Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  Q240  Kelvin Hopkins: A much more important question in my view is this distinction, which I am certainly concerned about, between civil servants—technically you were a civil servant although I see you as a politician—and the political world. Politicians and the Civil Service have been fairly distinct and the image created by Sir Humphrey in the television series was of a Civil Service which was almost hermetic, the politicians could not really get into the world of the Civil Service, they were guarded by permanent secretaries or whatever, and, equally, civil servants knew their place and they did not venture into the political world. With the alleged politicisation of the Civil Service—people like you have caused the problem because you were a civil servant but you became part of that overlap between politics and the Civil Service and confused the issue to an extent—the old Sir Humphrey image has gone. Isn't that a bad thing?

  Mr Price: The whole role of special advisers within government is something I know you, Chairman, and your Committee have taken a keen interest in and will continue to investigate in the future, I am sure. I do think that special advisers are in a hybrid position. They are largely political and some special advisers, certainly in my case, play a very political role but they are also brought within the Civil Service for a short period of time, and our careers are as fickle as those of the ministers that we work for so we do not have all the benefits of guaranteed employment, pensions and so on that others perhaps do. Certainly special advisers in the past have published books that have explained their role. I do not think it is any bad thing that people understand the role of special advisers better than they do at the moment because there are an awful lot of myths around about them. There are two ways in which a special adviser can get his or her view across about how government is conducted and what is going on. We all know that throughout the time since Tony Blair has been Prime Minister there has been an avalanche of books published, largely by journalists, sometimes by contemporary historians, purporting to know what goes on inside Downing Street and often giving quite colourful descriptions of rows between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor or whatever else may have been going on. Insofar as they were based on fact at all, we know where those facts came from. Those facts came from people working inside Whitehall, working for government, either as special advisers, perhaps the protagonists themselves, perhaps even, God forefend, civil servants. It is one thing, in my view, to give information to others to write, whether they are ghost biographies, actual biographies or contemporary histories, under the cloak of anonymity, but what I did was write my recollections with my name on the cover. I took responsibility for it. I was not going round behind closed doors giving information to journalists. I think journalists found me a pretty lousy source when I was at Number 10 because I did not do what the Chairman was describing as going out and finding them straight after a conversation and revealing what was going on. I think there is an argument to be made that it is far more responsible to publish a book like this, with my name on the cover, than to participate in some of the processes that I have just been describing.

  Q241  Kelvin Hopkins: Would it not be healthier to have a much deeper separation between the Civil Service, with their codes and their rules, and the political field, with people like yourself strictly in the political field and not in the Civil Service? You are fair game, you have to rely on politics, you would not have rules like the Civil Service. And it is not a career, you are either elected or appointed temporarily to advise politicians who are elected. It is a much different world from that of the Civil Service. If we had strict rules for the Civil Service and a high Code of Ethics for them, we expect politicians to behave badly, because that is what they are like, you—

  Mr Price: You are lumping me in the latter category?

  Q242  Kelvin Hopkins: Yes, indeed. We should separate the two very clearly.

  Mr Price: There is this ambiguity about the role of special advisers and I do have my views on that. It falls slightly outside the remit of a discussion about memoirs but I suppose it could be brought within it. Personally, I am a supporter of the public funding of political parties and if you want a good democracy you have to be prepared to pay for it and if you were prepared to pay for it you might have a situation in which political appointments within ministries could be paid for by the public still but through the funding of political parties rather than through the funding of government.

  Kelvin Hopkins: I would like to pursue this further but I fear I have had more than my fair share of time. Thank you for that.

  Q243  Grant Shapps: I am interested in your statement and also your written statement where you describe this process by which authorisation or changes in the book are made. I wonder whether you agree it was perhaps the case that the changeover in Cabinet Secretary caused this very odd, uneven process as your book was essentially approved for publication after changes?

