Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  Q400  Chairman: Did you not get a letter from the Cabinet Secretary of the day saying he had heard that you were going to publish?

  Mr Benn: Yes, I did; yes. I had a letter from him saying that it was agreed that all Cabinet ministers would do it as a Cabinet decision. I disputed that that was a decision and I never submitted it and would not under any circumstances because my obligation was to my constituents, my colleagues and my conscience but not to an appointed official.

  Q401  Chairman: So the whole idea of having a set of rules is . . . ?

  Mr Benn: Nonsense.

  Q402  Mr Liddell-Grainger: May I just ask you about Peter Wright's diaries, which came out and then Lord Armstrong had to go to scrutinise them. Peter Wright did have information which may or may not be right—we shall probably never know—but it was certainly devastating at the time where there was a potential plot against the Prime Minister and many others. You would say that we should know about that.

  Mr Benn: Yes.

  Q403  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I think there were parts of that we should not have known about, which was the burglary and all the rest of it. Is there a balance where national security has to do things? You have talked about uranium and certain securities.

  Mr Benn: The Wright case is a very interesting one. I used to listen on shortwave radio to the book Spycatcher being read. The Danish radio read it in English and I used to listen with earphones thinking that it was like living in occupied Germany during the war. I then decided to read from Spycatcher myself in Hyde Park. I consulted a lawyer who said I might be in trouble. I went to Hyde Park and I read it. When I read it, every television camera was switched off for fear that they might be blamed for having broadcast it. What he said, which I had known for a long time, was that everyone was bugged and burgled. My rubbish was collected every morning in a Rover car. I know the Kensington Borough Council are very efficient but . . . My son constructed a bell so when the black sacks full of rubbish were lifted the spring lifted and the bell rang. My phone was bugged. I know that because my daughter picked up the phone and heard what I had just said to somebody else. When I wrote to the Home Secretary and asked whether my phone was being bugged, he did not reply. He did not reply three times, so I went to see the Prime Minister who said "Well it's not being bugged now". I knew what Peter Wright was saying was absolutely true, but they did not want us to know it was going on because it would have been inconvenient for the ministers who had authorised it.

  Q404  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can we talk about one other diary, that of Stella Rimington? She could have written a potentially very damaging diary about her experiences down the road. She submitted them; there were changes; they came out fairly boringly. Do you think the things she agreed to hold back on should be kept in abeyance for a period of time and then published regardless? Obviously there is a lot in there which could be very interesting.

  Mr Benn: I met Stella Rimington; she was busy bugging us all. If she was ready to talk about it, it would have been a good thing for us to have known it. Let me put it like this: if you do not know what goes on, that is by banning these memoirs, then the public are in the dark and ministers cannot be held accountable. Mind you, in many cases I do not think ministers knew what the security services were doing any more than I knew that plutonium was being sold. This idea that ministers always know is a great mistake. I raised this with Northern Ireland ministers once or twice and I got the feeling that they had not the slightest idea what was going on.

  Q405  Mr Liddell-Grainger: You talked at great length about the uranium being sent to America, which you had no idea about. Nowadays, given the power of the press, the persuasion of the press, freedom of information, obviously things go on which ministers do not know about, that is the nature of it, but would you in your guestimate say that it has got less or more because the state has to hide more because it is being scrutinised more, or do you think it has got better? I cannot base it on anything other than just a question.

  Mr Benn: The role of the free press is of huge importance and nothing I would want to say would go against that, although increasingly the press are embedded correspondents; they all go to Number 10 at eleven o'clock in the morning and they come out at twelve and tell us what they have been told, rather like the embedded correspondents in a war zone. I think the press are less free in their judgment than they should be and perhaps used to be, but you could not rely on the press doing it when there are people who do know and describe it. What is wrong, for example, about Sir Jeremy Greenstock writing an account of his period in Iraq at this particular moment? Would it not be beneficial for us to know his judgment on the matter?

  Q406  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do not agree or disagree, but let us just look at one other one which is Christopher Meyer. He wrote about his experience in Washington and called the ministers "pygmies", he was fairly scathing about the Prime Minister and his ability to understand the issues, et cetera. How he quite came to that compared to Bush I have no idea, but never mind. That could be damaging potentially not because of what he said, but because the Americans in this case would say they were dealing with a bunch of has-beens or half-wits or whatever. That in its own way is damaging because it is undermining the credibility of the nation, is it not?

  Mr Benn: That is malice and gossip and I agree that malice and gossip is damaging, but there is no rule against malice and gossip. There is a rule about publishing, but to be malicious and gossip Meyer could have gone to the Daily Mail.

  Q407  Mr Liddell-Grainger: He did.

