Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  Q20  Grant Shapps: Peter, what I am really interested in is the split here between ministers and civil servants. Five years might be exactly right for civil servants, I do not know, plus the change in government. Surely for ministers it is fair game? The one thing this whole thing teaches me is that I should go home and starting writing a diary tonight, if only as a defensive mechanism.

  Professor Hennessy: You have been corrupted, Mr Shapps!

  Q21  Grant Shapps: Not at all. We are here to look after ourselves and do not need to be molly-coddled by more rules and regulations, certainly not by laws. Ministers and politicians should be able to take care of themselves.

  Professor Hennessy: You wait until you are a minister!

  Q22  Chairman: Richard, could I bring you in because I would like to know if you would assent to this prescription that Peter is giving us about what we might do about this?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not think I would lay down the time period like that because I can think of some things which I would not want people to write after five years and some things in less than five years which I would not object to. What Radcliffe is saying is that over time, the strength of the confidences does gradually weaken, and it does depend a bit on context. He says that some things which are matters of national security can be revealed very soon after they are over because they suddenly cease being secure. Other things you need to protect for much longer than that. I think that is true of some confidences. There are personal matters to do with ministers I worked for 30 or 40 years ago which I would not want to reveal.

  Professor Hennessy: Give us one example.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Certainly not.

  Q23  Kelvin Hopkins: I am fascinated by what I have heard, particularly because I was Brian Sedgemore's party chairman in the 1970s, so I used to get these events retold to me in the pub every Friday night. It was exactly as you say. My impression is that what has really changed from that era is the politics. We lived in an era of the mixed economy, social democracy and pluralism in those days. Now we live in a world driven from the centre by radical, right-wing politicians. It is driven by neo-conservative international policies—foreign policies and neo-liberal economic policies, and pluralism has been pushed back. Have not the tensions arisen because of that change?

  Professor Hennessy: I think there is a lot in that. If I was on the receiving end of the command style premiership of your nominal leader, because you obviously do not subscribe in full to the leadership principle, I would get profoundly irritated. If, as it is sometimes put to me, the kids at Number 10 come on the phone and say "Tony wants", I would be tempted to say, "bugger off" and, if I did not, I would make a note about the absurdity of their suggestions at what I do as a secretary of state. I have never known a period when secretaries of state and their permanent secretaries are such diminished figures. I sometimes wonder how they can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. The kind of catharsis through memoir, which is what it is, is what this leads to. If you operate a court system of government, whether it is the Chancellor or the Prime Minister, those who are on the receiving end of the court find what weapons they can when they can, and it stores up real trouble. If you are not naturally collegial, which the Prime Minister is not though he is trying terribly hard—and you used to spend hours to persuade him to be more collegial, did you not, Richard—you are just asking for it, are you not? The worms turn, and the worms turn on the page, and who can blame them?

  Q24  Kelvin Hopkins: Yes, indeed, and I must say I cannot wait for the memoirs of our Cabinet which meets, apparently, for five minutes just to listen to the Prime Minister, and then goes away again. It used actually to discuss papers and not to have votes as such but develop consensual approaches to government, which is no longer the case. I will be fascinated to read all these memoirs. Do you think this is leading to some sort of breakdown or change, a reversion to the way we were, or are we now into an entirely new era of working where the pages will not be turned back?

  Professor Hennessy: I know everybody says this because it is the kind of fall-back position, but if we had a civil service act that repainted the lines between who does what within the governing marriage, including the special advisers, it would be a start. The good chap theory of government was based on what Sidney Low over 100 years ago called "the tacit understandings on which British Government depends". All that has gone. There is a tremendous tendency, which is what gave you such anguish, was it not, that that is traditional stuff; it just gets in the way; we have public service delivery. Once the good chap theory has come to the equivalent of a combination of management consultancy babble and self-interest, it has gone really. I know you think, like Radcliffe, it can all be restored, and I hope it can, but we have had nothing but this since 1997, with the occasional reversion to trying to behave a little bit better. Mrs Thatcher was just the same. Remember after Westland, she tried to behave for a while and listen to people in Cabinet. The real thing to do when you are watching these people is rather like intelligence; you watch people when they do not think you are looking at them—when they are on automatic pilot—because they do not think they are under particular scrutiny, that is when they give themselves away on the way they really conduct government. I think you are closer to the model than Richard's desire to see sides to them which can be played upon, playing upon their decent side. Maybe I am entirely wrong about this. I come back to this: if you could broker a modern version of the good chap theory of government which took into account modern realities, you really would have pulled off something quite formidable. I think it is linked to your known views that we need a civil Service Act, and that is not a suggestion which is greeted with throbbing warmth across the road by anybody. There was not one person in the Cabinet who was in favour of it, and even some of your wretched colleagues at the Wednesday meeting of permanent secretaries were not wholly in favour. If you can make that happen and link it to this, I think you will have done the state some service, you know.

