Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Ninth Report

The machinery of Government

The Cabinet, Cabinet Committees and informal groups

140. Ministerial oversight of the actions of officials is an essential feature of the United Kingdom's political system. By this means, Ministers take political responsibility and are made accountable for what is done in their name. The means of exercising this oversight across the Government as a whole is the Cabinet, and its system of Cabinet Committees.

141. At our first hearing for this inquiry, Clare Short, who was a Cabinet Minister until the end of the conflict phase of the war, alleged that a small group of officials based at Number 10 had effective control of policy on Iraq. These, she said, were

Alastair Campbell … , Jonathan Powell, Baroness Morgan, Sir David Manning, that close entourage. … That was the team, they were the ones who moved together all the time. They attended the daily 'War Cabinet'. That was the in group, that was the group that was in charge of policy.[202]

142. Alastair Campbell rejected this charge:

… if you were to say who in relation to Iraq were the officials in Downing Street who spent the most time with the Prime Minister in terms of the many foreign trips that he was doing, in terms of briefing, in terms of general meetings, it probably was the four, but in relation to that whole period he had meetings every single day with the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary in particular, with the Deputy Prime Minister, with the group that comprised those three plus the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House—now the Health Secretary—with Margaret Beckett, and with Clare Short, and also with officials including some of the intelligence officials that we have been discussing.[203]

Jack Straw too denied there was any attempt to exclude Ministers from key decisions:

There has always been an entourage in Number 10 for as long as Number 10 has existed and people need to chill out about that. At any time there are people who are not in Number 10 who get concerned about the entourage. That is true if you look at recent history with Mrs Thatcher and also if you go back to the staff in Number 10 at the time of Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, and so it goes on. As far as the Cabinet was concerned, Robin Cook provided the complete answer to what Clare was saying which was that there was the most intensive discussion week by week by week. I have given the answers here. The Cabinet discussed Iraq at every Cabinet meeting between 23 September 2002 and 22 May 2003, which is 28 meetings.[204]

143. Given this, we were surprised to learn—first from Clare Short, and then confirmed by Jack Straw—that the Cabinet's Defence and Overseas Policy Committee has not met since June 2001.[205] Mr Straw explained the situation thus:

That is correct but in its place there is a ministerial committee with wider membership, which I think met 28 times between the beginning of the military conflict and the end of April. … Nor is it the case, as Clare claimed, that all the discussions which were held in smaller ministerial groups (some of them, yes, relatively informal) were without papers and, for example, it is simply untrue that there were no papers that analysed the military options. Of course what is the case, can I just explain this, which is a reconciliation between what Clare was saying and what I have just told the Committee, is that some of these decisions had to be and some of the discussions had to be very tightly held, and there was a reason for that, which is that we were involved in very intense diplomatic activity throughout the period from the middle of July and if you were involved in intense diplomatic activity to start with, and it was with our partners in the United States and with other partners in the Security Council, you have to ensure that these discussions are tightly held.[206]

144. As a former senior FCO official who attended Cabinet meetings, Dame Pauline Neville Jones knows the advantages of the traditional Cabinet Committee system:

… in my day the Cabinet Committee system was very important and the OPD of the day was an absolutely vital piece of the machinery … . The Prime Minister chairs that meeting, it is a formal meeting, it is fully minuted. A lot of the information supplied by the JIC is therefore part of the background material against which the members of that committee would then be considering the policy issues.[207]

Sir Michael Jay explained how the current system works:

The main ministerial discussion which takes place on foreign policy issues is in Cabinet, and there is a Cabinet meeting, there are always foreign affairs on the agenda, and I think I am right in saying that Iraq was on the agenda of each Cabinet meeting, or virtually every Cabinet meeting, in the nine months, or so, up until the conflict broke out, in April. The main, formal ministerial forum for discussing foreign policy issues is in Cabinet.[208]

145. Against this, Clare Short, who participated in the meetings, claimed that there was little real discussion within Cabinet,[209] and Dame Pauline suggested that

… increasingly … Cabinet is a meeting into which business is reported but very often not actually discussed in any detail. … The Cabinet Committee is the place for discussion. The conclusion of that Cabinet Committee are reported, if the system is working properly, into the full Cabinet by the Prime Minister with the lead minister usually coming in behind giving further explanation.[210]

Dame Pauline went on to give a further explanation of her concerns about the apparently less formal system now in place:

… there is the danger that you do not get properly recorded decisions and properly analysed decisions. … There is also the question of accountability. … It does not necessarily lead to a worse discussion, the discussion will depend on the quality of the people in the room, to be really brutal about it, so it does not mean that worse policy is made. It does mean that that policy is less embedded in the government as a whole because a whole series of other participants are not there and therefore bound by it.[211]

146. The extent to which the Cabinet and its Committees are or are not fully engaged in determining policy and exercising control over officials goes wider than foreign policy, and thus wider than this Committee's responsibilities. But we have heard enough to be concerned. We urge our colleagues on the Public Administration Committee to look closely at these issues.

147. The committee wholly supports the interdepartmental structures which were put in place prior to the war; however, this raises questions over accountability and responsibility. We were surprised to find a clear lack in knowledge of the staff of these interdepartmental groups such as the CIC. This was reflected in our evidence session with the Foreign Secretary.[212] We recommend that there should be clarity over which Department has lead responsibility for groups such as the CIC. That Department should then be accountable to the relevant select committee. This would avoid the situation where nobody is prepared to take responsibility for certain interdepartmental groups.

