Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
THURSDAY 17 NOVEMBER 2005
GCB AND PROFESSOR
Q40 Chairman: Far from running in
fear, people seem to be attracted by their chequebooks.
Professor Hennessy: Yes, I suppose
there is that. Mr Prentice was engaging in a wonderful piece of
displacement activity suggesting the Labour Party was in trouble
because of the Daily Mail. I thought you had quite a lot
to do with it yourselves, with all due respect, my dears.
Q41 Chairman: I do not think we have
got to the bottom of this. You are telling us that the "good
chap" theory has broken down.
Professor Hennessy: Not completely.
Q42 Chairman: No, but it is breaking
down and something needs to be done. Richard, I think you are
saying the "good chap" theory is still intact and we
do not need to do very much.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I did not
say that. I said I would try and strengthen the "good chap"
Q43 Chairman: You said earlier on
that you thought it was a bad thing that people were keeping diaries
in Cabinets and you were sitting round the table with people who
you knew were going to publish a record very, very quickly. All
that is the world in which we live, that is what is happening
now. Either we say, "Well, there's nothing we can do about
it. The good chap's era has finished," or we have a proposal.
I have not heard a proposal that is going to do anything about
this at all.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I give
you the odd proposal or two? Of course people keep diaries and
of course people are thinking while they are in government that
they will write their memoirs and you know that will happen. What
matters is that you should have a process which they observe.
I am also arguing that the process has not broken down. The fact
that there have been people who break the rules does not mean
that the whole process has come to an end. What you need to do
is to reassert it and not to condone cases where people have not
observed it. I would like to see the Management Code of the Civil
Service assert more clearly than it in fact does (I was looking
at it last night) an obligation on civil servants and on ministers
who want to publish to consult the Cabinet Secretary at an early
stage, when they have a typescript, not before they have done
a deal with the newspaper and would like to go to press within
the next month, and then to discuss with the Cabinet Secretary
and, if need be, to accept his judgment on international relations
and on security and to do a compromise. The Radcliffe Report says
you have always got to compromise in the end, but there does have
to be a negotiation and I think that way can still work if people
will observe it. It may be the process needs to be made explicitly
part of the contract of civil servants. You cannot make it a contract
with ministers because ministers are appointed, they do not have
contracts, but if you can have a process which you can enforce
then I think the system may still be made to work. I do not accept
that it has broken down.
Q44 Mr Prentice: Julia mentioned
Crown Copyright and Peter told us that he did not think it was
a runner. What is your view?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: It is quite
a complex area. One of the things that was established in the
Blake case is that in some situations you can hold people to account
for profits of what they have earned. I think that is quite hard
to apply. It might be possible to incorporate in contracts for
civil servants, including former civil servants, a provision that
anything which they published on the basis of their experience
in the Civil Service would attract Crown Copyright unless they
had authorisation for its publication. I am not saying that is
possible. My recollection is that that is a possibility. The argument
against it, which is one that I think Peter might put, is that
that is far too comprehensive. I think there is a public interest
in people being able to talk on the basis of their experience
about how government works and I would not want one to feel that
everything one said was instantly a breach of copyright, which
it would be under that approach. We are moving into an age of
freedom of information and it is rather odd to toughen up in that
way when we are going for freedom of information. I am not that
enthusiastic about it but I think it is still a possibility which,
if we really feel that things are breaking down, people might
have to explore. If they went down that road I think they would
need to be very clear at the same time about the situations in
which it would be exercised; I think that would have to be part
of the deal. It is worth remembering that everything a civil servant
writes now in the course of their job is covered by Crown Copyright,
that is my recollection, so it would be an extension of that provision.
Q45 Julie Morgan: Your proposals
are that the existing process could be improved on the basis of
how it exists at the moment.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: It could
be strengthened a bit, yes.
Q46 Julie Morgan: I am quite curious
as to how that process operated. Did you personally read every
one of those books? Was it your personal duty to read them?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Can I describe
to you what happens? You are sitting in your office and suddenly
a box arrives with a lot of typescripts, typically. It is about
enough to fill one box of the kind that you take home in the evening.
I would read it, yes. I would skim read it very fast partly because
it was quite a treat.
Professor Hennessy: You have led
a sheltered life!
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I have.
