Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131
TUESDAY 15 JUNE 1999
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
(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 herthe Speakerto
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
Chairman: That is a very welcome reaction.
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 dateyou will
understand we have just taken evidence from three of your colleaguesdid
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