The security and intelligence machinery

Relations between the agencies and the media

148. Based on her experience some ten years ago, Dame Pauline Neville Jones told us that "there are no ground rules" regarding contacts between the intelligence services and journalists.

Basically and fundamentally these are not people who talk to the public and personally I do not think they should or to journalists. There clearly was turbulence inside the machine and some people have been talking, …. I would not draw general conclusions about attitudes inside the services on the basis of conversations that appear to have taken place between some journalists and some individuals. It is dangerous to draw that conclusion because you do not know what they represent, what their motive is and whether to put any weight on it.[213]

Dame Pauline added that she did not believe such contacts happened as a general rule: "this is a loyal and professional culture and very important it stays like that."[214]

149. On the other hand, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan told us that such contacts do occur, although

There is nothing as formal as the lobby. There are no regular meetings. There are, to my knowledge, few, if any, group meetings. The agencies do have officers whose particular job is to talk to journalists, and certain journalists have those people's contact numbers.[215]

150. Mr Gilligan painted a picture of frequent contacts, both official and unofficial.[216] He alleged that one of his four unofficial contacts showed him a Defence Intelligence Staff paper classified Top Secret,[217] and that another showed him a JIC paper.[218] Others briefed him about specific or general concerns in the agencies. Mr Gilligan says he has four sources. We assume that his sources are being investigated and that, if intelligence officers have been speaking to journalists without permission, they will be dealt with appropriately.

151. It is quite clear that specified officers from the intelligence and security agencies are licensed to talk to journalists. Alastair Campbell confirmed that "there are systems that allow the press to make inquiries of the intelligence community."[219] The Foreign Secretary told us that "because of the intense interest that the public and the media have in intelligence agencies, they have some arrangements which are entirely official for … the briefing of the press."[220] We find it particularly odd that there are not similar arrangements for the briefing of Members of Parliament.

152. We accept the need for the agencies on occasion to brief the press within very strict guidelines, to correct inaccurate stories or speculation, but unauthorised contacts and the leaking of information and breaches of security which they entail should not be permitted. We recommend that Andrew Gilligan's alleged contacts be thoroughly investigated. We further recommend that the Government review links between the security and intelligence agencies, the media and Parliament and the rules which apply to them.

Role of the JIC

153. The role and importance of the JIC were summed up by Jack Straw:

The reason why we have a Joint Intelligence Committee which is separate from the intelligence agencies is precisely so that those who are obtaining the intelligence are not then directly making the assessment upon it. That is one of the very important strengths of our system compared with most other systems around the world.[221]

154. Andrew Wilkie described the JIC as "a strength of the British system … where ultimately a compromise has to be reached to go to government."[222] But the work of the JIC is necessarily secret, and as a body it is unused to being in the public eye. Dame Pauline Neville Jones suggested that exercises of the kind which led to the Iraq dossiers should be infrequent: "I do think it is much preferable that services of that kind are actually below the line of publicity, I think it safeguards their integrity. Therefore these situations should be exceptions."[223] With huge—if unintentional—irony, Andrew Gilligan said that "One of the complaints made by some of our intelligence sources, not just mine but across the press, was that intelligence services are secret and they do not like necessarily having their work exposed to the public gaze."[224]

155. In his excellent history of the Joint Intelligence Committee, one of its former Chairmen, Sir Percy Cradock, wrote that

Ideally, intelligence and policy should be close but distinct. Too distinct and assessments become an in-growing, self-regarding activity, producing little or no work of interest to the decision-makers. … Too close a link and policy begins to play back on estimates, producing the answers the policy-makers would like, as happened with Soviet intelligence. The analysts become courtiers, whereas their proper function is to report their findings, almost always unpalatable, without fear or favour. The best arrangement is intelligence and policy in separate but adjoining rooms, with communicating doors and thin partition walls, as in cheap hotels.[225]

156. We agree entirely with these sentiments. Intelligence has a vital role to play in determining policy; but policy can never be permitted to define the intelligence. Looking in from the outside as we do, we believe that the JIC plays a vital role in safeguarding the independence and impartiality of intelligence. We would be gravely concerned if the JIC were to be used by Ministers or their advisers for political purposes, for example by the application of pressure to change the content or emphasis of an assessment. We have no evidence that this line has been crossed.

157. We conclude that the continuing independence and impartiality of the Joint Intelligence Committee is of utmost importance. We recommend that Ministers bear in mind at all times the importance of ensuring that the JIC is free of all political pressure.

202   Qq 97, 98 Back

203   Q 1011. See also Q 1117. Back

204   Q 813 Back

205   Q 72 (Clare Short), Ev 54 Back

206   Q 812 Back

207   Q 343 Back

208   Q 857 Back

209   Q 126. See also Qq 87, 127. Back

210   Q 358 Back

211   Qq 360, 378 Back

212   Q 792 Back

213   Q 383 Back

214   Q 383 Back

215   Q 389 Back

216   Qq 395, 396, 411, 412, 490 Back

217   Qq 425, 498 Back

218   Q 514 Back

219   Q 1059 Back

220   Qq 814, 815 Back

221   Q 772 Back

222   Q 615 Back

223   Q 364 Back

224   Q 477 Back

225   Sir Percy Cradock, Know your enemy-How the Joint Intelligence Committee saw the World, (John Murray 2002), p 296 Back

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