Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131 - 139)

TUESDAY 15 JUNE 1999

SIR JOHN KERR KCMG

Chairman

  131. Welcome, Sir John, to the Committee. We are considering the premature disclosure of reports to the Foreign Affairs Committee. I have a few questions to put to you and then my colleagues will come in. First of all, you understand that draft reports of select committees are confidential to the members of the Committee. Do the Foreign Office officials now understand that?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes, they do.

  132. Quite firmly?
  (Sir John Kerr) They do. Forgive me. I feel at a slight disadvantage in that you have just had hearings with three of my colleagues. I wonder if you could help me by giving me any indication of the tenor of the Committee and the direction in which the Committee is moving?

  133. We were concerned to know what happened when the fax was received, who handled it, what they did with it and why the information was not relayed to the Foreign Secretary for some considerable time after that was received; how many copies were made, who had access to them and of course further questioning about the Foreign Secretary not being in possession of that information. Those were the matters that we raised with your colleagues. Going on to the draft reports of select committees being confidential, what action have you taken yourself to make sure that all your officials are aware of the seriousness of this, which has prompted the Committee to ask for your attendance here and that of three of your colleagues?
  (Sir John Kerr) Can I make five points? First, I absolutely understand the seriousness of the issue and I acknowledge that the Foreign Office did not get this right. Mistakes were made. My first point would however be that when these officials first received the leaked draft FAC report I do not think there existed the kind of clear guidance that you gave in your letter of 10 March, Chairman. The Speaker, in her letter of 1 March, notes that she knows of no analogous instances where the House has come to a decision that would enable her—the Speaker—to draw up guidance for general application in such circumstances. Second, I am completely satisfied that the officials concerned, though they did not get everything right, were clear that they must not make any use of the leak in order to influence the Committee in any way. I am also completely satisfied that they did not do so. Point three: your ruling of 10 March seems to me to be a very clear, important clarification, and we in the Foreign Office must adjust our practice to align with it. You have made clear that not just must Erskine May apply, and no use must be made of leaked documents, but that they must be returned without delay to the committee clerk. That ruling is accepted in the Foreign Office and has been drawn to officials' attention. I will issue a more formal instruction when we have your report. Your letter, and advice that this is to be considered binding, has been circulated inside the Foreign Office some time ago. In my 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. That is point three, my big point. Point four: I have explained this, and my decision on this, to the Cabinet Secretary and to all my Whitehall Permanent Secretary colleagues. I have explained to them that the decision I have taken will in my view in practice become a precedent which is binding on them too. After discussion, that is agreed. What I have decided to do, which of course applies only to the Diplomatic Service and the Foreign Office, will also be applied by my Home Civil Service colleagues across Whitehall. The Cabinet Secretary will, when you have completed your report and in the light of it, be promulgating similar instructions to all other Whitehall departments. I hope that we can thus ensure that full effect is given to this Committee's ruling, your ruling, Mr Chairman. I really do hope that knowledge of the new instructions on the other side of Whitehall, knowledge of the new instructions in the public service, will have a serious deterrent effect here in the House and ensure that there are no more such leaks. If so, some real good will have come from this unhappy episode.

  Chairman: That is a very welcome reaction.

Mr Campbell-Savours

  134. On 2 February, I understand that the Foreign Secretary made clear that he would stand by his civil servants who were subject to criticism. Prior to that date—you will understand we have just taken evidence from three of your colleagues—did you discuss any aspect of this report with Mr Grant, Mr Hood or Mr Williams yourself?
  (Sir John Kerr) Mr Williams came to see me on the 1st and showed me the text. I was not aware that there was such a document in existence until 1 February.

  135. When Mr Williams brought it to you?
  (Sir John Kerr) When Mr Williams brought it to me and showed it to me. He did so probably out of comradeship and because it said things about me. He is a very nice man and a very good man. I was not aware of its existence before and I do not think, though I cannot be absolutely certain, that I discussed it with anybody else on 1 February but the Foreign Secretary mentioned it to me on 2 February.

  136. You did discuss it with him on 1 February?
  (Sir John Kerr) I did.

  137. Which was prior to it being reported to the House that it was to be published.
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes, that must be correct.

  138. Therefore, you discussed it with him during the period when it was effectively a breach of privilege for it to have been given to the Foreign Office?
  (Sir John Kerr) With hindsight—

  139. I understand hindsight but I just wanted to clarify the position.
  (Sir John Kerr) I regret—


 
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