  Q25  Chairman: I can see Richard steaming.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am not steaming at all. I just wish to make it clear that silence does not indicate consent.

  Q26  Kelvin Hopkins: The point I make in our discussion, and I agree entirely with what you said, Peter, but this is really for Richard, is this: during the Benn-Sedgemore era, Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell, and I am sure you remember them both very well, used to meet Tony Benn in the morning before the civil servants got to him and discuss with him the policies of the day. The civil servants would then speak to the Secretary of State afterwards. They used to get very upset about this, apparently. Now we have a situation where the special advisers are the bosses, in a sense. Rather than just advising the minister and then the minister going to the civil servants, they are now interposed, in a sense. They see the minister and the Civil Service much more, and the top layer of the Civil Service, certainly under Sir Andrew Turnbull, seem to have become more politicised; it is all part of political grouping conspiring against Parliament to get things through. When did that change take place, or is my description not right?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I am, of course, out of it now. This may sound like a commercial, but if you look at The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, which we published in 2001, you will find in it a description of what sorts of work a special adviser may do, and that is not consistent with the description of the role of special adviser that you give. I think the truth is that the role of special advisers is different between different ministers at different periods. I think Francis Cripps and Frances Morrell, who you rightly guess I do remember, were in a very powerful position in that department. Your account of how they operated, I think, if anything, is an underestimate. They were interposed between Tony Benn and the department quite often. I can remember one occasion that Brian Sedgemore has written up—it is nearly 30 years ago—when I was instructed by the secretary of state and, in the end, by the permanent secretary to negotiate a Cabinet committee paper with them. It was a very tortuous process but certainly they were there between the secretary of state and the department. I will not go into it.

  Q27  Kelvin Hopkins: I remember it well. I know the sort of thing.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: It illustrated the point that a lot of the issues people talk about today in relation to special advisers are not new. All the issues that people are talking about now were very much alive and kicking 30 years ago. One needs to pull back a bit from the suggestion that we are all poor figures now and it was all marvellous in the past. I hesitate to attribute it to an objective and independent professor, but I think some of that is to do with the passing of years. I think you do tend to see the past in a rosy glow. There is one point I would like to come back to, which is a point that Gordon Prentice raised. I think some things are changing. One of them is the willingness of, let us say, the press to make a civil servant more of a figure. Another is the willingness to criticise civil servants through the press without your ever actually knowing, if you are the civil servant, who is making the allegation. I think that is an insidious and bad trend because it is unfair. The hands of civil servants are tied. You cannot answer back, just as you cannot answer back to criticisms in a memoir. There ought to be something in the code which makes it very clear that that is unacceptable, whoever does the briefing.

