Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. I understand your regret as well.
  (Sir John Kerr) I regret that I did not then, anticipating Mr Sheldon's ruling, say, "This document must be returned to the House authorities".

  141. I understand your regret but I am simply establishing that you were aware that it was a document the receipt of which and the transmission by a Member of which was a breach of privilege. You would be aware of that at that stage?
  (Sir John Kerr) I am not sure I was aware at that stage. I honestly cannot tell you whether I was or was not. I remember how I reacted to this document, which was rather gloomily. I remember reacting to the document by thinking that it was nice of Mr Williams to show me the document but completely unnecessary, because I would obviously be about to be in receipt of a Salmon letter. That was my first reaction and that was an erroneous reaction because no Salmon letter appeared and the criticisms of me, which were not based on any cross-examination of me, appeared and I think got strengthened in—

  142. I understand that. I am simply trying to establish what would have been in your mind at that meeting with Mr Williams. You are one of, if I might use this term, the top mandarins. You know Whitehall. You obviously know Parliament. You have given evidence to parliamentary committees and you will know that the receipt of a document which has not been published by Parliament and which has not been reported to the House would constitute partly a breach of privilege. You must know that. You have been around this place for many years longer than I have.
  (Sir John Kerr) I cannot honestly say that that was at the top of my mind.

  143. But you would be aware of it?
  (Sir John Kerr) I remember focusing on what the report said about me and thinking that I would be in receipt of a Salmon letter.

  144. You are not prepared to admit to us that you knew it was a breach of privilege? As a senior Whitehall official, when you were being briefed by Mr Williams over this document, you are not prepared to admit that you were involved in something which was linked to a breach of privilege? You must be prepared to accept that, surely?
  (Sir John Kerr) I remember when I was an Under Secretary in the Foreign Office; I remember when I was an assistant secretary in the Treasury; I remember that leaks did happen from time to time. I do not remember when at the Treasury I was aware of leaks, or when an Under Secretary at the Foreign Office I was aware of leaks, I do not recall their then being treated as a matter such that the text required instant return to the House.

  145. Why do you not just say, "I was aware it was a breach but I am sorry. It was a mistake"?
  (Sir John Kerr) I am not sure, to be honest, that I was aware. You have asked me what was in my mind. What was in my mind was, in my view then and now, the rather unjustified criticisms of me. I am not sure if I read the whole report. I think Mr Williams's motive in showing it to me was to be kind and I think that was what was in my mind that day.

  146. We all make mistakes in life but we say we have made a mistake. I cannot understand why you, a senior mandarin in Whitehall, knowing—
  (Sir John Kerr) With hindsight, it was clearly a mistake. I entirely agree, but you asked me what was in my mind that day.

  147. You were talking to a journalist who knows how this place works and who knows precisely what a breach of privilege is in terms of dealing with a document which he should not have in his possession. Did it not arise during the course of that conversation? You will recall we have just taken evidence from Mr Williams. Are you sure it did not arise during the course of that conversation?
  (Sir John Kerr) I have no recollection of it. It may have done. I do not know what evidence Mr Williams, Mr Grant—

  148. What he may or may not have said surely does not determine what you can say.
  (Sir John Kerr) No. I am giving you an honest answer about what was in my mind at the time.

Mr Forth

  149. What we have been told by your colleagues—and I will be as accurate in transmitting this as I can—is that Mr Hood told us that he could find no opportunity to tell the Secretary of State of the existence of this document in the department for a period of some two to three weeks. That was Mr Hood's version of events. Mr Williams told us that he put it in a drawer and then quite quickly gave it to Mr Kim Darroch who apparently travels frequently with the Foreign Secretary and who also found no opportunity to mention this document to the Secretary of State. Mr Grant, the Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State, told us that although he was obviously aware of this document he took or sought no opportunity to either inform or consult the Secretary of State about the nature of this document and its role within the department. Do you find this in any way unusual, that officials within your department of such seniority and such proximity to the Secretary of State should allow such a period to pass without informing or consulting the Secretary of State, as a distinguished parliamentarian in his own right, of the document or of its relevance?
  (Sir John Kerr) It was clearly a mistake. I expect that your three witnesses this morning have acknowledged that. I think they all feel that it was a mistake. I have told them that I think it was a mistake. Could I set it in context, if I may?

