Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-317)



  300. That is what the definition of it is.
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.

  301. The Ombudsman told us that no explanation for not being shown the associated folders had ever been forthcoming. I would have thought, again, it would have been a matter of courtesy that your Department was in touch with the Ombudsman to explain and give the reasons for those papers not being attached?
  (Mr Gieve) I am surprised about that. I did not know until today that the Ombudsman's staff had raised the matter. Until Michael wrote to me with the draft report I thought he had seen all the papers. When I heard that he had not, we immediately wrote to him and said "Come back and see all the papers. I am sorry." I think there was lots of correspondence. It was really a scene of furious activity as you can imagine.

  302. Would I be right in drawing the conclusion, I realise what you are saying, you did not know the problem existed otherwise you might have kept in touch with his Department but is not the lesson to be learnt from both the Robathan and Bedford cases that there must be much more contact than you had before, much better contact between the Department of State in question and the Ombudsman's office?
  (Mr Gieve) I welcome that and I hope there will be from now on because particularly the case on these papers has shown up a gap. We have got a central coordinator in the Home Office who now knows all the Ombudsman's staff and I hope he will always act as a point of contact.


  303. Thank you very much. I have just got one final area I would like to try you on. Before that, just one further thing on what we are on now. One of the Hammond recommendations was that the monitoring of ministerial telephone calls was not being done properly. Can you tell us, first of all, what the convention is about the monitoring of ministerial telephone calls and how this is better now?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I do not know if John Gieve wants to say anything about his own Department. My general experience and understanding is that if a member of the Government has a conversation as part of business—not a private phone call—with somebody, it is monitored routinely by the private secretary.

  304. When a minister phones a minister?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) When a minister phones a minister.

  305. Someone?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Someone listens in, yes.

  306. I am just asking.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Absolutely.

  307. I should be surprised, I am asking the question. They were not listening in properly.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I think that is probably—
  (Mr Gieve) Normally the minister has two phones on his desk, one is a private line and one is a line through his office. If he gets his office to arrange a phone call, it comes through on that line, that is on official business. His private secretary will listen. On occasion 10 or 11 other people will listen too in his outer office, I have known that happen. These can be very public conversations. Some ministers actually object to this and they do not have private phone calls, even with their colleagues, put through their private office. There is some variation. Some use their private line more and others less.

  308. Anyway that is another Hammond recommendation that no doubt you are pursuing actively.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes.

  309. That is not the area I want to ask you about before we end. Two questions but on the same area. Sir Richard, when all the Hinduja stuff blew up and the Government was being battered and Peter Mandleson was being battered and you were being asked to try to find out what was going on and all that, and you did a note to the Prime Minister setting out what you thought you believed had happened, it is reproduced here in the Hammond Inquiry—
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I know it.

  310. You remember the events well, do you?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I remember it, yes.

  311. Can you tell me, first of all, did you do that overnight? Did you just knock it up or what? What did you do to produce that note to the Prime Minister? I ask because it is a crucial issue, whenever an allegation blows up about the ministerial code, the Cabinet Secretary is called in to find out what happened, at least in the first instance, and to do a note about it, which you did, and we have it here. I want to know something about the mechanics of this?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) This is way off the Ombudsman's report.

  312. I am going to get back to it in a moment.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes. I am just trying to remember. I was asked very urgently for advice about Peter Mandelson and the Hindujas. I rang up a number of people, permanent secretaries in a number of departments, asked them a number of questions, got some immediate information from them. I asked some further questions of them. This was on a Monday, was it not, yes it was on a Monday is my recollection. I put the work in hand. This was in the afternoon, fairly late in the afternoon. I got some information back very fast. Some information did not come until the next day. Then, actually, you will be pleased to know, I looked at the ministerial code and looked at the precedent book and, I cannot remember who I talked to within the Cabinet Office, and sat back and thought "What do I think about this?"

