Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 72 - 79)



  Q72  Chairman: Could I welcome our first witness this morning, Sir Andrew Turnbull. It is very good to see you back. We used to see you regularly when you were in post. I thought we would have more fun with you when you were retired and I suspect this is probably going to be the case. It is very kind of you to come along and help us with our inquiry into the whole business of memoir writing. You have had some experience of this and I think you have some views about it, would you like to kick off with an opening statement?

  Lord Turnbull: Yes. I am going to start like the Vicar of St Anthony's: my text is the Civil Service Code verses 9 and 13: "Civil servants should conduct themselves in such a way as to deserve and retain the confidence of ministers" and "Civil servants should continue to observe their duties of confidentiality after they have left Crown employment." You should keep those two sentences in mind all the way through. Let us start with memoirs. Inherently they are a good thing: a rich source of history. Many is the time I refer to Nigel Lawson's memoirs—it is almost a text book. Our job is to facilitate them, I believe, while protecting what needs to be protected. The Radcliffe report, which is a beautifully crafted report, correctly identified what needs protecting; that is, national security; international relations; confidence between ministers; and confidential advice from officials. Next: is his system working? To a large degree, yes, but some flaws are becoming apparent. I think his 15-year time limit now looks dated and inflexible. Times have changed and I think the truth is we are less squeamish than we were—and I would give less weight to time and more to whether the relevant players have left the scene. There is a loophole, so-called proxy memoirs, what I would call footballers' memoirs: "David Beckham"—or "Blunkett"—"as told to . . . ." is an obvious loophole. I think we need restraint on material given directly to an author with the expectation of publication. Next: the guidance is not robust enough about the point in the process at which the memoirs should be submitted. It is no good simply submitting a book proof days before publication. The Radcliffe report makes a distinction between the memoirs of a minister, who is publicly accountable and therefore entitled to provide an account of his stewardship (but not to knock someone else's stewardship), on the one hand and officials and diplomats who serve on permanent terms, provide advice in confidence, taking neither blame nor credit. The Radcliffe report reproduces an answer given by Herbert Morrison in 1946 which makes exactly this distinction. But over time the enforcement process has really become the same for both, though in my view the official/diplomat has a less compelling case to publish his memoirs and that needs to be built into the system. Is the system being observed? I agree largely with Richard Wilson: yes, for the most part it is, although with some notorious exceptions. Clare Short submitted her manuscript and agreed changes. So too did Robin Cook. So too, after some argy-bargy, did Derek Scott. In talking later to Sir Christopher Meyer, you in my view should have no truck with the argument that he could go it alone because ministers were not observing the system. It was not true and in any case two wrongs do not make a right. Remedies: I think the law is too clumsy; the Freedom of Information Act is faulty. The Freedom of Information Act builds in the concept of protection of confidentiality but by judging it almost sentence by sentence: "Will this remark cause damage?" makes it virtually useless as a piece of protection. The courts have over history been more or less unusable. Contracts are difficult to enforce, particularly for people who are, in effect, out of contract. Copyright is worth looking at, especially for a defined area like intelligence, but it is not a panacea. If I write an article in a professional journal on public service reform, am I exploiting HMG's copyright or providing a public service by making my experience available? There are some technical remedies around loopholes, early submission and copyright, but, as Radcliffe concluded and Richard Wilson drew attention to, the strongest safeguard is a sense of professional pride, and Radcliffe was right that the real sanction is that those who flout the guidelines will suffer reputational damage. Your calling witnesses is helpful in signalling that breaking confidences is not without cost. Finally, some specific points you may want to raise with the next two witnesses. I hope you will ask Sir Christopher what thought he gave to the longer-term consequences of breaking the confidence of conversations to which he may have been party, meetings he was at, particularly while receiving them as visitors, as guests, in the UK residence; and, secondly, the effect of patronising and derogatory comments in relation to elected politicians whom an ambassador has been paid, and paid handsomely, to serve. You may say it is all kind of airy-fairy old "good chap" stuff but I will give you some concrete examples of where damage has been done. When a minister goes abroad he has two choices: to stay in the residence or to stay in a hotel. I and my colleagues have always urged a minister to stay in the residence, where they can make full use of the ambassador's experience: it is better for them and it is better for the ambassador. What chance, you might ask, do we have of succeeding when ministers feel they are going to have their confidences betrayed or even be sneered at? Secondly, when looking at the manuscripts I always pay particular attention to ministers who write derogatory things about officials who have no right of reply. It will be much more difficult for my successors to enforce that if ministers feel that they will be disparaged by officials or diplomats. Thirdly, sparing use has been made in this country of political appointments to ambassadorial posts. I am afraid Sir Christopher Meyer's book has done no service to his successors in the diplomatic service—a service of which he claims to be "intensely proud". Next, you could ask Sir Christopher to explain the logic of paying the proceeds of serialisation but not the proceeds of the book to charity, including one personally promoted by his wife. How can that offset the offence caused by abusing of confidence and sneering at ministers? Thirdly, I think you have now received a copy of the correspondence between Sir Christopher and the FCO. I assume you will want to ask him why he refused to submit the text to the FCO: Sir Michael Jay is the relevant head of his service. As the guardian himself of a largely voluntary code, what example does Sir Christopher set in refusing to adhere to the codes to which he is subject? I think you should have no truck with the argument that the book was cleared by the Cabinet Office. First, it should have gone to the FCO, and, secondly, it was clear that the Cabinet Office were dealing with a fait accompli[1]—which is something that has sent both Sir Michael Quinlan and Sir Nicholas Henderson off the trail. I would commend, incidentally, the Quinlan article in the Tablet (which is not normally my bedtime reading). Next: I assume you will explore his continuing role as Chair of the Press Complaints Commission. This is not "medieval theology" (to use another Christopher Meyer phrase). What confidence could a minister or officials have in him as chair, when presenting a complaint which is written up in a serialisation, when he has been engaged in this trade himself. If we are dissatisfied with his handling, who can we turn to but his employers, the Press Standards Board of Finance, who include the editors who have bought the serialisation in the first place? I think you need to ask: Does this piece of governance still have credibility? Turning to the Lance Price book, there are some issues which are the same and some which are different. It has the same issue about confidences betrayed and the same disparagement of ministers. The first question is simply asking whether it is consistent with the professionalism of a civil servant to be paid to do a job, go home at night, and write up other people's conversations and then publish them for money. When we come to the question of process, the issues are different. Lance Price did submit manuscripts and did proffer some excisions. But the Cabinet Office was then double-crossed because some of the excisions made their way into the press. This raises two questions: Did you or your publisher have any part in passing over information about those excisions? Did you—as many people have said to me—receive a higher serialisation fee as a result? There is also a question about reputational damage. I am mystified as to why it would help someone, in seeking a job, to have established a reputation as someone who would work for an employer, write down his intimate thoughts and subsequently publish them. To conclude, much of what is in Radcliffe stands the test of time: most ministers and civil servants accept its logic and abide by its provisions. But it remains the case that those who flout the system can still do so. There are a number of what I call technical ways in which that could be discouraged or the penalties increased, but eventually it comes down to professional pride on the one hand and reputational costs on the other. Finally, we come to the big C, the Alastair Campbell diaries. Rightly, he has said he will not publish these until after the Prime Minister has left office, but by that time you may have published your report, the Government hopefully will have responded and the bar may have been raised—the general standard, the test one has to pass, may have been raised. One has to remember that the great Sir John Colville diaries were published 40 years after the end of the war, 30 years after the last Prime Minister he served and 20 years after the death of Churchill. I will just finish with this one irony: if you go to Waterstone's the book that stands on the stand next door to Sir Christopher Meyer's book is Alan Bennett's Untold Stories and maybe they should have swapped dustcovers.

