Examination of Witnesses (Questions 386
THURSDAY 16 MARCH 2006
Q386 Chairman: May I welcome Tony
Benn, not for the first time, to the Committee. We draw upon you
regularly, always to great effect and we are delighted that you
are able to come to help us with one of our inquiries at the moment
which is on memoirs. You of all people should be able to tell
us about this as one of the great diarists of our time. Do you
want to say anything by way of introduction or shall we go straight
Mr Benn: May I just briefly say,
and I put it in my note, that the balance of information between
the Government and the people is what determines whether society
is democratic or not. Looking over history, the Heresy Act of
1401 meant that if a lay person read the Bible they were burned
at the stake. That was an attempt by the Government to control
people thinking out for themselves their religious beliefs. Then
the Church of England was nationalised by Henry VIII because he
wanted to control the Church. Charles II nationalised the Post
Office because he wanted to open everybody's lettersI looked
this all up when I was Postmaster Generaland Luke Hansard
was imprisoned for reporting what was said in the House of Commons.
All of these related to the availability of information. The position
at the moment is that the government want to know all about us.
When I use my Oyster card the police know what station I went
into, where I went and when I came out again. My phone is bugged,
or can be bugged, quite legally now and everything about us is
known, but we know very, very little about what the government
do. Under the 30-year rule I shall be 111 before I know what the
Cabinet minutes for yesterday say. I think that there is an imbalance
and I am making a very, very simple point, which is that the argument
about secrecy and so on confuses the convenience of ministers
with the national interest. My experience, if it is of any help,
and I was a departmental minister for 11 years, is that there
are very, very few secrets in government at all. I once put this
either to Burke Trend or Armstrong, I forget which, and they agreed
with me. Some relate to security. For example, atomic matters
are very, very secret, but even there I once had a document marked
"Top Secret Atomic UK Eyes Only, page one of 20 pages, copy
one of two copies", (so secret that we used to say "Eat
this paper before reading"!). It said that we could enrich
uranium by the centrifuge. When I was reading this, New Scientist
was publishing every week that it could be done. All I knew was
that we could do it. They said they thought they could do it.
I do not think that there are many secrets. The deployment of
the military in war is secret; I accept that. I used to be told
the Budget the day before and I was terrified I would sleep walk.
The Budget is secret until it is published. In the old days, if
your name appeared on a list of possible peers you were struck
off immediately, but that is no longer the case. Personal information:
clearly there is a responsibility of government to keep secret
what they know about people in terms of information they may have
given to the Ministry of Pensions or something of that kind, but
otherwise there are no secrets. One example came to me last week,
arguing my case. I discovered that when I was Secretary of State
for Energy, without my knowing, one of my officials was supplying
plutonium to Israel. It was an outrage. I did not know. Once on
another occasion when I suspected Pakistan had nuclear plans I
took it straight to a Cabinet committee. That is something which
even ministers do not know. Another example, when I was Secretary
of State for Energy, plutonium from our civil power stations was
sent to America for the weapons programme. I did not know that
until afterwards and the man who reported it in a letter to Nature
was sacked for reporting it. My argument really is that if you
are talking about the interests of government, it is malice and
not information which damages the confidence in public business
and that flourishes in the media and gossip and so on. Really,
knowing what goes on is not damaging, with the limited exceptions
that I gave, and therefore I do not see why anyone should not
publish what they know. I know of two Foreign Office officials:
Sir Jeremy Greenstock is not to be allowed to publish his diary.
Why? I believe Craig Murray, who was the ambassador in Uzbekistan,
has been told that he cannot publish his diary. I think this is
just in the interests of ministers; it is nothing whatever to
do with the public interest, indeed quite the opposite, it makes
it hard to hold people accountable for what they do. I have summarised
the argument. The note I sent about my diary is only interesting
because you have two accounts of the same meeting and that may
or may not be interesting. I cannot think it did any damage, but
obviously I could not have published them when I was in the Cabinet
because then I was part of a collective and I should not expect
a permanent secretary to publish a blog every week on what happens
in his department. However, when they retire they become citizens
again and I think what they learned ought to be in the public
domain. That is my argument, very, very simply, no complexity
about it and I have very briefly given you the reasons why I take
Q387 Chairman: Thank you for that;
it is very useful for us to have someone make the case for openness
with such force and clarity. What you are really saying to us
is that here we are worrying about what the rules should be about
publication. Are you telling us that really we should not worry
about this and we do not need any rules?
