Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 386 - 399)



  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 to questions?

  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 letters—I looked this all up when I was Postmaster General—and 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 that view.

  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 Greenstock?

  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 free.

  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 of confidence.

  Q395  David Heyes: I wonder about the corrosive effect on participants in key decision making—ministers, senior civil servants and the like—of 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 event?

  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.

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