  Q28  Chairman: Julia is going to bring us back to memoirs. As Kelvin has a start on it, I do not want to lose the moment just to ask you both this. I do not want to quote back at you stuff you have been writing, Richard. You have been expressing disquiet about the way in which government is conducted now, and indeed Peter has, too, perhaps more predictably. Although you are saying, in response to questions, that there was never a golden age, you do not think there has been a great falling off, you have been writing in a way which suggests that there has been a falling off. Something has gone wrong with the process of government; the quality of decision-making has begun to be attenuated. Chris Foster, as you know, has written recently something called Why are we so badly governed? He is someone who has worked for both governments over many, many years. It is quite a compelling indictment of the way in which news management now drives decisions; Number 10 overrules departments; the quality of material produced by government White Papers has deteriorated. Just the business of doing government is not as robust as it used to be. As I read you, you pretty much assented to this.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: The things I have been saying are things I actually said to this Committee when I was Cabinet Secretary. I was not always sure you heard me but I have been saying these things for a long time. I think we are in the middle of huge constitutional change. What I have always argued is that there is a trend towards devolution, in formal constitutional terms: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and a rebalancing between the state and the individual. It is all on the record from previous sessions. At the same time, I think at another level there is a trend towards greater centralisation. As always happens, the important things that go on in the constitution happen unobserved. The way in which local government has become an agent of central government, which is now declared by government ministers, rather than a democratic local tier of government, is a hugely important development, which has passed by virtually without much debate. The concentration of power within government makes it all the more important that within government there are proper processes to ensure and regulate the use of power and the checks and balances which we need to have in place. I think it makes the role of Parliament, the role of this Committee, all the more important. There is nothing very radical in that. It is just an observation as to how the constitution is changing and the importance of the roles of different parts of the constitution, the constitution ensuring that power is held in check and in balance.

  Professor Hennessy: I think we have to remember that for all your sterling efforts as a Cabinet Secretary in private to get better minute-taking, to have proper Cabinet discussion, even the occasional Cabinet paper, what it took to get to the point where we have some restoration of the useful bit of the past were two accidental reports: the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Inquiry. But for the tragic death of Dr Kelly, there would have been no Hutton Inquiry. If the American President had not instituted an inquiry into intelligence-related policy-making on the road to war in Iraq, we would not have had Butler either. But for the light shone by those two completely aberrational inquiries—they involved disclosures way beyond the 30-year rule stuff, let alone the Freedom of Information Act—we would not have had you being alerted to the extent you have been, the press being alerted to the extent they were, and people like me being able to quote chapter and verse rather than general anxieties. That is what it took to get a partial restoration of papers and proper minute-taking. You might as well have pleaded in vain in private to get that back. This is no disrespect to you: it took an external shock with quotes from chapter and verse in both of those reports, whole rounds of experience in there, including diaries, and David Omand having to reconstruct from his notes because no minute was taken of the rolling discussion in Number 10, with people coming in and out about whether to tell the press it was Dr Kelly if they thought it was, if they got the name. That was monstrous. You were worried about that in private from the beginning but you could do damn all about it. It took those two accidents to alert Parliament and the public. We should never forget that. Not one minister wanted either of those inquiries, did they?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I should just say again, for the record, that Peter Hennessy is very kindly giving evidence on my behalf but I am not assenting to it. I feel myself being manoeuvred into a position where others are giving evidence on my behalf and writing my memoirs, which I am not going to do.

  Q29  Julia Goldsworthy: This is the flip side of what Grant Shapps was saying, and so rather than should there be a separate code for ministers and civil servants, is it not more about what is driving the authors that is the most important thing in terms of whether it is appropriate or not, whether it is a desire to set the scene of some historical record and give insight into the political processes, whether it is for personal revenge, some kind of personal experiences, or it may be even money. If they are going to get huge advances from newspapers, is that what is driving them? Gus O'Donnell, when he gave evidence to us, said he was looking into ways in which the Crown could claim royalties as a way of overcoming that particular problem. I would like your comments on that?

  Professor Hennessy: There is a precedent to that, if I remember. Reggie Jones (RV Jones) wrote Most Secret War. He was a lovely man and he had taken away to Aberdeen University as a young man in 1946 a large amount of very sensitive material on which he wrote that book. This was really official secrets stuff. He waited until the Ultra Secret was up but it was still very hot in the Seventies. An unspoken deal was done, which I think we got hold of and published in The Times whereby they did not want to prosecute Reggie because he was a thoroughly good thing and just imagine the court case. So they did a deal whereby I think at least a part of his royalties from Most Secret War went to the Crown. I do not think that was ever admitted to, but in fact it was the case. If I can find the cuttings from The Times, it would be there somewhere. So there is a precedent for that. That was a one-off because they suddenly realised that Reggie had this treasure trove. He really did like the people he had left in Whitehall. It was the good chap theory working; it was one of those very British compromises. I do not think you could institutionalise that. It is interesting that Jeremy Greenstock has agreed not to publish; I have not checked that. We must not forget that the Director of the Ditchley Foundation has abided by the good chap theory of government. You need to check that. You will be able to do that rather more easily than me, but I think he has agreed not to publish, at least for the time being.