  Q73  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. I am sorry I described you as still "Sir Andrew". You are of course Lord Turnbull now. What is interesting about that—and there was much that was interesting—is that when it came to what do we do about it, we got a bit flaky, did we not, because we then started talking about reputational damage?

  Lord Turnbull: Yes.

  Q74  Chairman: Is it not the truth in all this that, whatever we might want to be the case, the dam has simply burst? Reputational damage, set against financial advantage, has now simply gone, and getting disapproving looks in the club does not count for much these days. As you have said, we cannot go to the courts, we cannot enforce any of this, this is the world in which we now live.

  Lord Turnbull: It is not just the world in which we now live, it is the world that Radcliffe was writing about 30 years ago. I think he distinguished between those issues of national security and international relations where you were pretty much obliged to take the advice, and those issues of confidence where you could seek the advice of the Cabinet Secretary and it was up to you what you did with it. As he said, reputation was an important sanction. And it still is, I think. People do care about their reputations. However, I am not saying there is nothing that can be done but I am thinking, and I think all previous witnesses have thought, there is no simple technical solution. I think we can make the processes better understood and bring them more to people's attention—although it is in fact their duty to establish their proper terms of service—and one or two other things. We can make the language more robust. But I do not think there is a body that you can turn this to, a kind of national censor—you know, you could reinvent the Lord Chamberlain and send all the memoirs to him, but I do not think that is appropriate.

