Examination of Witness (Questions 20 -
TUESDAY 13 JULY 1999
20. And then that was destroyed as well.
(Mr Kirkwood) Yes, it was.
21. Yes, but the leak arose before that meeting
of the 10th February and before you realised that there was this
problem of getting a consensus. So the discussions on the 10th
February were not quite so relevant since the leak had already
occurred before then.
(Mr Kirkwood) That is probably true.
22. Was the issue of getting Treasury officials
to attend the meeting raised in the Committee before the 10th
(Mr Kirkwood) If it was it was only in passing. I
cannot think that there were any formal questions or deliberations
before the 10th February which really crystallised the need to
have further and better particulars from officials. To the best
of my knowledge the question only became a live and acute question
at the meeting on Wednesday 10th February.
23. Although you have told us in your presentation
that the document was effectively dead by one o'clock on the 10th
February, it was still live on the evening of the 9th February?
(Mr Kirkwood) Yes, it was.
24. How did you find out about the leak?
(Mr Kirkwood) I read it in the Parliamentarythat
is not true. I got notice from the Chancellor of the Exchequer
in the lobby the night before the written answer was posted in
Hansard when he said to me in a glancing conversation that
he was giving me private notice for my own information that an
answer would appear which indicatedand we were speaking
in general terms because we were in company in the lobby at the
timethat a copy of the draft Report from my Committee had
been discovered and that he was publishing an answer tomorrow
which I might find of interest. It was a conversation that really
was just drawing my attention to the fact to look out for the
written answer, which of course I did and I learnt about it formally
the next day when Hansard was published.
25. Given that on the 10th February you, the
Clerk and others were quite keen that members should talk to Mr
Touhig off the record to try and get him to get officials to come
there, what would have been your reaction at that time if you
had known that members of the Committee had already made approaches
like that to Mr Touhig? Would you have thought it was part of
their preparation for the meeting on the 10th or would it have
been something that you would have been concerned about?
(Mr Kirkwood) I think anyone who sat through the public
session of evidence and listened to people like the Institute
of Fiscal Studies and others list serious and potentially difficult
administrative difficulties that could stand in the way of introducing
a policy of taxation of Child Benefit could see quite clearly
that it would be important to get some of the logistical problems
further examined and better considered before anyone sensibly
could make a judgment about whether this was a sensible policy
or not and so for professional politicians I think it is not an
unreasonable conclusion for them to have drawn even before it
became an active and live issue on Wednesday 10th February bearing
in mind that they would have had receipt of my draft Report which
I sent on the 4th February, which, as I have said earlier, took
a very clear point of view. I believe, as a Chairman of a Select
Committee, it is the Chairman's job to take a point of view in
any Report. It is then up to the Committee to decide whether that
is a fair reflection of the evidence or not. I have reported to
you that I obviously over-egged the pudding in terms of the position
that I took in overwriting the practical difficulties and so when
members of the Committee on the 4th February got my initial draft
they could have seen for themselves that if the Government had
in mind to introduce this policy and this Report had been published
a few short days before the Budgetyou do not need to be
a psephologist to work out that the Chancellor might have had
some political difficulties if in his Budget and in the Budget
debate a few days following the Government had to defend the position
against a Select Committee Report which was highly critical of
the practical difficulties which at that stage we did not think
had been properly addressed.
26. But they would also have been aware that
they had the voting power to change the Report in any case.
(Mr Kirkwood) Of course. We do not as a Committee
27. I appreciate that.
(Mr Kirkwood) We have been successful to date in steering
clear of major party political divides in keeping with the spirit
of departmental Select Committees.
28. If members had therefore not been out of
order prior to the 10th February to have put points to Mr Touhig
about the advisability as far as everyone is concerned of getting
Treasury officials to come to a subsequent meeting then does that
not put Mr Touhig in an awkward position if he is not entirely
sure what the issues are that are wanting to be discussed and
could he not, therefore, have been prompted to make a request
to see the Report because of the debate that was going on amongst
members of the Committee?
(Mr Kirkwood) I think a two sentence exchange could
have encapsulated the Committee's difficulties. I am at risk of
repeating myself, Chairman. It was simply the fact that we were
in a dilemma about deciding the weight of the arguments against
this policy because of administrative difficulties compared to
the political advantages and the weight of the evidence, because
we had no witnesses who put a contrary point of view. All of the
witnesses that we heard (and they were three in number and they
were distinguished people who had followed these matters closely)
had all come to the conclusion from their various points of view,
to varying degrees, that the administrative problems outweighed
the political benefits. I do not think that anyone would have
needed much more than a very short conversation to explain exactly
what dilemma the Committee was facing at that time.
Chairman: Any further questions?
29. The document you received back I imagine
did not have a number on it because you said all the documents,
is that right?
(Mr Kirkwood) That was right.
30. So it was not a photocopy of what had gone
out presumably because the ones that had gone out were all numbered.
(Mr Kirkwood) It was anonymised. The numbered copies
are always sent and we got an unnumbered copy back.
31. Were you able to distinguish whether or
not that copy simply had the number deleted or covered over in
(Mr Kirkwood) I think there was a sheet missing and
that sheet was the sheet that had the number on it. In every other
respect it was a complete copy of the Report.
32. We are going to go on to talk about the
discussions you had with Lucy Ward of The Guardian. Can
you describe your conversation with her and when was it?