  Q30  Chairman: The publishers did not want it after it had been taken care of.

  Professor Hennessy: Is that what it was? You are ahead of me on that.

  Q31  Mr Liddell-Grainger: He lost his contract. I want to take you back to one diary we have not talked about and that is Spycatcher.

  Professor Hennessy: It was not a diary. It was a memoir, written by a fruitcake.

  Q32  Mr Liddell-Grainger: It may be, but it ended up with the Cabinet Secretary, now Lord Armstrong, making a journey with a briefcase because the establishment had told him to go out to Australia and try to silence this bloke.

  Professor Hennessy: You are cruel remembering that but it is true, he was upset at Heathrow, was he not?

  Q33  Mr Liddell-Grainger: A little, and I think the journalist may be one of those in the room. Was that the downgrading of the Cabinet Secretary, having to go out to try personally on behalf of the British Government to stop a diary, a memoir, whatever, which was highly damaging? There was an enormous amount of stuff in there about burglaries, break-ins, the role of the Wilson Government. It was absolute dynamite. It was not stopped. It was leaked back into the country as a sort of dirty little memoir and it was being sold on street corners. Is that not the sort of downward spiral?

  Professor Hennessy: Robert Armstrong should not have gone. It should have been the Attorney General. Robert had done very well.

  Q34  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Who made him go?

  Professor Hennessy: If I remember, Robert had done extremely well in the Westland inquiry before the Defence Select Committee. He had interposed his body, which is one of the functions of a Crown servant, between ministers and here. Permission was not granted to anybody else from the Civil Service who was involved in the Westland affair to come. Robert—fireproof Robert—took it all upon himself, and he did extremely well. If I had been Robert, I would have refused to go to Australia on the grounds it should be the Attorney General because it had to be a Minister of the Crown. In those days, we had Attorneys General, and the Attorney General should have gone.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: Chairman, I have always thought that Robert Armstrong was much maligned over that episode. He has been very restrained in not publishing his version of it, which is his right, and I would respect that. I think one day this is one of those cases where history will start putting the record right. You do have to have a sense, if you are in public service, that in time if injustice has been done, it will be put right, but sometimes you have to wait rather a long time.

  Q35  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Surely that is a prime example of where the Civil Service were ordered to deal with the situation which had been created because somebody had done something which the government could not control? The political side said that they did not want to know about that and that they would send out the sacrificial lamb with his briefcase and give a right to him on the way out to Australia, and the whole thing was a disaster.

  Professor Hennessy: Nobody could quite have anticipated the degree to which that judge—and I am libelling the Australian judiciary—was determined to get revenge for dominion status. It was quite extraordinary to watch all of that. I do not think anything in Robert's formation—and he had been around the block a few times—had prepared him for that.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not think Robert Armstrong, or anyone, could have anticipated quite how that was going to develop in that case.

  Q36  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Stella Rimington wrote a fairly boring book. When that came before the censors, can you say how much was taken out? Was there anything to be taken out? Was there stuff that you felt was going down the wrong line and you said, "enough is enough"?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: The answer to your question is: yes, quite a lot had to be rewritten, to my recollection.

  Q37  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you think for spy chiefs—and Scarman would be fascinated to read this—and for that sort of level of persons within the Intelligence Service there should be a different, dare I say it, law, statutory obligation, on people who are within the intelligence community? You were talking about somebody who took all his archives up to Aberdeen, Reggie Jones. That is obviously an early example. Should there be a bit more for intelligence and the military?

