Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  Q260  Mr Prentice: Would it be okay for a man who has spent his adult life in the Labour Party presumably for the Mail to offer a huge sum of money to someone in Downing Street who has been keeping a diary but is about to leave the government and then publish all this stuff at the most damaging time in the run-up to a General Election to destabilise the Labour Government? Would that be okay?

  Mr Price: No, it would not be okay. If I can make the point that—

  Q261  Mr Prentice: You made the point about the time lapse.

  Mr Price: No, not that point at all. I still have enough concern, and it is not a concern for this Committee but it might be a concern of yours and it might be a concern of mine, for the political wellbeing of this Government to believe that publishing the book, as I did, immediately after a General Election, when any fallout that there might have been, and I did not anticipate much, would have been well forgotten by the time Labour went to the polls again, was more responsible than publishing it, which I suppose I could have done, in the run-up to the General Election or at a time when Tony Blair was on the ropes or, even, arguably closer to the next election when it could have done damage not necessarily to Mr Blair but to his successor.

  Q262  Mr Prentice: One final question, if I may. Are there any areas in the public realm, loosely defined, which are off-limits? I am thinking about the Royal Household, and I think the Royal Household now insists on confidentiality clauses. Do you think it would be in the public interest for people working for the Queen to keep diaries and publish and be damned?

  Mr Price: I think that if we are living in a modern democracy then the people we seek to work for, and in your case seek to represent, have a right to know how that democracy functions. They have a right to know more than just the views of the great and the good who then move on, Prime Ministers, ministers and so on. I think you do have to ask yourself the question who writes history. Is history only written by former Prime Ministers and former ministers who wish to no doubt remind us all how talented and clever they were, and how successful they were in promoting their particular causes, or is history to be written by a range of people who had the privilege to see how government works? Provided that contribution to history does not do any harm, and I do not believe my book has done any harm, then I think it is legitimate.

  Q263  Mr Prentice: I say this generously, but I am sure you will get a footnote.

  Mr Price: I ask for no more.

  Q264  Chairman: Do you not accept even for a second that an effective democracy requires some private space at the centre of government where confidential discussions can be had and confidences are kept and, far from that being damaging to democracy, it is essential for democracy? If we want to bring the system down—you objected to five minutes—we have the instant kiss and tells which means, as Geoff Mulgan has pointed out, there is a corrosion of trust across the system which makes effective government impossible. Democracy is not well-served by that, is it?

  Mr Price: A book published five years after an adviser left Downing Street, after two General Elections have passed, and after the date at which the Prime Minister has announced that he does not intend to run another election, is not another kiss and tell.

  Q265  Chairman: While the person you served is still in office.

  Mr Price: The Prime Minister is still in office; just as when the book was written by Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill, John Major was still in office. It is very hard to set down hard and fast rules. If I had written a book which was called "The Winning Ways of New Labour" and was a long list of all the achievements of New Labour during the time that I was in government I would not be sitting here. It is not just about timing, it is not just about content. This is why I think if we are to find a system that works, we have to find a great deal more clarity about what is acceptable and when it is acceptable.

  Q266  Chairman: What I was asking you was will you accept that government does require a private space in which—

  Mr Price: Yes, I do.

  Q267  Chairman:—confidential discussions can be had and that serves the purpose of good government.

  Mr Price: Yes.

  Q268  Chairman: That will be eroded if people rush into print while those people are still in place, governments are still in office, and it will be corrosive of the kind of good government that we would all like to see.

  Mr Price: Yes, I do, but I waited five years. It may be that it was to my disadvantage that I happened to work for a government that is so successful it keeps on winning elections and I have not had the opportunity to wait for them to leave office, and I hope I do not have to face that situation quite frankly. It comes back to one of the points I made earlier. You talk about kiss and tell and going out and telling secrets within five minutes or whatever it might be, but people do that all the time and they do it anonymously. I waited five years and I put my name on the dust jacket. I think there is a difference.

  Q269  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am intrigued because at the start of the book you make the point about the Cabinet Secretary saying that publishing the book is "completely unacceptable" and at the end of the book under "Acknowledgements" you say—I am sorry, I was reading a bit, I hope you will bear with me, this fascinating thing about William Hague going to Jordan and nearly falling over the coffin.

  Mr Price: I am glad you find something to recommend it.

  Q270  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Sorry, I cannot find it. Basically, in it you make the point that you were pushed to write this book. The mandarins, the guardians of the system, did not want you to do it. Is that not the argument where we come down to where you cannot trust the people within the system? Basically it is that the system itself is draconian, it has got no direction. We have talked about copyright today, permissions with Radcliffe, we have gone right across the spectrum. We cannot stop it anymore, can we? Are the brakes not off? You are the new breed of exposé.

