Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 15 JUNE 1999
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
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.
149. What we have been told by your colleaguesand
I will be as accurate in transmitting this as I canis 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
(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 papersnot necessarily for
decision by the Foreign Secretary but on which they might think
he ought to step inwhich 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.
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.
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
(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 chanceI
am not trying to duck Mr Williams's questionbut 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.
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
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
(Sir John Kerr) No.