Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 350 - 359)



  Q350  Chairman: We are delighted to welcome Lord Lawson, Lord Owen and Clare Short. You have in common the fact that you are all former distinguished Cabinet Ministers but also the fact that you have produced distinguished memoirs and it is the latter that we are particularly interested in. You know what we are about. We are very interested in drawing upon your experiences of being memoirists. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction briefly or shall we just launch in with our questions?

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: You can launch in, as far as I am concerned.

  Clare Short: I did not set off intending so quickly to write a book. Normally, more distinguished people have taken a number of offices a bit later and then will write a memoir, but there was a very sharp attempt to muzzle me that came from a letter threatening prosecution under official secrets and being ejected from the Privy Council and then the Chief Whip threatening me with the withdrawal of the whip, which would mean I could not stand as a Labour candidate, which was a very serious matter. The threats were very crude and, I thought, inappropriate so I then decided to very quickly write a book. I needed to get in quick because I did not want it to coincide with the General Election. Mine was not a reflective, later memoir; it was a determination to not be muzzled, to get the truth on the page and get it out.

  Q351  Chairman: Lord Owen, you have given us the detailed correspondence with Lord Butler as the Cabinet Secretary of the day, where you are absolutely playing by the rules, submitting material to the Cabinet Secretary who responds. You respond to him, correspondence goes on, you take some of the points; you do not take others. It is the negotiating process that goes on and it is fascinating to have observed it from the inside which you have given us. Clare, I am not sure whether you did that or not. Did you send your text in and did you go through a process?

  Clare Short: Absolutely, I did. I had no intention of not going through the process but the minute Amazon puts out that your book is coming you get a letter saying that you have to go through this process. The manuscript is duly submitted. I dealt with a civil servant from the Cabinet Office, a very pleasant and reasonable woman, who brought a series of requests on behalf of the Head of the Civil Service `C' and, one tiny one on behalf of the Department for International Development, and they wanted changes in words that I had written down in my diary at the time. We negotiated and I gave a bit but I resisted a bit—a similar sort of process, but we did it verbally. I did ask in the course of that what would happen if I did not agree and she said, "I am not sure but we would have a stand off." We did agree. Interestingly, there was none from Number 10. The bit about Tony giving a message to Gordon that he would let him take over if he let him join the euro was leaked to the media from the Treasury. The Independent had arranged to publish some of it and the money for that goes to the publisher, not to me, so that was in the contract I had. The Independent immediately chopped 10,000 off the price because of the Treasury leak, which I think is interesting. What are the mechanisms for controlling the book? The Treasury did not try to get a change or whatever but they did a leak to get the story out.

