Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  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" theory.

  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 departments—and you have someone who will kindly collate it for you in the Cabinet Office—a list of comments. One of the things they will do—being civil servants, they are congenitally unable to let any error past—is 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 few—I would try to make it as small a number as possible, it usually was only two or three or four at the most—where 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 one.

  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 resolve it.

  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 need—but, as I say, I may be out-of-date—for 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 it.

  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 loyally—the CQ or "crawling quotient" is off the Richter scale—and 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 at Blackpool.

  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.

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