  Mr Price: It was not helpful, I admit. I would have been much more comfortable working with one Cabinet Secretary all the way through although, to be fair, I think a lot of the initial decisions and advice given and so on is given in the Cabinet Secretary's name but actually by officials who are working for him.

  Q244  Grant Shapps: This is a classic organisational cock-up, is it not? Sir Andrew Turnbull told you back in July it was completely unacceptable, it looked like a closed door, you were amazed and ran for cover, got legal advice and the rest of it. You then put in a pretty much unchanged manuscript and were told it needed a few changes by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell.

  Mr Price: Sir Andrew, now Lord Turnbull, made his decision, said what he said, and he must stand over that. I think he was wrong to do that and I think some of the problems that people have about the book flowed from that. What I must take you up on is the suggestion that we barely made any changes. There were very substantial changes made to the original text that was submitted to the Cabinet Office, which I had done my best not to self-censor because I did not see it as my job to do the Cabinet Office's work of telling me what was and was not acceptable, although even at that stage I had taken out everything I considered to be at risk of damaging national security or being anything to do with Official Secrets. I had also taken out any reference to the advice of named civil servants because I recognised that was something that was wrong to do because they cannot speak for themselves. Then, as a result of the legal advice that we took, which was mainly about libel and confidentiality and other matters like that, copyright and so on and so forth, we took out quite a substantial amount more. The Cabinet Office expressed their gratitude for the amount of changes that we made and then we discussed what was left. They had the opportunity to ask for changes to the resubmitted text, they asked for a relatively small number and we made some further changes.

  Q245  Grant Shapps: What I am trying to drive at here is that if you had submitted that then amended text to Sir Andrew in the first place he would not have used words like "completely unacceptable". In other words, you think the process was more or less working here?

  Mr Price: I am not sure.

  Q246  Grant Shapps: I am confused because in your written statement, and your opening evidence, you suggest that the process is not working but what you are trying to tell me now is that it was sort of working.

  Mr Price: It did not work because a complete barrier was put in our way. I regard the system, if it is to work effectively, should be one that allows for some give and take and applies fairly to all. If you choose to have a system in which it is possible for the Cabinet Secretary to say, "Absolutely not, no", then that is going to invite challenge, and it is going to invite legal challenge if necessary. I think we can all agree that these things are best not resolved in the court. That is why I say the system as currently set up did not work in my case. I am not saying it could not have worked, it could have worked, because I did not set out to defy it and I would have been happy to have worked within it. Even if it had worked in my case I think there are improvements.

  Q247  Grant Shapps: I would love to pursue the extent to which it did or did not work a lot further but, in the interests of time, what happened was there were then the outtakes that were taken out of the final version and you were paid £150,000 purportedly for the serialisation in the Mail on Sunday. You must have been pretty annoyed about this because the outtakes could have got you a great deal more presumably and rather than taking legal action against them you could have been paid for the juicy stuff that was taken out.

  Mr Price: I am not quite sure I follow your argument. I should have kept it in so I could have earned more from the book?

  Q248  Grant Shapps: If you come to a deal with a newspaper, which you had done, and they are going to publish the book and pay £150,000, presumably you could have negotiated £175,000 or £200,000 if you had given them the really juicy bits which, according to this version of events, they took from somewhere, we do not know where—perhaps you have some suspicions—and published. You must feel hard done by. You could have had that extra cash surely.

  Mr Price: I do not feel hard done by in the way that you are describing but I was very surprised, very disappointed and not a little bit angry to see in public print material that I had come to the conclusion should not appear in public print. It made a mockery of the process that we had been through.

  Q249  Grant Shapps: Just to get to your motivation for the diary. I remember Newsnight covering this and then apologising because they had enabled you to plug the book rather more than editorially they meant you to do. Is this whole thing not really just about book sales? In your particular case there is no great desire to establish a public record. It is all very grand but actually £150,000 from the Mail on Sunday, goodness knows what for selling the book, Newsnight with plenty of coverage, this Committee indeed, the whole thing is just money driven, is it not?