  Q75  Chairman: As your own experience testifies, the rules are quite clear. What people should do is quite clear.

  Lord Turnbull: Yes.

  Q76  Chairman: People have decided they are not going to play by the rules—in fact, there are great advantages in not playing by the rules—and so we have all this to-ing and fro-ing : "Will you submit the stuff?" "No, I won't. I'm going to publish anyway." That is why I say to you that we have just moved on, have we not? It is finding some way of handling it. The fact that someone is doing it, the fact that someone you worked with is doing it and making a large amount of money out of it, means that you are more likely to do it, and the whole thing sets in train this vicious circle.

  Lord Turnbull: I understood the purpose of this PASC project, which I strongly support, is to try to say, "Come on, let's try to get back—

  Q77  Chairman: Yes, but I am testing you on the what-to-do bit. We can talk about implementation but I am testing you on the what-to-do bit. We have to make the guidance more clearly, more strongly written. We have to modernise it. Fifteen years is no longer right in the modern world, we have to update it, and it is basically a collective endeavour that you, the Government, the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service then have to try to build a consensus that standards have slipped a bit and we have to bring this back. I think some of the furore around the most recent memoirs is the point at which—kind of like Granny's footsteps—people turn round and say, "Yes, this has really gone too far." We want to make it a lot more difficult for people coming later to go down the same road.

  Chairman: The private sector does not seem to have these problems. We do not have books called ICI Confidential, do we? I agree that it may not be the biggest Christmas seller, but . . . They seem to be able to enforce contracts of confidentiality more easily. Why does the public sector have so much trouble with it?

  Lord Turnbull: It is partly, if you are looking at this question of copyright: Can you only define it ex post? Is that satisfactory? Or to make the system work do we have to define it in advance? I do not know all the answers to this because I am not now running the project, but we do need to look at it. The security service I think is trying to make a system of copyright work which would not stop someone publishing but would mean that you could pursue the profits of what they have had published. You have to build a consensus. The basic consensus is that we need to get back to these fundamental principles and give them greater weight. We are at a point where people think, "Yes, we can generate a better, a stronger consensus."

  Chairman: Okay. I am going to ask some colleagues to come in now.

  Q78  Paul Flynn: It is a great life being an ex-ambassador: you have a fat salary, you are on a glide path to a sinecure of a job in the PCC or somewhere else and you have your gong and you complain, as Christopher Meyer has, that he is at a disadvantage, as a civil servant, because obstacles are put in his way to publishing and venting his spleen against his ex colleagues in a way that government ministers and special advisors are allowed to do this. Do you think there should be special rules for civil servants as opposed to special advisors?

  Lord Turnbull: I think the principles are the same. I think a minister, in effect, has a right to publish memoirs: they are directly accountable and are entitled to give an account of their stewardship. I do not think an official has the same right. There is not the same need. They have enjoyed, in some sense, the privilege of permanency. They are always on the winning side and they give their advice in confidence; they do not take the credit and they do not take the blame. Then to come along afterwards and say, "Of course, my view was always this and I was right" and so on is attempting to get the ha'p'orth and the bun. In saying, "What is the justification for this? Should this be allowed?" I think an official/diplomat has to make a tougher case than a Minister has.

  Q79  Paul Flynn: The damage, as you have rightly said, is profound, so the whole relationship in the future between diplomats and politicians—and it is not just staying in the embassy but it is everything else, the whole relationship, the whole way they negotiate, the confidence they have in one another—has been destroyed to a large extent. There must be deep suspicion there in the future. What can we do about it? Is it practical to declare these memoirs are Crown copyright, so they do not make profits out of them? Can we give some period where they do not get their gongs or their sinecures afterwards? What action do we need to take? Do we need to make confidentiality agreements, as they have in the private sector? What can we do?

  Lord Turnbull: That is the project that is going on in the Cabinet Office as we speak. I know that when they took legal advice around the most recent memoirs, the legal advice was pretty discouraging really for what could be done. It can be reaffirmed as a duty—it is in the Civil Service Code already. The issue then is not whether we make it part of the contract but how easy it is to enforce it and where you go to enforce it. You go to the courts ultimately. Right back to The Crossman Diaries the courts have not been terribly supportive.

1   Ev 1, supplementary memorandum submitted by Lord Turnbull. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 25 July 2006