance of the report which the Foreign Secretary needed
15. Sir John Kerr said that he could not be sure
whether he was aware at the time that his seeing the draft report
raised questions of parliamentary privilege. He agreed that his
concern about the critical references to himself in the draft
might have blinded him to the implications of the status of the
document. He regretted that he had not given instructions that
the document should be returned to the House authorities.
16. We turn first to the question whether the conduct
of a Member who discloses draft reports to the Government amounts
to a substantial interference with the select committee system.
We consider this question solely in relation to the disclosure
by Mr Ross of the draft report on Sierra Leone, as responsibility
for the disclosure has been established.
17. Select committees cannot operate without a degree
of mutual confidence. The Committee of Privileges of 1984-85 pointed
to the "damage that leaks had created among Members on committees
by undermining their mutual trust, one for another. The morale
of committees could decline if some Members showed scant respect
for the rules of privilege or for the loyalty of colleagues who
do not betray confidential matter".
The Select Committee on Procedure of 1989-90 said that "All
leaks are a breach of the trust amongst the Members and staff
of a Committee which is essential to its smooth functioning".
18. Our predecessor Committee also referred to "the
indirect damage that leaks could do to the select committee system.
If leaking becomes the common practice then there can be a cumulative
effect and a general slippage from the standards of responsibility
in maintaining committee confidences that the rules require. This
could damage the standing of select committees in the public eye".
19. Mr Ross, as a member of a select committee charged
with scrutinising the actions of a Government Department, disclosed
confidential committee papers to a Minister in that Department
without the knowledge of other members of the committee and without
the committee's approval. This was a clear breach of faith with
the other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee which, as he
recognised, made his position on the Committee untenable. Moreover,
it tended to undermine the Committee's authority by calling into
question its independence from Government influence.
20. We conclude that Mr Ross's actions were a serious
interference with the select committee system.
21. The source of the fax was identifiable from each
page. Mr Ross stood down from the Committee, so suspicion for
the leak did not fall on any of his colleagues.
22. Mr Ross must have known at the time that what
he did was wrong. His conduct fell below the standards which the
House is entitled to expect from its Members. We recommend that
Mr Ross should apologise to the House by means of a personal statement
and that he be suspended from the service of the House for ten
23. We consider next the position of the recipients
of leaked draft reportsfirst Members, then departmental
24. In relation to the Sierra Leone report, Mr Cook
told us that "At no stage did I or anyone acting on my behalf
seek to influence or to interfere with the preparation of the
report. We neither lobbied members of the Foreign Affairs Committee
nor proposed amendments ... Nor did we do anything that might
result in premature public disclosure of the report".
In relation to the reports on foreign policy and human rights
and European Union enlargement he has told the House that "No
action was taken to publish or disclose any part of these Reports,
or to interfere in any way with their preparation or the Committee's
deliberations on them. No advice or assistance was given to any
Member of the Select Committee in the drafting of amendments".
25. Mr Cook went on to say to us that "Existing
rules of procedure do not make private knowledge by an MP of the
proceedings of a Select Committee a contempt. Any Member of the
House is entitled to be present at the sittings of Committees,
including deliberations of the Committee. It would not be logical
for private knowledge by a member of what happened at meetings
at which he or she had right of attendance to constitute a contempt
or even premature disclosure".
26. We reject Mr Cook's argument. It is the case
that there is no precedent for regarding the disclosure of a draft
report to another Member as a contempt. Nonetheless we regard
this aspect of Mr Cook's defence as mistaken. It is not the usual
practice for Members to exercise their right to attend private,
deliberative meetings of select committees to which they have
not been nominated, unless of course they have been invited to
be present by the committee itself; Erskine May says that
"by convention ... if requested to retire, they have withdrawn
from the room when a committee was about to deliberate".