Mr Benn: I do not believe that
anyone who has retired from public service should be restricted
from writing what they remember, what they know and what they
think. There is a way round it actually, which I have used in
the past though I do not know whether it applies here. Whistleblowers
got on to me because if they published their allegations they
would be sacked. I told them to tell me about it and I would put
down a question in the House of Commons, the information they
had given me would be covered by the privilege I had in Parliament.
If an attempt was made to sack them, I would take it to the Standards
and Privileges Committee. I did once save a man from dismissal
in Birmingham: they threatened him with dismissal because he was
an official and he objected to the road race in Birmingham. He
wrote to me and I took it up and took it to the Standards and
Privileges Committee and, believe it or not, the Birmingham City
Council was charged with a potential breach of privilege. That
is a way round it, but it would not exactly cover memoirs.
Q388 Chairman: We know that there
is a public interest in openness, which you have made to us strongly.
Is there a public interest in confidentiality too?
Mr Benn: You have a duty of confidentiality
when you are working in the Cabinet; you have collective Cabinet
responsibility, you have responsibility to your constituents,
to your conscience and so on and so on. I do think that really
people are entitled to know what is done in their name.
Q389 Chairman: One of the questions
is: when are they entitled to know? Are they entitled to know
the next day, the next month, the next year, the next century?
This is the heart of the rules issue. When Lord Owen came to see
us some weeks ago he made the little joke that in Cabinet Denis
Healey would lean over and say to you "Tony, am I going too
fast for you?", a joke about your diaries. When is it proper
to publish a diary or an account of a confidential meeting?
Mr Benn: If you have retired from
the position which you occupy, you must be free. Within the Cabinet
we once had a vote. Wilson asked those who were keeping diaries
to put up their hands. Dick Crossman put up his hand, Barbara
put up her hand and I put up mine. Barbara wrote shorthand, so
her contemporary diaries were rather better on the Cabinet. Dick
used to write at the weekend what he wished had happened in the
week, and mine I did in the lunch hour from notes I made during
Cabinet. I cannot believe that any of that was damaging to anybody,
but clearly you could not publish while you were in the Cabinet,
only when you were no longer in the Cabinet. They tried to force
me to submit my diaries to the Cabinet Office, not that my diaries
matter. I said I would not. My accountability is not to the Cabinet
Secretary of the day; my accountability is to the people who elected
me and my conscience. That was my position and I would apply that
to everybody. Advisers can write their diaries but civil servants
cannot. What is the difference between Alastair Campbell and Jeremy
Q390 Chairman: So the test is whether
you are in office or not.
Mr Benn: Yes, it must be that.
You could not have everyone in the Cabinet blogging the following
day because you have a collective responsibility; you are part
of the Government. When you are not a part of the Government,
as a backbench Member, even if you have been, you must be absolutely
Q391 Chairman: You are saying that
there is a limit to openness then; there is a limit, if you cannot
do it the following morning.
Mr Benn: You cannot do it while
you share the responsibility you have taken on for government.
A Member of Parliament is not a member of the Cabinet.
Q392 Chairman: Even when you have
gone and your colleagues are still there, surely they have the
expectation that the confidences they shared with you and you
shared with them will remain private at least for a period.
Mr Benn: I was only ever in office
and out of office with my party, so it never applied to me. If
I had been sacked from the Cabinet . . . Take the case of people
like Clare Short who resigned from the Cabinet. I do not believe
there should be any limitation on what she should write and indeed
there has not been as far as I can make out. I am only saying
that while you are part of the Government, whether you be a civil
servant or a minister, then you are responsible by the nature
of the obligation you have taken on. It is always presented as
the national interest. It is nothing to do with the national interest
at all. But it is very embarrassing to ministers if it is known
that there are different arguments going on.
Q393 Chairman: I am sorry to labour
the point, but the argument that we are wrestling with and which
has been put to us many times and is generally accepted is that
there is a public interest in people being able to have a space
in which private conversations can take place and that if people
know that that space is not private, they will not say things
they would otherwise say and therefore the quality of collective
decision making will diminish.