  Mr Benn: I am talking about writing a book. He could have gone to them and said he thought the Foreign Secretary or whoever was a pygmy and that gets out all the time, but that is used as an excuse for denying us the knowledge of what he actually thought at the time about his role in Washington.

  Q408  Mr Liddell-Grainger: He has sold a phenomenal number of books on being a red-socked fop and telling everybody that the Cabinet were pygmies basically and the Prime Minister really did not have a grasp of matters. I think that was really what he was trying to say. That was him making a commercial decision to sell as many books as he could regardless. The tittle-tattle is damaging because it makes us look ridiculous. Surely there has to be some mechanism—I do not know what and maybe you disagree totally—that we can say that after that period. It does not matter whether Jack Straw has retired and the Prime Minister has gone; it is irrelevant, but it is rather nice to know they are pygmies. However, at the moment it is not good, when we are in the middle of a situation which is fairly unstable in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is not bringing confidence to a nation with which we are working at the moment.

  Mr Benn: It is very embarrassing to a minister to be described as a pygmy by a permanent secretary; I accept that, but I cannot say it isn't in the national interest. It may be in the interest of the electorate to know. I did not read the book actually. I thought it was the source of a great deal of trouble. I should have thought it was in the interests of people to know how permanent officials saw the role of government in Washington. Walter Wolfgang said one word at the Labour conference "Nonsense" and he was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. When we have an ID card, until the day he dies his ID card will say that he was interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and that is an example of the Government wanting to know all about us. When you examine these arguments, and you put them with very great skill, they are old and familiar arguments; it is embarrassing if the Americans discover that Sir Christopher Meyer thought a minister was a pygmy. I should think the Americans have thought that of many British ministers over the years without the help of Sir Christopher Meyer; a view no doubt reciprocated by British officials who have seen Bush and Cheney in action.

  Q409  Chairman: You have made good points in response, but I think Ian's point is that the world in which we live wants malice and gossip. The money is to be found in malice and gossip. That is what publishers want, that is what newspapers want. Once you say there are no rules because the public interest requires openness, it is not because people are after high-minded truths, but after this kind of stuff. The question then is whether it is actually in the public interest to have that happen.

  Mr Benn: I think malice and gossip go on on such a scale that it has very little bearing on the issue I am raising which is the right of people who have held responsible positions to write and report what they learned when they were there. You say that malice and gossip sells. I suppose that may be the case; I do not know. The important thing is to know, for people to read it and if I read a book of the kind Meyer wrote, I should not be interested in what he said about ministers, I should want to know when the decision was taken to go to war in Iraq, who took it and when. I do not think you can use malice and gossip.

  Q410  Chairman: The former Cabinet Secretary came here—

  Mr Benn: Who was that?

  Q411  Chairman: Sir Andrew Turnbull. He said they spent all their time trying to persuade ministers when they went on foreign trips to stay in embassies so that the whole diplomatic side of the things can kick in. The effect of Meyer is that no minister will stay in an embassy any more; they are going to stay in a hotel. If they know that the ambassador is going to publish a book giving these personal accounts of these visiting ministers, why would they?

  Mr Benn: I do not think that is a valid argument at all. Mind you, the only time in my life when I stayed with an ambassador they unpacked my bag and took out my toothbrush and squeezed toothpaste on it. It was a level of support I had never even dreamed of, but I prefer to stay in a hotel myself. I think these are totally invalid arguments where the establishment cover it up themselves and that is wholly undemocratic.

  Q412  Chairman: I do not think Sir Christopher Meyer was dispensing toothpaste for ministers.

  Mr Benn: I do not know whether he was. I had better read his book. I cannot believe that it did any serious damage.

  Q413  Mr Liddell-Grainger: We had Simon Jenkins before us who has negotiated to buy serial rights and he more than intimated that the thing that sells it is the gossip and tattle; that is what they are after, that is what they want. If you get a good story about the Prime Minister not being able to understand what you are talking about, it does not matter which Prime Minister, that is secondary. Surely it is the commercialism now. I accept that is not fair at all: you wrote yours because you wanted to do it and you wanted to make a point. Nowadays it is commercialism; it is blatant commercialism. We have Campbell about to come out, negotiating vast sums of money. We have had other people in front of us who made an enormous amount. It has just become a commercial circus. Surely we have to control it.

  Mr Benn: If you examine what you have said, think about it: if malice and gossip is damaging you are not actually using the rules to protect malice and gossip but to prevent the real information from coming out. I do not think you can say "We have strict rules to prevent us saying malicious things about each other". The rules are there to see that information about what Government are doing does not come out. I should have thought that if people buy books for malice and gossip, then they will not be interested in why we went to war with Iraq, if you see what I mean.

