Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



  Q160  Chairman: Where does it say anywhere from anybody that this has been cleared?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: My reading—

  Q161  Chairman: No, not your reading. It is on record, you have said it many times, that this book was cleared. Show us the point where it was cleared?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Let me quote you an e-mail, which the publishers received on the day before we got the message from the Cabinet Office, saying that the Government would have no comment to make on the book. I quote, and this is from the publishers to me, just to give you a sense of what we thought we were going through, ie a process of clearance: "At the close of play yesterday the Cabinet Office told us that there is still one official in the Cabinet Office whose comments are awaited and that the Palace must be consulted over the references to Prince Andrew and Prince Charles. I am expecting to hear from the Cabinet Office again this morning, but their best guess is that we are unlikely to have any problems from the Palace or from those officials who have already read the book." If that does not describe a process of clearance I would like to know what does.

  Q162  Chairman: When Gus O'Donnell writes to you at the end of all this messy process and says that he is disappointed that a former diplomat should betray confidences like this, and then at the end of this letter, after saying that it is not his job to check the remarks that you attribute to people, "You should therefore not imply from this response that the book has any form of official or unofficial approval", you thought that meant clearance, did you?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I think that is weasel words, and I do not actually know what it means. Does it mean approval, because the context for that, Chairman, is a discussion of facts and accuracy in the first half of the sentence. What is extremely surprising in all of this, and I lay this before you, is we get the verbal message on 21 October and it takes until 8 November for a very brief letter to arrive from the Cabinet Secretary which actually embellishes that verbal message. The verbal message simply said, "The Government has no comment to make on the text." I took that as clearance in the light of what was going on before hand—you may think I am naive, but there you are—and then, three weeks later, we get a letter from the Cabinet Secretary which says, "The Government has no comment to make on your book", and it immediately makes a comment expressing his disappointment at the breach of confidence.

  Q163  Chairman: The word that was in my mind was not "naive". What the system was trying to tell you was that this was a thoroughly disreputable enterprise and you should not do it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Then why did it not say so?

  Q164  Paul Flynn: You are not claiming, are you, that in fact what you were trying to do was to test a rotten system and prove that it is rotten, it does not work, it does not protect people's confidences? Can we look at some of the things you say in the book, this alleged conversation you had with Robin Cook where you say that he tried to do a deal with you. He was trying to help, quite legitimately, I would have thought, a constituent of his who had a personal problem with a matter involving a child, and you described the deal that he tried to do with you as "ethical as a seven pound note". I am not sure why it was unethical for Robin Cook to act as a good constituency MP, but I understand why it was unethical for you behave in the way that you did. Did you normally behave in that way to use the might of the Embassy and try to use the whole of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to solve a problem that was a private one involving a member of your family?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not think I quite get the thrust of the question.

  Q165  Paul Flynn: You described the deal as "ethical as a seven pound note"?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Yes.

  Q166  Paul Flynn: Why was it unethical then? If it was unethical why did you take it up?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I thought that the question of Catherine's case went beyond doing deals in this sense.

  Q167  Paul Flynn: Where was the deal? Robin Cook was behaving on behalf of a constituent?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It was put to me, "If you do this, I will do that." I would have done this in any event, which was helping him with his constituent.

  Q168  Paul Flynn: Is there not a degree of lack of credibility in this story? Of course you should have done it and of course any minister can approach you about a constituency matter. That is entirely right. What was the problem with the ethics of it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: The problem with the ethics of it was that in the end he did not discharge his side of the bargain.

  Q169  Paul Flynn: Because Lady Scotland objected to it, quite rightly, that she should not be using the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to solve a personal problem that your family had?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: But I am afraid that the Government had already accepted this because there was a unit in the Foreign Office dealing with international child abduction, as there was in the Lord Chancellor's Department, as it was then called, and it was accepted in government that this issue, like all issues of international child abduction, went beyond personal matters and had become a factor in interstate relations, so is this not right, Mr Flynn, to say that this was a personal matter.