Mr Benn: That was the case for
locking up Hansard. They said that if people knew what was said
in Parliament, then no-one in Parliament would ever dare speak
their mind. This raises much more fundamental questions than you
recognise. On the malice and the gossip, I used to open the papers
every day when I was a controversial figure years and years ago
and find my colleagues had leaked nasty things about me. You live
with that and the media are full of it. Truthfully I think the
electors are entitled to know what is done in their name. You
asked about the 30-year rule. In America they have a 30-second
rule: as soon as it has happened it is out. America is much better
at freedom of information than we are. I am really incensed about
these two plutonium stories I mentioned, that I was in the dark
as a minister. If any civil servant had written about plutonium
to Israel or the United States they would have been in prison
even though I would not have known about the plutonium.
Q394 Chairman: Why not hold Cabinet
meetings in public?
Mr Benn: I have wondered actually.
I used to say that Cabinet was the best committee I ever attended
in my life and the most interesting committee. In those days it
used to meet for a full day; in January 1968 it had eight full
days of meetings, morning and afternoon. Now it lasts for about
half an hour, to give the Prime Minister time to tell the Cabinet
what he has decided. In those days the Cabinet discussions were
absolutely riveting. To give an example of confidentiality, at
the end of the IMF discussions where we had a very big argument,
Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, announced publicly that
we had discussed a number of options and the conclusion we came
to was this. I was in a very fortunate position. People would
ask why I had not applied import duties and I would say that the
point was discussed in the Cabinet who took a different view,
and as a member of the Cabinet I am committed. I was able to reveal
the fact that there had been a discussion. Now, even to reveal
that there has been a discussion would be held to be a breach
Q395 David Heyes: I wonder about
the corrosive effect on participants in key decision makingministers,
senior civil servants and the likeof knowing that all this
is going to go into the public domain and, on your agenda, fairly
rapidly. Does this not prevent people being honest and open? Does
it not prevent a proper, full, private debate to thrash through
all the issues, to have some grit in the discussion because of
this anxiety about how it might be portrayed very soon after the
Mr Benn: I do not think so on
reflection. Take some of the issues which come up, enormous issues,
the question of the development of nuclear power is a really big
issue and one in which I was involved, the development of industrial
policy, what you should do when Rolls-Royce goes bankrupt, what
you should do when British Leyland goes bankrupt, these are really
big issues and the nature of your debate with your colleagues
or with civil servants is a very mature debate. The fact that
later it might come out that you disagreed with your permanent
secretary does not make any difference at all, but it would be
very inconvenient for ministers. The real point is that a minister
would not want it to be known that he had acted either under the
instructions of his permanent secretary or against the advice.
He would not like it. It would be in his interest: it would not
be in the national interest. I think you have to differentiate
between the convenience of ministers and the national interest.
Q396 David Heyes: Apart from having
to précis it, did you ever leave key events and issues
out of your own diaries?
Mr Benn: My uncut diaries, if
you are interested, are 17 million words and what is published
is only 10% of it.
Q397 David Heyes: For reasons other
than those obvious time constraints and the limits on the number
of words you can use, did you ever sit and make a decision along
the lines of it being too sensitive, too difficult or something
you could not put in your diary?
Mr Benn: No. A lot of material
which was not likely to be of public interest was excluded. The
rule I had with my editor Ruth Winstone, an extremely competent
woman, was that every mistake I ever made had to be reported because
otherwise the thing would lack credibility and people would remember
the mistakes, but also that we concentrated on the things which
had long-term interest. I would have been happy to publish the
lot, except that there are probably a few small libellous statements,
because I must admit that though I do not believe in personal
attacks, at night I did sometimes find that releasing my feelings
on to tape helped a bit. I never let those be published.
Q398 David Heyes: Did you comply
with the Radcliffe rules which would have required you to submit
them to the Cabinet Secretary for vetting?
Mr Benn: No, I did not; I refused.
It is very, very interesting. We had a discussion in the Cabinet
about memoirs and when the minutes came out it said that ministers
agreed to submit their memoirs to Cabinet. I wrote to the Cabinet
Secretary and said that I did not think that was the conclusion,
but he said it was. At that moment Wilson resigned and then he
wrote to me and said he wanted to see my diaries and I asked whether
Wilson had submitted his. The Cabinet Secretary said he had not
because he had resigned before it came into effect. So he exempted
himself. I got on to Roy Jenkins and we agreed that we would not
submit our memoirs or diaries to the Cabinet and I never did.
Q399 David Heyes: Are you saying
that no-one should?
Mr Benn: I do not think I should
have been asked to. Nobody ever suggested that anything I said
damaged the national interest. It may have irritated colleagues,
but that is not necessarily the same as the national interest.