Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 427)



  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 be enforced.

  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 inquiry—I shall not say to destruction—by 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 to us.

  Mr Benn: Thank you very much indeed. I am always available as I have retired.

  Chairman: Thank you so much for coming.

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