  150. Please.
  (Sir John Kerr) The Sandline inquiry drew attention to overloading, under-staffing and long hours in the Foreign Office. Thanks to the public expenditure settlement, we are recruiting more staff and putting them into places where people are undoubtedly overworked. But some jobs will always, by their very nature, have heavy loads and long hours. They cannot be shared. Their responsibilities cannot be devolved very easily, and they require long hours. The jobs of the three men you have seen today fall into that category. So does my job. I am an 80 hour a week man. The period in question is the January/February period. Six crises were running in the Private Office at the time. Yemen: we had a hostage crisis. We had the tragic death of some British citizens. Iraq: we were handling the consequences of the fall-out from Operation Desert Fox, then under very active debate in the United Nations. Europe: we were in the endgame of the two-year financial negotiation, Agenda 2000, which was successfully concluded in Berlin in March: a very heavy burden of policy papers, intra-Whitehall co-ordination, and contact with other EU Member States. The Congo: we were making a push to try to stop the fighting in the DRC. We were working up to Mr Lloyd's roving mission, which came just after the period in question. Gibraltar generated an extraordinary amount of work through the quite unjustifiable border delays imposed by the Spaniards, long queues at the frontier. That made a surprising amount of work. Behind it, much bigger than all, Kosovo. It was quite clear that the October deal had come unstuck. Milosevic was not honouring the deal. The Racak massacre occurred at the time in question, and we were working up to what became the final Rambouillet attempt to produce a negotiated deal with Belgrade in the interests of the Kosovans which, as we know, failed. There was a great deal of work involved. Now, all these issues will have been top of the agenda, hour by hour issues, in the Private Office and for the News Department. Mr Hood and Mr Grant both work no less than 12 hours a day, even in routine times, with regular weekend duties. The Private Office, in which they sit, will receive about 50 to 60 action internal submissions every day requiring decisions: more than half of them substantial pieces of policy advice, lots of reference work. As members of the Private Office, their job is to read, digest, advise on all these papers, and also to vet the much larger flow of other papers—not necessarily for decision by the Foreign Secretary but on which they might think he ought to step in—which pass through the Private Office every day. That is about 150 to 200 side copies of other papers. And 300 telegrams a day, which it is their job to read and find the ones that really matter for the Foreign Secretary, to decide what he might want to do about them, and to show them to him. 70 letters a day from MPs or from elsewhere in Whitehall, requiring decisions on which he needs to see. Hours per day of telephoning inside the office: what view would the Foreign Secretary be likely to take? Should we consult him today or tomorrow, or shall we move the dossier on? Conversation with the rest of Whitehall. Listening into and recording the Foreign Secretary's own conversations. Taking records of the Foreign Secretary's own meetings. All these priorities are governed by the immediacy of the issue; each issue is addressed at the moment when the Foreign Secretary really needs to focus on it, because his time is finite. Issues which are not high priority at that moment take second place. That is normal times and January/February workloads were particularly heavy. Mr Williams is in the News Department, and he and his Head of Department, Mr Darroch, have to be able to answer, on the spot, with the Foreign Office view on any issue arising anywhere. So there is a huge workload of paper which he has to be going through in order to keep up with things now; to give the line now; or beat up on departments in the office to help him to construct the line needed now. Therefore, they too, in the News Department, tend to focus on the immediate and the operational, and the rest tends to be put in abeyance. I do not know exactly when the report turned up. In the second week of January, I am told. Assuming it came in at the end of that week, between then and 9 February, the publication date, the Private Office will have gone through something over 10,000 documents. That is the context in which it is maybe easier to understand how the mistake was made. I am not saying, Mr Forth, that it was not a mistake. I am saying it was a mistake. I have said that to them and hope and believe that they have said that to you. But I am trying to give an explanation as to why the question of its handling was undoubtedly given inadequate attention, and I very much hope that this Committee's conclusions on that question will take some account of the wider context. These three are extremely hard working, very efficient, very dedicated people. They made mistakes. I think the context is some mitigation.

