Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420
THURSDAY 16 MARCH 2006
Q420 Kelvin Hopkins: In future, when
memoirs are written, there will not be a formal record with which
they can be compared.
Mr Benn: No, there will not be.
Q421 Kelvin Hopkins: There will not
be formal records of many of these crucial discussions. Is that
not damaging for our democracy?
Mr Benn: It is and I'll tell you
something else. I have come to this conclusion and I offer it
to you. I am a Privy Councillor. The Privy Council has not met
since I joined it; I was appointed in 1964. It only meets when
the Queen dies. The thing about a Privy Councillor is that your
allegiance is personal to the Crown. The oath for Privy Councillors
was secret until I published it. When they read it to me I said
I did not agree with it. They said that I did not have to agree.
I said "What do you mean?". They used a word I never
understood until that moment. They said "We have administered
the oath". It was an injection; I had been injected with
the Privy Councillor's oath. The point I am making is that advisers
today are now in effect Privy Councillors. Their allegiance is
to the Prime Minister, not to the party, nor to Government, nor
Parliament, nor the public, in the way that my obligations as
a Privy Councillor are simply to the Crown. I find that very interesting,
because it re-interprets what is happening now in terms of mediaeval
government. We are drifting back into a mediaeval form of government,
just as the House of Lords has been modernised back to the fourteenth
century. When it began there were no hereditary peers; they were
all life peers and the King appointed them. We have modernised
it back and I think our form of government is getting increasingly
mediaeval. You have extended me beyond what I meant to say, but
you did ask me.
Q422 Chairman: May I just bring you
back to base? May I ask you about civil servants? What you are
arguing, as I understand it, is that for ministers there can and
should be no rules, at least the only rule you have suggested
is that you should not publish this stuff while you are still
a member of the Cabinet, but once you have gone, you think anything
can happen; even if your colleagues are still there, if you have
gone, you can do it. Does this apply to civil servants too? You
seem to suggest that it does, but the traditional deal inside
government is that ministers take responsibility for things which
go on. In return they get loyalty from civil servants, who in
turn get anonymity. Once we say that civil servants can publish,
presumably when they leave their post, immediately, that they
can record what advice they gave, what ministers said to them,
what they said to ministers, have we not completely changed the
relationship which is at the heart of government?
Mr Benn: I think two things. First
of all, advisers have been brought in now who are in effect civil
servants and they have the power to give civil servants orders,
which I think is outrageous, but they do, and they can publish
their memoirs. So why should civil servants be at a disadvantage
to advisers? The second thing is that I used to argue and loved
arguing with my old permanent secretary, with whom I had flaming
rows, Otto Clarke, who was the father of the present Home Secretary.
I knew what his view was. He did not retire before I did, but
if he had and had published a book saying what he was saying and
what I was saying, it would have opened up the nature of the argument.
If he had been malicious about me, which I do not think for a
moment he would have been, any more than I would want to be malicious
about him, it would have been part of the public debate. There
is in the back of all these questions which you put the idea that
somehow the secrecy of the nature of the decision-making is in
the public interest, whereas my argument, as you will appreciate,
is that the openness is in the public interest because citizens
will know better how to cast their vote and ask their questions.
Q423 Chairman: I think it turns,
as many things do, on this question of balance.
Mr Benn: Yes; of course.
Q424 Chairman: Many of us here have
been ferocious in our support for freedom of information legislation.
Mr Benn: Yes; I know.
Q425 Chairman: Of course that does
protect certain confidences under criteria. We may argue whether
we have the right ones or not, but all such freedom of information
legislation anywhere in the world seeks to strike a balance between
the public interest in openness and the public interest in confidence.
All we are trying to explore with you in relation to the publishing
of memoirs is where that balance is to be struck, whether you
believe there is a balance to be struck and how then it might
Mr Benn: I think truthfully you
just have to leave it to the common sense of the matter. If somebody
leaves office and then writes a lot of malicious stuff about those
with whom he previously worked, it will not do him a lot of good.
Q426 Chairman: It will make him a
lot of money.
Mr Benn: Not necessarily. I do
not think malice makes an awful lot of money; I do not know, maybe
it does. Certainly diaries do not. You could have argued that
in this select committee today I would not have been able to be
candid with you if I thought it was going to be reported. However,
I have been as candid as I could and you have been as candid with
me and I do not think publicity damages candour.
Q427 Chairman: We precisely wanted
you because of the fact that you would test our inquiryI
shall not say to destructionby giving us a robust statement
of the case for maximum openness. You have done that and in reflecting
on these things we shall have to respond to what you have said
Mr Benn: Thank you very much indeed.
I am always available as I have retired.
Chairman: Thank you so much for coming.