  Q352  Chairman: I would like to ask all of you whether you think this process works, whether you think the existing rules as described in the Ministerial Code, drawing on Radcliffe, work well to handle memoirs now or whether in some ways the world has changed and we need to revise the whole system.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Maybe the world has changed since my time. I did not submit any written evidence to you. I have read Lord Owen's and I agree with every word he has written, which does suggest that there have been some changes since my time. I resigned from government in 1989. I can tell you about my own experience in this area which might shed some light on what you are talking about. There is first of all an understanding, a quid pro quo, when a former minister wishes to write his or her memoirs. The quid pro quo is that you are given full access to any document that you may have seen when you were a minister. Obviously you do not retain all these in your head but if you can remember that there were these documents you can see them. If you are an ordinary minister, you have to go into the Treasury or to the Cabinet Office but you are shown the documents you ask for. They will not allow you to go on a fishing expedition but if you say, "I think there is a minute of this meeting I would like to see to refresh my memory" or, "I think there was a submission on this I would like to see", anything you have seen when you were a minister you are allowed to see. If you are a former Prime Minister, the documents are sent to your home but if you are just an ordinary ex-Chancellor or ex-Foreign Secretary you have to go to the Cabinet Office or the Treasury. It is worth the detour. The understanding is that in return for this facilitation you will at the end of the day submit your manuscript or typescript to the Cabinet Secretary. Then the Cabinet Secretary makes a whole raft of comments. He will also discuss with the permanent secretaries who are relevant to the positions you have held and the story you are telling. I got from Robin Butler this huge raft: "You cannot say this. You cannot say that" and Terry Burns, who was Permanent Secretary at the Treasury at the time that I submitted my manuscript, said this, that and the other, quoting authorities for what I could or should not say. I had to exercise my own judgment. I read very, very carefully everything that Robin Butler had written. Where I thought he was making a good point, I took it. Where I thought he was making a bad point, I ignored it. The main changes I made were things which he was unhappy about but which were, I thought, not very important points to the story I was trying to tell and the sort of economic and political history I was trying to put on the record. If it was not really part of the main story, I was prepared to take it out. If it was something which I felt was important, I was not prepared to take it out except in one specific area. A lot of the remarks that came from Robin Butler were about protecting civil servants, protecting officials. That was the thing that seemed to concern him and Terry Burns, that officials cannot answer back and therefore they should remain in the background. Politicians are in the foreground. I had not intended anyhow to finger officials particularly but nevertheless in telling the story you know that Sir Humphrey Appleby is not a total cipher, so you do give him a role in your plot. But I did cut out a lot of that because there was considerable upset on Robin Butler's part. I used my judgment. When my memoirs were published, that caused a certain amount of consternation. It was during the Major Government and John Major, I believe, set up—I do not know whether it was at Robin Butler's behest or whether it was his own idea but I know that John Wakeham, Lord Wakeham, was involved—a small committee of senior ministers and officials inside government (it was never announced) to decide in the light of the Lawson memoirs what changes in the Radcliffe rules ought to come about. Although the Radcliffe rules are very sensible in many ways, they are clearly obsolete. The other thing that had caused problems for them was that the government of which I was a member had a few years previously liberalised the Official Secrets Act. If you avoid breaches of national security or anything of that kind there are very few things which are now a criminal offence under the Official Secrets Act, which used not to be the case. They felt a bit naked. They decided to have this inquiry and the inquiry strove for some time to decide how the Radcliffe rules should be rewritten but they were unable to decide and nothing happened.

  Q353  Chairman: That is extremely interesting and no doubt we shall get access to those non-conclusions. Lord Owen, would you like to add your own experiences to this?

  Lord Owen: I think it is self-explanatory in the submission I gave to you. It was perfectly amicable. He was right to criticise some of my references to civil servants and I took them out. On the question of whether it would injure the country's international relations, that is a judgment. I took account of it. On national security, I think you are pretty much bound to go along with their views even if you disagree. Finally, on the question of the overall nature of government, politicians have to make up their own minds.

  Q354  Chairman: Most of the comments that appear in the correspondence that you had and that you describe, Lord Lawson, are to protect civil servants by name. If Sir Jeremy Greenstock is right in what he has been telling us this morning and which Christopher Meyer has told us as well, which is that they want a level playing field now between civil servants and politicians, surely those kinds of protections would fall away?

  Lord Owen: That is dangerous if it happens. I think the most important thing is the underlying problem of what has happened. If all foreign and defence policy is to be decided by a Prime Minister, if the Prime Minister gets the feeling that his discussions when he goes to embassies or anywhere else are going to be revealed, he will just shut them out. They are shut out enough already as it is. I think that would be very damaging. There is enough concentration and personalisation of all these issues. There is a marked reduction in Cabinet discussion and circulation of papers. If we go even further into a narrow cabal, that would be very dangerous. If the price is the old system, broadly speaking, where civil servants do not criticise politicians and politicians do not criticise civil servants in their memoirs, call me old fashioned but I think it makes for better government and I strongly uphold that.

  Q355  Chairman: The Meyer charge—some people say this is the reason that he wrote the book—is that it was precisely because he was a diplomat in Washington and felt he was being excluded from the relationship that now existed between Number 10 and the White House, cutting out the embassy; and that this was an act of revenge to tell the world that this is how things now were. In a sense, he is agreeing with your analysis and he might argue that provides justification for the book.

  Lord Owen: I have no doubt you are right.