Mr Bell

  151. I wonder, if you will forgive me, asking a question on a personal frontier. You were getting glimpses of a draft of a report which was fairly critical of you and naturally wanted to see what it said about you so, to a large extent, this may have been blinding you to the implications of the status of the report which, in hindsight, seem to be quite important.
  (Sir John Kerr) I think I accept that, Mr Bell.

Mr Williams

  152. I listened agog to your outlining the scale of your workload. I realise that astride the world, as you are, Parliament may not seem very important. I also note that you very carefully tried to establish that, of course, we are dealing with new instructions, but you did not realise that leaking by a Member was a breach of privilege. May I ask you, how long have you been in the Civil Service?
  (Sir John Kerr) I joined up on 3 January, 1966.

  153. Two years after I came into the House of Commons. And I assume you have done the odd stint as a Private Secretary?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes, I was Private Secretary to two Chancellors in the Treasury.

  154. So you were a really upmarket Private Secretary.
  (Sir John Kerr) I am not sure that we, in the Foreign Office, would accept that distinction.

  155. Do not worry. We are coming to the pecking order in a minute. But what I am trying to establish is that you have been around a bit and you have been at the political front. You are doing very well at trying to establish the fact that you are a naive, over-worked, outward looking internationalist, who really is astonished to discover that the things that have been going on in your Department, of all places, have actually been in breach of Parliamentary rules; and, had you known about that, you would have acted. Now, the reality is that nothing did happen, nothing has happened until very recently. Let me ask you. The PS has a special responsibility. He is there. He is partially your man and partially the Minister's man. All Ministers understand this. He feeds information both ways. His career is more dependent on you than the Minister, so we know who gets priority of information. Now, in that case, would you not have expected the Private Secretary to have notified you that possibly the Department had been put in an invidious position by the unsolicited receipt of a document that you should not have, and the Member of Parliament should not have sent you?
  (Sir John Kerr) First, I should say, Mr Williams, I have no hope of catching you up. I congratulate you on it having got here before I got here. Secondly, could I say that I would like to come back, if the Committee would give me a chance—I am not trying to duck Mr Williams's question—but I would like to come back to another contextual point, which I am reminded of by Mr Williams, seeing Mr Williams here and asking the question. The relationship between the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in calendar year 1998 and the Foreign Office became very odd. I would like to say a word about that, if I may, although you may feel it is not directly relevant, in which case I will not.


  156. Just briefly.
  (Sir John Kerr) I will come back to it. I would like to answer Mr Williams's question first. I do not know what Mr Grant said in his evidence to the Committee this morning. I do not know if Mr Grant feels he got this wrong. I hear what you say, Mr Williams, and I would not wish to disagree with you, but I would ask you to bear in mind that Mr Grant was working quite astonishingly long hours. However, I have a slightly wider point.

Mr Williams

  157. Let us clarify that you were saying that he was wrong in not alerting you.
  (Sir John Kerr) I think that those who had the document, with hindsight, they clearly all made mistakes. That applies to me. I accept what lay behind this in Mr Williams's questions and Mr Bell's.

  158. Are you saying that he made a mistake in not alerting you? As a Private Secretary, would you or would you not have expected to be alerted? I would not want a Permanent Secretary who did not want to be alerted, I would admit.
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes. Of course, I agree with you, Mr Williams, but I do not want to pile Pelion on Ossa: Mr Grant has suffered enough.

  159. We are not doing that. We are just getting the facts. We are not pillorying anyone. We are not even aware, if there is a pillory, who may end up in it at this stage. It is early days. So we have established that he should have alerted you and did not. Okay, that is useful. You have admitted that mistakes were made. If I piece together what you were saying in your first long dissertation, I gather that this had been discussed at the Permanent Secretary's Cabinet and now you have all the panic stations. What do we do now? How do we make sure that we start from new because we do not want anyone who might dig up the past—
  (Sir John Kerr) No.

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