  Professor Hennessy: That is difficult because the precedent for Stella Rimington's book was Sir Percy Sillitoe's book Cloak without Dagger, which he had written after ceasing to be Head of MI5 in 1955, and to which Mr Attlee wrote a foreword. It was an extremely boring book. It was mainly about being Chief Constable in Kent, which even in those days was not the most riveting job in the public service. It was very hard to tell Stella not to because of the wretched Sillitoe book. As the British system of government works on precedent and custom and practice, that is what they had to go on, was it not? Not that I am recommending this to you, but I suppose you could, as part of the Intelligence Services Act, if you had wanted in 1994 put in a statutory bar on ever saying anything to anybody. Their indoctrination processes tell them that anyway. Again, it is the world we have lost. Ten thousand people kept the Ultra Secret for 20 years. Is that not extraordinary—20,000 people knew at least a part of the Ultra Secret and they kept it for 20 years. Those days are gone.

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I would repeat the point, at the risk of repetition, that the home Civil Service has a remarkable record in observing the duty of confidentiality. I do not think there is evidence that that is sliding.

  Professor Hennessy: The intelligence services have been pretty mute. Even somebody who is interested in that world understands that they have to be. We have found two ways: on the back of the Spycatcher affair, they got a counsellor to whom they could go if they were anguished about pensions or anything else. That has worked pretty well. There is also the oversight committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I know is not flesh of your flesh quite but it has done an extremely good job. On the back of that Spycatcher affair, reforms were put in place, which I think together have worked pretty well. Do you not?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think so.

  Q38  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Shaylor had to be brought back from France. He did exactly the same; he skipped out of the country and basically in the end he was extradited. Surely again that shows an example of where an intelligence officer decided to publish and be damned. Whether the stuff he said was true or not, I do not know. Again, the Government got dragged into something where they had to try to get somebody back who had written a memoir which was potentially very damaging to the country. There is another example of where we are fairly neutered as a nation. That literally ended up with an embarrassing situation and the government in France trying to get this bloke out.

  Professor Hennessy: He was convicted, as was Richard Tomlinson, if I remember. I think there has to be an extra special duty of care on people in the intelligence world. This is an extremely nasty world. When they make the cases they do, and if stuff is disclosed that gives away techniques or even agents—not that Shaylor or Tomlinson gave away agents but I think Tomlinson did name some people who were officers—that is extremely difficult because it is very hard to recruit people if you think it is going to come out. It is an obvious link and it is one they make all the time, and I understand that. In many ways, they are a separate case from what we are talking about. Having said that, for Christopher Meyer and Jeremy Greenstock, and indeed you and your colleagues, the intelligence product is something that is very much part of your world. You may not be actually in it, but the sensitivity of the stuff, because you are the customer, does affect you. It is important that it is related to this, but the actual duty of confidentiality on an officer in MI5 and MI6 or a GCHQ employee is very high, the highest there is really, and I understand that. I think we all do. We have found a way in this country of mitigating that kind of blanket ban where you did not even get anything after 30 years, not a whisper, until the Waldegrave Initiative, however old it was, even though the Cold War was over. We found a very sensible way of reaching quarter-way houses, if not half-way houses, on this as has the Houses of Parliament. In a funny way Richard's optimism about sensible procedures is still possible, you can rely upon people's decency, it is a combination of the good regiment discipline, the kind of morale that these outfits should have, plus codes for guidance, he's worked in that area and that is the most delicate area of all. On the back of the Spycatcher nonsense beneficial reform did occur, did it not?

  Lord Wilson of Dinton: I just wanted to give a plug for official histories. I do think it is important that people have an understanding of what goes on in Government and I think the official history programme is an important part of that. Before I ceased to be Cabinet Secretary we commissioned, with the Prime Minister's approval, a series of official histories in which academics are allowed to have full access to all the papers and write up the history of a particular episode or period, like the Falklands War which I think has now been published. I think that programme may fairly soon be running out and I do just hope this Committee may take an interest in ensuring that it continues to run because there is a real public interest in that programme.

  Professor Hennessy: I agree with that.

  Q39  Chairman: The problem is the Daily Mail does not produce a big chequebook for official histories.

  Professor Hennessy: Why are we obsessed with the Daily Mail? Everybody runs in fear of them. You should just tell them to bugger off. That is twice we have mentioned the Daily Mail.

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