  Q356  Chairman: Does it?

  Lord Owen: Initially there was a great love affair. He was chosen by the Prime Minister effectively, pulled out of Germany and made American ambassador. Clearly, there was a breakdown in relationships. You see that personal breakdown in relationships in the book. That is unfortunate. If you are going to get at this issue, you have to go to some of the points which I tried to make. There has been a very dramatic change in the way foreign and defence policy is conducted. Most people will not focus on it. In 2001, the Cabinet secretariat that served the whole Cabinet on defence and foreign policy was totally destroyed. A secretariat was established on European affairs and particularly now in relation to Iraq on defence and security affairs inside Number 10. That is very different machinery to what we have ever had since the creation of the Cabinet during the First World War.

  Clare Short: The proprieties that Lord Owen describes relate to a situation that is dead. When I was a private secretary in the Home Office in 1974 those rules were still there. The Civil Service had its role. Ministers were in their roles; the Cabinet worked. That is broken to a very considerable extent. We now have these mighty special advisers. When I was in the Home Office there were the first Rowntree chocolate soldiers, quite small scale special advisers with a political role. From that to Alastair Campbell having a role that was mightier than most Cabinet ministers and yet no accountability to Parliament. In the specific case of Iraq, there was the complete capturing of power and decision making into Number 10. The Foreign Office was marginalised and all those Arabists were not in it. The system is broken. There was a lot of deceit, as we now know. It is now a matter of record. Parliament absolutely failed to deal with the deceit and that is meant to be the core of the whole code of ministerial responsibility to Parliament. The rules are broken and it is very important for the truth to come out. The position that Lord Owen is taking is the respectable, old position but we are in a broken position. The rules break; books are needed and we need to get it all out so people can discuss and decide what is happening to our constitutional arrangements, how decisions are being made, where the flaws are and what we ought to do about it.

  Lord Owen: I did not criticise the publication of these books. Personally, I hope Jeremy Greenstock publishes as soon as possible.

  Q357  Chairman: You say in your memorandum, "I have never known a time in the last 40 years when there has been so much disillusionment, bordering on contempt, for politicians by civil servants and diplomats and vice-versa." Is the argument that is being made that the old conventions are so breached, the old boundary lines are so down, that now anything is possible? People rushing into print, including senior diplomats and senior civil servants are part of this new order of things.

  Lord Owen: It has been happening over quite a long time. It started with politicians. I remember a great moment in Cabinet when Denis Healey was talking. Tony Benn was writing away and Denis slowed down and said, "Tony, am I going too fast for you?" We knew he was writing his biography, but that was between politicians. If I had known that the Cabinet Secretary or the Prime Minister's Tom McNally or somebody like that was also writing his memoirs, I would have objected. I think the situation has broken down. I agree with Clare. I think personally it is damaging. To go back I do not think is ruled out and I would like that to happen but it would require some changes. The Prime Minister would have to get rid of the secretariats that he has established and go back to Cabinet government. He would have to remove a chief of staff who he has appointed—it is a political appointment—able to make executive commands to civil servants. We would have to go back to the power of the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Secretary would also be in charge of intelligence. At the moment, the Cabinet Secretary is neutered. He does not have control over a very substantial part of government. The old Cabinet Secretaries were very much involved in relations with MI6 and MI5. That is no longer the case. Any of this can only happen if the Prime Minister decides to do it. Personally, I think he should. Then there would be a consequential movement back to the older system, but that should not stop civil servants writing memoirs. Anthony Parsons wrote about Iran. I have no objection to any of it. It was a serious contribution to understanding about the fall of the Shah. Sir David Scott who was ambassador to South Africa wrote about his period there and again it was a serious contribution to how we were dealing with apartheid, Namibia, Rhodesia and Zimbabwe but I think they write in a slightly different way. Politicians are used to the rough and tumble. There is going to be more personality stuff in political memoirs and as long as they keep it to their own political colleagues I have no objection. If they go into civil servants I do object.