  Mr Price: I have not made any grand statements about wanting to play some sort of role in setting the record straight or having an historical record. I would disagree with you that it is just about the money. Your figures are not strictly accurate, the amount of money paid—

  Q250  Grant Shapps: Do you want to correct them?

  Mr Price: I will if you want me to. The amount of money paid was more than I ever expected it to be. When I first put this forward as a proposal at the suggestion of Anthony Seldon—this may just reflect my naivety—I thought people would say, "We have heard all this before. So much of this is in the public domain, you are telling us stories we have already read about in the newspapers, whether it is about Peter Mandelson resigning from the government or BSE, foot and mouth, the General Election that was so long ago now, people's memories are very short". I was surprised at both the commercial value the book attracted and the general interest that it attracted. I would have gone ahead with the book had those figures been far, far, far lower than they were because I find political memoirs, and in particular political diaries, fascinating. I found that when I read about previous administrations they had been the most illuminating and interesting way of getting underneath what goes on in politics and in government. I felt that I had a text which would contribute to that and I wanted to see it published because I thought it would be a good book.

  Q251  Mr Prentice: Are there any areas, things that you witnessed, that you did not put into your diary because it was maybe just too personal, a no-go area?

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q252  Mr Prentice: Would you like to tell us what they were?

  Mr Price: Tell you what they were. Do you want me to tell you what they were?

  Q253  Mr Prentice: Yes, please.

  Mr Price: I will tell you what areas they covered. The things that I excluded from the book, apart from what I have already described which was, if you like, national security and the advice of named career civil servants, the principal stuff was about the Prime Minister and his family. If it was legitimately private about the Prime Minister, his family, his religious beliefs, that sort of thing, and some of the views that he might have expressed on those matters, I think they were absolutely legitimately private and they were never in any text that was submitted to anybody.

  Q254  Mr Prentice: So you kind of self-censored then?

  Mr Price: At the beginning of the process I took out things for broadly those three reasons, yes, but it certainly included matters that I considered personal to the Prime Minister and his family.

  Q255  Mr Prentice: You are gay, are you not?

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q256  Mr Prentice: What about your reference when the Prime Minister famously asked you, "Lance, does the sight of a beautiful woman ever do anything for you?". You put that in because you thought people would find that interesting, did you?

  Mr Price: I am astonished that people have made so much of that remark.

  Q257  Mr Prentice: Are you?

  Mr Price: I just found that amusing. I did not think it said anything about his views on homosexuality or anything else. It made me smile.

  Q258  Mr Prentice: Did you have conversations with your publisher where the publishers would want to extract the maximum value from the text? You say you left stuff out but was there any pressure to include stuff when you were just talking about the text in order to increase its value?

  Mr Price: Obviously in the process of getting a book ready for publication there are discussions between the publisher and the author and the publisher's general view is always in favour of keeping as much in as possible, that is a statement of the blindingly obvious I would have thought. At no point did I come under what I regarded as unreasonable pressure from my publisher to include something that I was not prepared to stand by, no.

  Q259  Mr Prentice: Why did you go to the Mail? You spent your whole professional life taking on the Daily Mail which is vitriolic, deeply hostile to the Labour Party and everything that Labour stands for. Why did you take your book to the Mail?

  Mr Price: I think you ask a very valid question, not least because of my political friends who are less than pleased with what happened. The fact that it was published in the Mail probably caused more offence than the book itself actually. I took the view that I should stand back and allow the publishers to do what they always do, which was to conduct effectively an auction and to allow that to go on through its normal process. I am not sure whether I would have had a right to say, "We will have an auction but no newspaper with the word `Mail' in its title need apply". If I did have that right I did not exercise it. In the back of my mind was the thought that journalists are journalists and if there are stories in this book almost any newspaper is going to take up the same stories. With hindsight, perhaps I was wrong.

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Prepared 25 July 2006