  Q170  Paul Flynn: In one of the letters you wrote you state that you believe strongly in the enduring relevance of the diplomatic service at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Have you not damaged this in a more serious way than probably any of your predecessors? Would any Prime Minister in the future want to take an ambassador into his confidence, to invite him to dinners and that seemed to upset you very much when you were not invited to dinners. Have you not put a gulf now between politicians and diplomats in a very serious way that no-one can be trusted in future?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, is the short answer to that question, and if there is any doubt about it, then I go back again, the Radcliffe criteria are there, the third criterion which deals with confidential relationships. If what you say is true, the book appears not to have been judged against that criterion and it should have been.

  Q171  Paul Flynn: Let us not go on; we have spent a great deal of time on this?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: And I am going to keep on coming back to it.

  Q172  Paul Flynn: You seem to want to concentrate on this to blame other people for this very unpleasant book which, in the view of most people, most serious observers, including people in the diplomatic service, has done a great deal of damage to the future relationship between diplomats and politicians.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I disagree with that and would like to enter a contrary argument, if I may.

  Q173  Paul Flynn: You take it up with Lord Turnbull and the other very distinguished people who have said this. Why should we have any confidence that we will not have a PCC confidential one day? Can you be trusted in your present job not to be collecting tittle-tattle to betray confidences that other people have? Are you really a fit person to be doing this important job?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Entirely fit, and let me go back to your earlier point, if I may. There are a lot of people out there, as far as I can tell the majority, who do not think this book is just a matter of tittle-tattle, because one of the things it seeks to do, more or less successfully, is to explain at the beginning of the twenty-first century what exactly an ambassador does, what exactly an embassy is for and why, in an age of instant communication and at times when prime ministers and presidents can video conference with each other, it is relevant to have people on the spot. If that does not reinforce the diplomatic service I do not know what does.

  Q174  Paul Flynn: It does not, it damages the diplomatic service, and we have a great deal of evidence on this from many of your distinguished colleagues who have not sought to reveal confidential conversations in the way that you did. You said to Mr Jay that he made a rather unpleasant insinuation that money might warp "my view of the public interest", that is your view of the public interest. Can you tell me how much money you have made from this so we can make a judgment?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I have no idea. I have no idea how much money I will make from this.

  Q175  Paul Flynn: How do we do something to stop people behaving like you in the future? Do we defer the gongs that they get? Do we take the gongs away from them? Do we make their pensions conditional on their respecting confidentiality? How do we do it?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I would come from a different starting point from you, Mr Flynn. You and I are never going to agree on this. I would say that in an age of the Freedom of Information Act, the ideology of open government, all that sort of thing, that people should write and then they should expect to have what they have written considered by a fair and consistent process, that does not exist at the moment. As for displeasing many of my colleagues, maybe I have displeased many of my former colleagues, but I have been surprised at the number of e-mails that I have received from people in the service all over the world who absolutely support this book; so I just do not agree with you.

  Q176  Paul Flynn: There is popularity in gossip and gossip-mongers are very popular people if you reveal confidences, but I think you have been judged by your peers and their judgment is that you are guilty?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, I disagree with you, and I say no more.

  Q177  Julie Morgan: Do you feel any pangs of conscience at all about this book?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not feel any pangs of conscience about this book. I stand by this book. I did say at the start of this session when I was allowed to make a brief opening statement that I had certain regrets at the turbulence that had been caused for friends and colleagues as a kind of backwash from the book, but if you are asking me whether I regret publication, no.

  Q178  Julie Morgan: I am asking you whether you feel any pangs of doubt that you did the right thing in writing this book?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I have asked myself the question have I done the right thing by writing this book, but I have been so sustained, so reinforced, by people who think the book does a valuable service, people both on this side of the Atlantic and on the other side, that those doubts have been quashed.

  Q179  Julie Morgan: I cannot say that we have heard any of those supportive voices. Everything that has hit the public domain has been criticism of what you have done. You were entertaining people in your home. Many ministers stayed with you in the diplomatic residence. Do you not feel you had their sort of trust, that they put their trust in you and that you broke their confidences? They were staying with you as guests.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What I did in this book, among other things, was to give a series of pen-portraits of people who came to Washington. In almost every single case these portraits, as far as ministers are concerned, relate to ministers in the public discharge of their office, not in private living but in public, with plenty of other people being present as well, so these are not disclosures of boudoir secrets in the embassy, but they are comments on the way in which ministers did their jobs. If under the rules this is considered unacceptable today in a book, then let the rules say so.

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