  Mr Price: Let us just stick to my book. I do not believe that the system has been destroyed by my book. I made an effort to work within the system. I think if the system were reformed to a certain extent then, as I say, I was happy to work with the rules as they are at the moment but I would certainly be happy to work with and recommend a system of voluntary discussion and consideration of books that could work perfectly acceptably, provided it is seen to be fair, so that people can see the criterion against which their writing is likely to be judged, they know that if they go into the system they will be treated equally and with equal responsibility as other people who go into the system. At the moment, I think probably the system is kept deliberately opaque. It is clear that you have to submit your text to the Cabinet Secretary but it is not explicit that he has to give his consent, that is the presumption that is made. The way in which the guidance that I was given was phrased I did find confusing. All the way through I was feeling my way. I think you have to give people a bit more guidance than that if we are to reach a conclusion in which books are published by people—and I put myself within that category—who do not wish to undermine the good and effective governance of this country but may at the same time believe that there is a public right to know how they are governed.

  Q271  Mr Liddell-Grainger: You obviously admire the Prime Minister and all that he has achieved and all the rest of it, and that comes out in the book, but do you think you undermined him by publishing a book like this when you did?

  Mr Price: No, I do not. Nobody has yet demonstrated to me how this book has damaged either the Prime Minister or the conduct of government.

  Q272  Chairman: In one of your answers just a few moments ago you talked about named civil servants who cannot speak for themselves. Of course, you were a civil servant, albeit a temporary civil servant, and you have clearly spoken for yourself. You would have heard Christopher Meyer this morning saying that the terms of trade have changed and essentially that civil servants now can and should speak for themselves. What do you think about that?

  Mr Price: As I understood what Sir Christopher was saying, he was seeking to draw a distinction between career civil servants still in service and those who have retired from service or left service for whatever reason. I certainly have no objection to civil servants publishing books after they have left office, and they have done that.

  Q273  Chairman: Do you think the Meyer book is acceptable?

  Mr Price: I am not sure it is for me to judge whether the Meyer book is acceptable. I am not going to start criticising Christopher Meyer's book. The only distinction I would draw between Christopher Meyer's book and mine, apart from the fact that he was in a far more senior and far more interesting position, and I am sure there is much more interesting material in his than there is in mine, is that I waited longer than he did before I published. It is for others to judge whether that is a relevant distinction or not.

  Q274  Chairman: I am interested that you will not pass comment on a book produced by a former senior diplomat soon after retiring from office. You would not have been coy about this before you wrote your book, would you?

  Mr Price: I hesitate slightly simply because although I have read parts of Christopher Meyer's book, as we all have, I have not read it all.

  Q275  Chairman: Knowing the kind of issue we are talking about, you do not have a feeling as to whether, in principle, this is the right thing to do or not?

  Mr Price: I certainly think it is right for former ambassadors, for senior civil servants, former Cabinet Secretaries, to write books and to write memoirs, the question is at what point does it become acceptable for them to do it and at what point does that shift that I was describing earlier between a presumption that things should remain confidential unless a clear case for publication can be demonstrated, to the other position where there should be a presumption in favour of publication unless real harm can be demonstrated has been reached.

  Q276  Mr Prentice: But it is okay for Christopher Meyer to refer to Jack Straw as someone to be "liked rather than admired" and Geoff Hoon to be a "frigid panda"?

  Mr Price: You had the opportunity to ask Sir Christopher about his own book. I am not a literary critic.

  Mr Prentice: But Jack Straw was then, and is now, Foreign Secretary. I am just astonished that you do not have a view on it.

  Q277  Chairman: I asked Christopher Meyer, if Andrew Turnbull produced a book now of your kind, about life at the centre, what went on in the office, would that be right.

  Mr Price: I think there would come a point, and I don't know whether Lord Turnbull has been out of office long enough for that point to have been reached, at which it would be acceptable for him to write a book about his experience as Secretary to the Cabinet.

  Q278  Chairman: No, not a general book about being a Cabinet Secretary, but your kind of book about who said what to whom in the office.

  Mr Price: I hope there would then be a process that he would go through as a former Cabinet Secretary, just as there could and should have been a process that I would go through, in which there would be a discussion and perhaps even some form of appeal procedure if there could not be agreement on what should and should not be included.

  Q279  Chairman: But the current Cabinet Secretary would say to him, "Sorry, Andrew, this is completely unacceptable. The whole project is something that you cannot do".

  Mr Price: If a future Cabinet Secretary were to turn round to Lord Turnbull and say, "Your book is completely unacceptable", I think he would have the same grounds for objection to that that I had, which is that it cannot be completely unacceptable because those bits that are already in the public domain have to be acceptable.

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Prepared 25 July 2006