(Mr Kirkwood) I am grateful for consideration of this
question too because there are certain members of my Committee
who feel that I overstepped my authority as Chairman and that
I should have had no communication with any journalist in advance
of the publication of the Report. On the Monday, which would have
been the 8th February, I had a conversation with Lucy Ward. At
the time the honest truth is I did not think I was off the record
at all and she asked me general questions about the work of the
Committee and what subjects we were doing and I gave her a brief
explanation of the programme of the Committee and I said that
the next upcoming Report was taxation of Child Benefit and it
was the intention of the Committee to publish that before the
Budget was announced because the Chancellor in the November Green
Budget had said that he wanted to occasion a public debate and
it was a contribution towards that debate and we hoped that it
would inform the Budget debate that flowed from the Budget statement.
She then asked me some questions about the likely outcome of the
Report and I said to herI cannot remember the actual wordsthat
the evidence that we had had to date had indicated that the professionals
involved in this field were all doubtful about the practicalities
and the administrative difficulties and that the Committee tended
to follow the evidence that was presented to them and if she had
been at the public session she would have seen that for herself
and that the balance of the evidence at that stage, this is before
I had received the 40 amendments from Chris Pond, was critical
and therefore that the Report would probably reflect that. It
is true to say that as soon as this Guardian report appearedI
have no idea who else spoke to Lucy WardI recognised immediately
that I had talked to her. I did not know I was off the record
at the time. I thought I was entitled to advise her about the
programme, about the work that was going on in the contemplation
of the Committee at the time and I believe that members of Committees
are entitled to advert to the evidence that they have received
in public session because by that time all of this evidence was
on the Internet. If she had taken the trouble she could have seen
what Andrew Dilnot of the IFS had said for herself and she could
have made her own judgments. It is certainly true to say that
my Committee and certainly some of the Labour members, Andrew
Dismore in particular, thought that this was overstepping my authority
as Chair. There is no personal rancour or bitterness about any
of this, but there is a clear difference of view and it may be
that my view is wrong and if that is so then I would like to know
about that because I would not do it again in future, but I thought
that members of Committees were entitled to talk in general terms
about the programme that the Committee was doing and the balance
of evidence that is taken in public. I said two things, one about
the timing and one about the balance of the evidence and that
was reported in the two paragraphs that you can see.
33. The timing being what?
(Mr Kirkwood) The timing of the publication of the
Report. One of the complaints that I have against me from members
of my Committee is that I had no business saying that, that it
gave the Government a nod and a wink that they could then interfere
with the work of the Committee. In argument against that I would
say that anybody sensible who was thinking about a debate on the
taxation of Child Benefit would see that it was fruitless publishing
a Report of that kind after the Budget statement and by which
point the Government had made its position known and the issue
would have been of no interest to anyone. Maybe my judgment on
that was wrong. If it is, certainly that is a very important precedent
for me to know and understand so I do not do it again in the future.
The point I want to make is that I was absolutely open about this.
I realised immediately I was certainly one person Lucy Ward had
spoken toI do not know who else she spoke toand
I believed I was entitled to give her the general guidance that
I did. If I was not entitled to do that then I would like to know
about it so I can improve in the future.
34. What date did it appear in the Guardian?
(Mr Kirkwood) If I may refer to the Special Report
and Appendix 6, the offending words were carried in the Guardian
on 10th February. I think I spoke to her on the Monday, Mr Chairman,
and there are two paragraphs in the Report on page xvii. The two
things that Andrew Dismore thinks in particular I should not have
referred to, were the potential publication date and he believes
I had no title to talk about the balance of the evidence. He thinks
that that by itself could alert the Government to the fact there
was an awkward publication of a Report imminent and that they
could then use that information to put pressure on the Committee
to try and improve it.
35. Can I put to you the words you have just
used in describing your conversation with Lucy Ward? You said,
"that it tended to follow the evidence that had been presented
to them", in other words, what you were saying to a journalist
prior to the consideration by the Committee of this Report was,
we have received the evidenceand you have told us you had
evidence from three distinguished witnesses, including the IFS,
all opposed to what the Government was doingand you were
saying to a journalist that the Committee would accept that evidence
as the position of the Committee. That is what you basically said.
You also said it in your own explanation in the letter to the
Chairman of the Liaison Committee. You said, "I have explained
to my colleagues that I myself briefed Lucy Ward to the effect
that the Committee aimed to produce a report before the Budget,
and that it would reflect the evidence received." In other
words, you are predicting what the result of that inquiry would
be. The Committee could have rejected the evidence. It could have
said, "No, we do not accept it", but you are saying
(Mr Kirkwood) But it did not. That is exactly what
it did not do!
36.what you are saying is that it was
going to reflect the evidence.
(Mr Kirkwood) I cannot remember the actual words I
used but I was
37. I am stating what you have written down.
(Mr Kirkwood) I was trying to convey the idea to her.
As I say, I thought this was all on the record and I thought it
was all above board
38. On the record or off the record?
(Mr Kirkwood) I thought I was on the record. I had
no discussion with her. She bowled up to me
and we had what I considered to be a general conversation. She
was interested in the work of the Committee and in the course
of a three or four minute conversation I gave her theseI
volunteered these bits of information. The thought I was trying
to portray was that it is the job of departmental Select Committees
to try and follow the evidence in the production of their reports.
That had certainly been my experience in previous reports, that
colleagues had looked carefully at the evidence, had reviewed
it and considered it, andyou are perfectly rightalso
in some cases had rejected it. But if the expert witnesses were
followed through to a logical conclusion then the balance of the
Report on the administrative areas would be critical.
39. But that means basically you were revealing
to a journalist prior to the consideration of the Report effectively
what the view of the Committee was going to be. Do you not accept
that that in itself could be construed as a major leak?
(Mr Kirkwood) Put that way
1 Note by witness: I now recollect that this
was a telephone conversation. Back