Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)



Shona McIsaac

  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.

Mr Levitt

  22. Was the issue of getting Treasury officials to attend the meeting raised in the Committee before the 10th February?
  (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 Parliamentary—that 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 indicated—and we were speaking in general terms because we were in company in the lobby at the time—that 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 Budget—you 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 divide—

  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?

Mr Foster

  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 some way?
  (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 her—I cannot remember the actual words—that 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 appeared—I have no idea who else spoke to Lucy Ward—I 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 to—I do not know who else she spoke to—and 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.

Mr Campbell-Savours

  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 evidence—and you have told us you had evidence from three distinguished witnesses, including the IFS, all opposed to what the Government was doing—and 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[1] 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 these—I 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, and—you are perfectly right—also 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

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