  Then the next day in the car on the way in to work I started thinking about the structure of the minute. Through the course of that Tuesday my private office—not the present ones but their predecessors—were very close to me on this and I told them what I wanted to know and what information I wanted them to prepare and they really dropped everything and several of them spent their day devilling for me on getting the facts. It was quite a busy day. Through the day I was coming out, getting the latest news and trying to piece it together and drafting a minute. It was done in the interstices of the day. In the evening I had to go out to an official dinner and by the time I had set out we had virtually finalised it, subject to one piece of information, which meant my Private Secretary signed it rather than me, so by the evening I had done it. That is my best recollection.

  313. I think it is absolutely fascinating to hear that. In the space of a day you make some telephone calls, get people to do some work and try and fit the jigsaw together in a form in which you can prepare a coherent minute to the Prime Minister which contains a view on the state of play and what should flow from it. One reason I ask that is although you did that in a day comprising three sides, we have now had two Hammond inquiries, we have now had the Ombudsman going through all the papers yet again; have we learnt anything more beyond what we learnt from your minute?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Yes, there is a lot more in Hammond, but in essence—

  314. In the essence?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) In essence, I think the minute stands up reasonably well.

  315. Yes. I am almost done, but I am just getting back to the territory that you would like us to be on. When this request came in for the Ombudsman to pursue this refusal of information of alleged telephone records between Mandelson and O'Brien, the exemption that was claimed under the Code was the legal proceedings exemption because Hammond had kicked in and therefore it was thought that you could claim exemption under the legal procedures. What the Ombudsman found was that that exemption did not stand up because it was not a legal proceeding; it was simply a funny sort of inquiry that had been put in place.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) I remember.

  316. Now you have found that that exemption does not stand up if you try to use it in relation to a request of that kind, does it lead you to think further about how inquiries under the Ministerial Code are conducted and whether we need to think about quite new mechanisms here for doing it?
  (Sir Richard Wilson) It is a subject which I have thought about frequently and I am never sure I know what the final answer is. It is a subject I think about not just because of the ruling under that exemption, but more generally because it is a real problem in government. This is not the only one, this is one that happens to be exposed to open view, but there are from time to time all sorts of cases where you are in the position where you have very rapidly to try and find out what the facts are because you have to handle it under very strong media pressure. One of the really problematic aspects of it is quite often you find that the first facts you get are wrong. It is just one of the experiences of life. You then start going over it, as we did here, and you start getting it into focus, but if you go public too quickly with the facts and then start changing them everyone will say there is a conspiracy. That is how it looks to people in the outside world, but actually in reality for anyone dealing with something which comes at you out of nowhere there is a period in which the information you are getting is not entirely accurate. I think there are real issues about how you get cool assessments and fair assessments of facts under the pressure of short timescales. There is no government policy I can give you on that but it is certainly something—to answer your question—that I do think about.

  317. By the fact that you inserted the words "no government policy" there is no point asking you any more about it. Thank you very much indeed for saying what you have said. Can I thank all our witnesses today. I think we have had a fascinating session. Can I say two particular thank yous. One is to Sir Michael Buckley because we shall not see him again, if I can put it like that. Sir Michael, as you come to the end of your service, which has been an extremely distinguished tenure, we have drawn heavily upon your services and the citizens of this country are in your debt for what you have done, so as a Committee we would like to say thank you very much for all that and we wish you well for the future. Could I say to Sir Richard Wilson that barring catastrophe we shall not see you again either! I think there are two things to say. One is that again history will come to see that you have been extraordinarily important, if I may say so without being misunderstood, as a transitional figure as the occupant of your post in a very difficult political time in many ways for the Civil Service and I think it will be seen what a pivotal role you have played in this period. The second thing is that your relations with this Committee have been excellent and exemplary. You have always come when asked. You have sometimes come when we have not pressed because you felt it was the right thing to do. From my own context I think that you have the most enormous regard for Parliament and I think that comes through in all our dealings with you. Again, I want to say thank you for all that. I have to warn you, though, that we do look forward, and one of the great delights is inviting former Cabinet Secretaries back when they do not have to search for these forms of words and they can be themselves, so we may, in fact, see you again. Meanwhile, thank you very much indeed.
  (Sir Richard Wilson) Thank you for those kind words. I appreciate them.
  (Sir Michael Buckley) Can I add my thanks.


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