You sit and you skim this book and with a skim read you can get
a pretty good idea of (a) whether it is really going to be a serious
headache or not and (b) the areas of Government that it is going
to cover. You identify those passages which are of interest to
other government departments and you send them to your colleague
who is head of that department and you ask for comments by a given
time. Usually people always want this back as quickly as possible,
which is why I stress this question of the timescale. Then you
will get back from departmentsand you have someone who
will kindly collate it for you in the Cabinet Officea list
of comments. One of the things they will dobeing civil
servants, they are congenitally unable to let any error pastis
that they will list for you a huge number of things which the
minister or the individual has got wrong. I always found myself
saying, "You're not required to accept this but we think
you have got the following factual errors," and there would
be pages of things that the civil servants picked up. It goes
with the job. Secondly, you would then have a list of comments
where people would want changes and I would go through those and
look at them and some of them would be ones which you would think
were nit-picking and you would send them to the author and say,
"It's up to you, you may want to think about this. I do not
think it is that important.". There would be some where you
would suggest to them positively they should make a change but
you would make it clear there is not an issue. And then there
would be a fewI would try to make it as small a number
as possible, it usually was only two or three or four at the mostwhere
you really thought there was an issue and you would make it clear
that these were ones that you really wanted to press and discuss
with them. You would send it back with roughly that categorisation
and then you would get a letter back and usually there would be
very little dispute. I can recall one or two cases of national
security, one or two cases where it was a comment on former civil
servants, where in the end it was a matter for the person writing
whether or not they pressed it. I do not recall any case where
in the end we were not able to reach agreement pretty amicably.
It was a pretty swift process. I would always bias myself towards
publication and say does it really matter if they publish this,
but if I thought it really did matter then I would press the point,
although usually there were very few points of that kind where
you had to make an issue of it.
Q47 Julie Morgan: Presumably Christopher
Meyer's book went through that process.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I do not
know. We got a letter suggesting they did not have time to do
it. I have not talked to Gus O'Donnell, I do not know what happened
in that case, but I would guess in his shoes, if you find yourself
faced with that problem, the danger is that if you start asking
for changes all you are going to do is provide publicity for the
serialisation, which you do not particularly want to do. In the
Stella Rimington case where I said to her initially "Please
don't do it", that conversation was then used in The Guardian
as a platform for "the book they tried to ban" and for
a fairly one-sided account of that discussion. So you do have
to think about that too.
Q48 Julie Morgan: But you think this
process is the correct process, do you?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think
it is correct. Ten people went through it and it was not a problem.
Only one person simply did not observe it. I may be out-of-date,
it may be things are declining now, but I do not regard that as
evidence that in my time the whole thing was cracking up.
Q49 Chairman: What about the idea
of having a Committee on Memoirs?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: You are
tempting me, Chairman! I read your speech in the House of Commons
on Tuesday where you were talking about the proliferation of regulatory
bodies. I am not going to be tempted by you into suggesting another
Q50 Chairman: So that is not something
that attracts you?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: No.
Q51 Mr Burrowes: In your experience
the problem is not the issue of disagreement between the Cabinet
Secretary and the author because you are saying that usually you
will be able to come to an agreement, are you not?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: You usually
Q52 Mr Burrowes: So there is no need
for any further committee of Privy Counsellors, is there?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: No.
Q53 Mr Burrowes: In terms of looking
at what has happened since, you do not see the "good chap"
theory going out the window to a certain extent and a need now
to tighten things up in terms of that committee?
Lord Wilson of Dinton: In setting
up a committee to oversee it?
Q54 Mr Burrowes: Yes.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I happen
to agree that we have quite enough bodies of one sort or another
to regulate behaviour without necessarily impressing the public
that we are doing it better, though I think standards have improved.
I do not think there is a needbut, as I say, I may be out-of-datefor
any committee to oversee the process.
Q55 Mr Burrowes: In terms of improvements,
you say there is not a need to change the process in relation
to the Cabinet Secretary looking through and considering the documents
which have gone through 10 people. Is the problem with the author
and the way they have applied the rules? Perhaps the lesser obligation
is towards the old principles of honour and so forth.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: Yes. Julia
Goldsworthy was talking earlier about motive. I think there are
two or three motives usually at work. One of them, with ministers,
is to set the record straight and I think, as Radcliffe says,
that is a legitimate motive for a politician, a minister, to want
to put their side of the story when they are so much in the spotlight.
A second motive is making money out of their experience. Although
it is inevitable to some degree, I think the spectacle of civil
servants rushing forward into print in order to make money out
of it is very distasteful. If one could find a way, like on the
copyright route perhaps, where it really became a problem then
I think you would have to do that. The third, which is very hard
to deal with, is vanity or pride. Sometimes when people retire
they find it very difficult to come to terms with the sudden loss
of identity. One of the reactions which takes place with some
people is a feeling that you need to go into print to assert who
you were or to get off your chest a sense of grievance. I would
think it is highly desirable that people should not do that and
they should find some other form of therapy rather than going
into print. However, that is just a personal view.
Q56 Mr Burrowes: You are playing
down the problem in a sense by saying it is still a few occurrences
and although the system is generally working, there needs to be
a reassertion of radical force. I am trying to accommodate that
with your views about the trend towards the concentration of fewer
hands and whether that has essentially corrupted modern government
and whether there is a need for more of a fundamental change.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: I think
you are putting together two rather different things. The alternatives
are either a voluntary system or, ultimately, legislation. I think
the arguments against legislation are strong. I am sure we could
all put together a Bill which set up a tribunal to oversee the
system, which laid down a process and which had penalties and
criminal sanctions or civil sanctions, I do not know, for people
failing to observe the process. I think that would be very heavy
handed and I would want to try and keep out of that if I possibly
could. What I am saying is that there clearly are cases at the
moment which if I was a Cabinet Secretary would be causing me
dismay, but I would still want to reassert the voluntary system
and find ways of strengthening it rather than going into legislation,
that is all I am saying.