  Q414  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I do admit that these Cabinet minutes of 1975 about the EU and the things which were said are fascinating, but I am a sad old anorak. I am not going to buy this as a story. I like what it says. I am just fascinated by what you and Jenkins and everyone else said in these minutes; it is fascinatingly interesting stuff. If you actually then said in the middle that you thought the Prime Minister was gay, it would have been the most fantastic seller; it would have been an absolutely brilliant piece of tittle-tattle. This is great as an historical document of enormous interest at the time. There is a lovely quote from you which says ". . . he was not inflexibly opposed to Britain's membership of the EEC" which is wonderful.

  Mr Benn: That was not me; that was Eric Varley, was it not? It says the Secretary of State for Energy; I was not Secretary of State for Energy at the time.

  Q415  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I thought it was you. That is even more interesting.

  Mr Benn: You thought that was me and so did I until I realised the date!

  Q416  Mr Liddell-Grainger: It is fascinating history but it is a document, a very interesting document. If you want to cause the mischief and the trouble, you would spice this up in today's terms. I am using today's speak. Surely that cannot be right.

  Mr Benn: I think you are helping my argument by saying actually what this is all about is to stop nasty stories getting into the public debate and I think that is what you are really saying, that is what it is really about and that is totally and absolutely contrary to the public interest. I accept the view that it was the sneers from Meyer about ministers which really annoyed them and actually what should have worried them, if the rules were being applied on high principle, would be what he described as what happened at the time. They do not bother about that; it is the malice and the gossip. You have to live with that in public life. I do not know what your party is like, they must be terribly friendly, but the Labour Party is known on occasions to be spiced up in conversation with a degree of malice and gossip which is unpleasant, titillating and entertaining.

  Q417  Mr Liddell-Grainger: You have sat in the tearoom, we have all sat in the tearoom and we gossip like mad; you know that as well as I do. There is a slight difference between us lot having a jolly good gossip, which we all do, we love it, and potentially damaging revelations in a larger context. You obviously disagree totally. We are going to beg to disagree on this one, I am sorry.

  Mr Benn: People are mature. Do not underestimate the intelligence of the electorate. One of the great problems of the establishment is that they think people are so ignorant that they cannot distinguish between malice and gossip and real information. The longer I live the more impressed I am by the incredibly high level of intelligence of people who are all on Google and the internet, they know, they read, they can discount and distinguish between the information which would be helpful to them and the gossip which titillates and sells books.

  Q418  Kelvin Hopkins: The important thing, is it not, is to get truth out and particularly truth for the purposes of history. Is it not worrying that in the run-up to the Iraq war—and Lord Butler focused on  this—a lot of the crucial discussions were deliberately not minuted, so we shall never have information even under the 30-year rule? This is precisely what happened; we shall presumably only have the accounts of the Prime Minister when he writes his memoirs. Is that not deeply worrying?

  Mr Benn: The new form in which government is conducted—it was not the case when I was there—using e-mail and so on may mean that the basic information is not permanently in the records to be studied afterwards. The more informal the nature of government decision making—and I was last a minister in 1979 and it was quite different then because the technology had not developed at all—the more it becomes like that, the more important it is that people's recollections of what was said should be available.

  Q419  Kelvin Hopkins: Is it not also worrying that the Cabinet appears just to have taken really very little part in these discussions and to have had very little role in making the decision and, as you say, they just had reports from the Prime Minister? Will the 30-year rule record show a pathetic performance compared with what discussions went on about the EEC as recorded in the documents you have presented to us?

  Mr Benn: Of course I have not seen Cabinet minutes since I left the Cabinet in 1979, though these have come out. I do think that the nature of Cabinet government is totally transformed from what it was: short Cabinet meetings where announcements are made rather than discussions and debate. We outvoted the Prime Minister. Can you imagine circumstances where you went round the table and the Prime Minister was in a minority? I think that was a genuine democratic debate and I was proud to be a member of a committee where it was possible. They were formidable people: Jenkins, Crosland, Crossman and so on. I thought the Cabinet at the time was very high quality: Jim Callaghan, Wilson, Elwyn-Jones; very, very interesting. I used to sit in Cabinet with three sheets of blank paper: on one I wrote what was going on; one was for what I should say if I were called; thirdly, what I had to do after the Cabinet. I kept these three bits of paper and then if it was interesting I missed my lunch and went and dictated my diary straight away. Looking back on it now I find it riveting because I can go back on a CD-Rom of my diaries and pick any Cabinet, any issue and follow it right the way through. It helps me now to be a sensible and useful citizen.

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