Formerly, if a Member sought to exercise this right against the
committee's will the committee had no option but to adjourn; but
in 1995 the House made a new standing order (now S.O. No. 126)
which gives any select committee power to exclude from a private
meeting any Member who is not a member of the committee if it
considers that his presence would obstruct the business of the
We consider that, whilst the attendance at a private meeting of
a backbencher sitting in silence at the back of the room is technically
permissible, a departmental select committee could reasonably
take the view that its business would be obstructed by the unwanted
presence at a deliberative meeting of a Minister or a Parliamentary
Private Secretary, and could therefore invoke the Standing Order
to secure his withdrawal. Had Mr Cook turned up at a private meeting
of the Foreign Affairs Committee at which the draft report on
Sierra Leone was being discussed it is, to say the least, unlikely
that the Committee would have accepted his presence without objection.
27. We have already made plain the responsibilities
of a Member who receives leaked committee papers: "In our
judgement the Member ought to make no use of leaked committee
papers and should return them without delay to the clerk of the
committee". We consider that the Prime Minister should amend
the Ministerial Code
so as to require Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries
to comply with the guidance, and we invite him to notify us and
the House in due course of the terms in which he has done so.
28. We raised the question of the responsibilities
of an official who receives leaked committee papers with
the Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the FCO. Sir John Kerr
explained to us that at the time these leaks occurred there had
been no guidance available for officials on this point. It had
been understood that it would have been wrong to make use of such
documents to influence the committee concerned, and indeed the
documents had not been used in such a way.
29. Sir John Kerr said that the FCO had accepted
that the guidance the Committee had provided for Members at the
Speaker's request should also apply to officials, and other Departments
had followed the FCO's lead. Once the Committee had reported,
appropriate instructions would be included in the rules for the
Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service, which would apply to
political advisers and permanent staff alike, and any breach of
those instructions would be treated as a disciplinary matter.
30. Sir John said that in his new guidance "I
envisage spelling out that FCO officials, if they receive any
leaked document or become aware that somebody has received a leaked
document, must at once report that and hand it to their responsible
Minister on whom of course your ruling is binding. Therefore,
it will come back via the MP Minister to the House, to the clerk
to the committee".
We do not agree with this. The Minister has no business to see
a leaked document, and the official who received it would aggravate
the offence if he gave it any wider circulation by handing it
to the Minister. Instead the official (including any political
adviser) should return the document to the committee clerk directly,
and should then inform his Minister that he has done so.
31. The duty of any official who receives leaked
committee papers is exactly the same as that of a Member, namely,
to make no use of them and to return them without delay to the
committee clerk. Subject to the qualification in the previous
paragraph, we welcome Sir John Kerr's assurance that officials
and special advisers will be required to comply with this obligation
and we expect to see a copy of the new rules as soon as they are
issued. We share his hope that the implementation of the new instructions
throughout Whitehall will deter potential leakers of committee
papers. We emphasise that any unauthorised use of unpublished
select committee documents received by a Department will in future
be regarded by this Committee as a contempt.
1 HC 293. Back
Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 116 (1998-99). Back
876 (w). Back
out in the Second Report from the Committee of Privileges, HC
555 (1984-85), Premature Disclosure of Proceedings of Select
reference to a briefing given by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs
Committee, Mr Donald Anderson, to the Head of the FCO Parliamentary
Relations Department the day before the Committee's Report on
Sierra Leone was published. Back
1, 2, 5 and 62. Back
63 and 79. Back
Report from the Committee of Privileges, Premature Disclosure
of Proceedings of Select Committees, HC 555 (1984-85), paragraph
Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, The Working
of the Select Committee System, HC 19-I (1989-90), paragraph
555 (1984-85), paragraph 35. Back
gave Mr Ross the opportunity to make representations to us before
we came to our conclusions about a penalty but he indicated that
he did not wish to do so. Back
Deb, 4 March 1999, col. 876 (w). Back
ed., p 645. Back
Special Report from the Select Committee on Members' Interests,
HC 288 (1994-95); HC Deb., vol. 258, cc. 383-408. Back
Ministerial Code: a code of conduct and guidance on procedure
for Ministers (published July 1997). Back
133 and 160-169. Back