Q57 David Heyes: I want to stay on
this Crown Copyright idea. Would it be feasible as a variant on
that to introduce a contractual condition for serving senior civil
servants whereby any future publication of memoirs would be done
on a profit-sharing basis? This might be a source of finance for
the official histories that you were promoting to us. I think
it is less than £200,000 a year goes into all of the official
histories that are published from time to time, less than the
serialisation figure from a newspaper. It is a thought. I just
wondered what your views were on it.
Lord Wilson of Dinton: My understanding
is that Gus O'Donnell is reviewing this area. I think he said
that to you in his evidence. I would have thought that is the
sort of thing you might want to suggest to him he might want to
look at. I am sure he will read this evidence and ask for advice
on it. I do not think I am not going to venture an opinion on
Professor Hennessy: Can I add
support to the official histories point because I am not one of
nature's official historians but I am very pleased when people
like Lawrie Freedman do it. It is a half-way house between all
the anxieties. Lawrie saw everything for the Falklands War, including
the intelligence and there was very highly sensitive diplomatic
stuff to do with Chile and aid and all the rest of it to the British
campaign. Although I am not one who would ever sign up to do it,
the product of those official histories is crucial to the rest
of us in the historical business. It is intrinsically desirable,
and the amount of money is secondary. One of the great moments
in the war for a nerd like me was when Sir Edward Bridges, Richard's
predecessor but six, commissioned Sir Keith Hancock in 1942 to
get the civil histories of the war ready and Hancock, an Australian
professor, said, "This perhaps isn't the right moment given
what we are facing in the world.". And Bridges said, "It
is very important always to have a fund of experience because
you might have to go through a version of this again", and
in a way it was an act of faith. There was no money in 1942, every
piece of manpower was devoted to winning the war and yet the Bridges'
generation had no doubt this was an integral part of the state,
it was the collective memory and it was an aid to not going wrong
in the future, taking the lessons where they were applicable.
It worries me a great deal that this should even be a question.
We are a vastly richer nation now than we were in 1942, we are
not facing that kind of emergency and yet there is this kind of
"Can we flog it off or do we have to do it at all?"
mentality. It is deeply dispiriting and it would be an own goal
by the state if we did that. I was very relieved when Richard
got the Prime Minister's approval to put that new set in just
before he retired. It worries me deeply that it should even be
a question. They vary in quality, but everything does, but they
are extraordinarily useful instruments for the state, and I think
there should be more of them. You could go into partnership with
people like the British Academy if you wanted to have some way
of doing it with them, but to give up on it altogether just shows
how present centred the current generation of politicians can
be. I am not one of those who believe that their memories do not
work before 1994, but on some occasions you would think that criticism
was indeed justified.
Q58 Grant Shapps: I think it has
been a tremendously helpful evidence gathering session. The two
of you, if you do not mind me saying, would make a great road
show at some stage, if you felt that way inclined, maybe as part
of your own memoirs. I think we may have stumbled upon a couple
of the solutions here, one of which came up when Peter was talking
about the current situation as you perceive it amongst the Cabinet,
the lack of the consensual relationship between the Prime Minister
and where the power lies. You said one of the aspects of this
is that Cabinet Ministers tend to go off and write their memoirs
quite early, sometimes to settle scores or get their side of the
story out. Do you not agree that that is in fact the system in
the longer term working quite well, because what will happen is
that someone will go away and you will end up with a Blunkett
book, the Blunkett book slates some other Cabinet Ministers and
they are then unhappy with it? What then happens is that the government
as a whole starts to look shabby. We saw it in the Major government,
we are seeing it in this government and the electorate gets fed
up. So democracy deals with this entire issue when it comes to
the ministers as opposed to the civil servants.
Professor Hennessy: That is an
interesting thought. The one theme that Mo's memoir and Robin's
and Clare's share is the lack of proper Cabinet discussion, that
is their greatest beef. Cynics might say, "Well, they would
say that, wouldn't they? Why did they not resign earlier? Why
did they put up with it?". One of the most depressing phenomena
is the kind of nodding parrot head phenomenon whereby when the
Prime Minister says something five ministers swing in behind him
loyallythe CQ or "crawling quotient" is off the
Richter scaleand yet when they break loose they say, "Well,
it wasn't like that really". The gap between front of house
and what they really think in back of house is so profound now
and it leads to ever greater public disdain for you lot as a profession.
Nobody is deceived, that is the other thing. They think that we
are absolutely naïve. What an unendurable week you went through
Q59 Mr Prentice: Why do you keep
looking at me?
Professor Hennessy: On Saturday
five of them said "Gordon is the one and it will all be wonderful".
Do they go to a training school? They are the most unfortunate
people in the world.