  Lord Lawson of Blaby: Things can change in different directions because it is the Prime Minister of the day who determines the way in which the government is to be run. Because Mr Blair runs it in a particular way which is quite harshly criticised by Lord Butler in his report of the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, it does not mean that the next Prime Minister or the one after will. I do not take Clare Short's view that the genie is now out of the bottle and nothing can be done. There should be no question of a so-called level playing field between politicians and officials. As David Owen said, they are very different. It is quite obvious that it is ministers who are, very properly, held responsible for decisions. It is ministers who the House of Commons calls to account day in day out, year in year out. It is not officials; nor should it be. Because it is ministers who are responsible and exposed, ministers who have to take the rap and defend their policies, ministers after they have retired from office should be able to say exactly what they were seeking to do, why they were seeking to do it, how it worked out and so on. Officials have that protection. They are behind the screen. So they should be. Therefore, the standards for officials' memoirs have to be quite different. In return for that, the minister will refrain, as David Owen and I did, from fingering particular officials. That is one important point. Another thing which has not been mentioned which I think is complicating the matter—I am not quite sure what the answer is—is the Freedom of Information Act. David Owen said he would have been very concerned if he thought that officials were writing diaries and so on which were going to be published later. What happens, as this Committee well knows, is that in Whitehall it is customary after every disaster, whether it is the Millennium Dome, the foot and mouth outbreak or Iraq, that the Permanent Secretary or the Permanent Under-Secretary of the department concerned will ask a senior official to write a post mortem purely for internal purposes so that they can draw the lessons and so that they might do better in the future. Why did it go wrong? What mistakes were made? That is regularly done. That was entirely confidential. Now, under the Freedom of Information Act, this is a public document. It is almost like the officials writing their memoirs while they are still officials. Knowing that this is now public and no longer private, the officials will tend to write it in a way that shows that the mistakes were all made by the politicians and not by the officials. That is human nature. Knowing that this is now going on, ministers today, following the Freedom of Information Act, are going to trust their officials far less than we used to trust them and they will certainly be anxious to get their memoirs out first.

  Q358  Mr Prentice: Clare, I cannot remember if you said in your book or whether it was subsequently that Sir Andrew Turnbull allowed decision making to crumble in the run-up to the decision to go to war. Do you think Andrew Turnbull, now Lord Turnbull, should feel free to publish his own book on what happened and who said what, a kind of mirror image of the sort of book you published?

  Clare Short: I personally believe there should be a pretty level playing field. I disagree with what Lord Lawson has just said. The appointment of permanent secretaries has been politicised. People are being told not to apply. People like Jeremy Greenstock are put on Newsnight and The Today Programme. The old rules that only politicians front are also breaking down. Therefore, to get the truth out, we need both to publish. There might be some rules about personal attack to protect civil servants who are not in the public domain but that is what I believe. On Andrew Turnbull, yes, I think a book from him would be very interesting. The crumbling of the authority of the Cabinet has been happening under the Blair Government since 1997. The two previous heads of the Civil Service did try to resist and use the old machinery. Defence and Overseas Policy never met. It was a stunning thing. I do not think Andrew resisted but I did change one quote in the book because he asked for it. Iraq in itself is a massive issue but if it is true that our constitutional arrangements are changing in such a big way and, I think, leading to very poor decision making in a whole series of areas, not just Iraq, this is monumentally serious and we have to have the books and the commentary to judge whether our system is breaking down and what we are going to do about it.

  Q359  Mr Prentice: The internal wiring of the government is now bare after Butler and so on. We know who said what. We know you kept a diary because you told us but we have had evidence from Geoff Mulgan, who was the former head of the Strategy Unit at Number 10 and he said that all this diary keeping—I cannot remember the exact word he used—is something like corrosive to good government. If you know that the person sitting next to you is keeping a diary, that influences the quality of the decision that is made. You obviously do not subscribe to that view.

  Clare Short: No. Let me tell you my Tony Benn story because he also used to be writing his diary at the National Executive Committee and we reached the point where he would write it in the diary and then say it. I kept a diary only in the crucial, last part.

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