Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 428 - 439)



  Q428  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, it is very good to have you amongst us to help us with our inquiry into political memoirs. I think you wanted to make yourself available to us because you had some views on this in the light of recent events. I do not know whether you would like to make a statement by way of opening, or whether you would just like us to ask you some questions?

  Mr Straw: I am very happy for you to ask me questions in view of the time.

  Q429  Chairman: In that case, let me start off briefly, and I apologise for the fact that we shall be interrupted. When you last came in front of this Committee you were introducing the Freedom of Information legislation and you were the purveyor of openness. My sense is that you have now come as the purveyor of closedness, that is that you take a dim view of these former diplomats and former civil servants who rush into print with their memoirs. How can one approach be reconciled with the other?

  Mr Straw: I think it is easy to reconcile, and indeed I am still a purveyor of openness. Let me say that I spend far more time in the office seeking to expand on answers to parliamentary questions than ever I do in seeking to restrict them. I remember Norman Baker, when I was in the Home Office, although we had some disagreements on policy, complimenting me for openness. So I am very keen on openness and being as open as possible, but you will recall, Chairman, during all the debates which you and I personally had on the Freedom of Information Bill that all sides accepted there was a balance and the balance is built into the Freedom of Information Act itself between openness on the one hand and a public interest which actually requires that information in some cases should be kept secret, in some cases should be wholly exempt and in other cases should be confidential for a period. This particularly arose in discussing the exemptions to cover the business of government and it was accepted on all sides, the politicians and officials had to have a private space within which to be able to examine issues in frankness without the possibility that their views (as decisions were being formed, not at the point where they were ready to be promulgated) and that that debate would be made public. There was a very clear understanding that if that debate was going to be made public it would actually make the quality of decision making in government much more difficult and would actually undermine it. So far as these memoirs are concerned, let me say this: I served, 30 years ago now, as a special adviser in government for three and a half years, I served for two years from early March 1974 until April 1976 as special adviser to Barbara Castle and then for fifteen months from April 1976 until July 1977 as special adviser to Peter Shore. I formed the view then that I could not do my job unless there was complete confidence in me not only by the ministers I was serving but also by the officials alongside whom I was working. You have to live by your deeds and you have to be judged. I never ever thought it appropriate, as it were, to lift the veil on the private advice which I was giving to the ministers I was serving, nor to expose the views of the officials, because if I had been of that mind and I had said to both the ministers and the officials, "Look, here, you need to know I am keeping a diary and the moment I can I am going to write this up and publish it for money," both the ministers and the officials would have said, "Thank you very much, but you can't do your job in that way and we can't do our job either if everything that we are saying to you is going to be published very shortly after you leave this job, so there's the door." The test that I apply, for example in respect of Christopher Meyer, is that if any of those who had been dealing with him at the time (whether they were ministers, the Prime Minister, officials, his own colleagues or foreign diplomats) had thought then that he was writing a diary and was going to publish it with no regard effectively for the Diplomatic Service Rules nor for confidences that he had been offered then everybody would have said, "Thank you very much, Christopher, but we are not willing to have a relationship with you on that basis, and indeed you are incapacitating yourself from doing the job." That is a very different issue from general openness in government.

  Q430  Chairman: One of the issues which we shall want to discuss with you is whether the rules for former ministers are the same as the rules for former civil servants, but your reference to Barbara Castle is interesting and I know that you were a special adviser to Barbara Castle in the 1970s, because we have been looking at the history of all this and we have had in here some of the people from that period. We have had David Owen and Bernard Donoghue in and we had Tony Benn in a week or two ago, and they took us back to the Cabinet records of those days and of course when, in the wake of the Crossman diaries and then the Radcliffe report, Harold Wilson wanted members of that Cabinet to sign undertakings that they would follow the rules and not rush into print, Barbara Castle said no, Tony Benn said no, Roy Jenkins said no and so did one or two others, so it is quite difficult, is it not, making this stick?

  Mr Straw: I do not think it is so difficult to make it stick, and let me say that I think there are two obligations on ministers, but they are in some respects (not all respects) different from those on officials, and I will explain why in a moment, if you wish. That was a particularly difficult period and Richard Crossman had been determined to try and breach the rules. In those days, in any event, let me say, there was far too much secrecy. I have been refreshing my memory of the Radcliffe Committee Report in preparation for this session and I had actually forgotten that in those days just the fact of who was on a Cabinet Committee was an official secret, so I have no doubt that 30 years ago I would have been breaking the Official Secrets Act just mentioning, as I did earlier, that I have a Cabinet Committee meeting which I am chairing at 4.30, and the level of classification of documents, say in the Department of Health and Social Security, which does not have that many secrets, was absolutely extraordinary. There is not only more openness now, but in practice and in law many more powers are available to parliamentarians and to the public to get at truths which ministers or officials may wish to cover up, and there have been recent controversies to prove that. That is a different issue, in my judgment, from keeping diaries. I have said what I said about diaries. I do not keep a diary myself. I am uncomfortable about the idea of diaries. Barbara Castle was very nice about me on every page where I appear, so I have no complaints personally about her diary keeping, but I do just say that if people are going to write a diary quite swiftly after the time they leave then it can be very difficult in terms of personal relationships.

  Q431  Chairman: Can we just try to unravel some of the points as we go along, because I asked you about the Freedom of Information Act to start with and you said it was designed to protect certain categories of information, and of course it was, but if you go back to those debates I remember we had these very exchanges and you were adamant that it was not designed simply to protect politicians from embarrassment, that there had to be proper criteria, yet when I look at the Diplomatic Service Regulations—

  Mr Straw: The new version or the old version?

  Q432  Chairman: I think both actually—the criteria which are given for things that should not happen, one of them is publications that "create the possibility of embarrassment to the Government in the conduct of its policies".

  Mr Straw: Which paragraph is that?

  Q433  Chairman: I am on paragraph 2.4. Surely that is quite inconsistent with what we argued about freedom of information?

  Mr Straw: No, it is not. First of all, because this is talking about responsibilities on officials. What this third tier does is to reflect the fundamental relationship between civil servants and ministers. What you have in this country, and I happen to think it is a good system, is a permanent civil service who serve successive governments of different political persuasions and there is essentially a bargain between the civil service and ministers and political parties. The bargain is that we, as ministers, we collectively as a government, take on trust those officials who appear before us. Even after all these years in government, apart from my own private office and very senior officials, I have no say whatever, nor do I think I should, over the appointment of officials. You take them on trust both as to their professionalism, their integrity, their ability to keep confidences and their general trustworthiness. In return, as a minister, you offer them trust and agree that you will not seek to know their political opinions, provided they reciprocate in terms of loyalty to the Government, and also you do not gratuitously criticise them because they cannot answer back. It is not for officials to create the possibility of embarrassment to the Government in the conduct of its policies, that is for parliamentarians, it is for the use of powers under the Freedom of Information Act. It is for parliamentarians, and I have spent 18 years in opposition, so every day of my time in opposition I would try and embarrass the Government, and quite right, too. It is for journalists and for members of the public these days under the Freedom of Information Act, for which I am proud to say I was responsible.

  Chairman: I think we will settle for that as the opening exchange. There may be one or two votes, but we will resume once we have done that.

The Committee suspended from 2.47 pm to 3.11 pm for a division in the House

  Q434  Chairman: We will continue our session, and I apologise again for the disturbance. We were having an opening exchange about this balance between freedom of information generally and the provisions to do with controlling publications by former civil servants and also former ministers. Just one last point I would put to you on this is that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock came to see us, our former man at the UN and our former man in Baghdad—and I am sure colleagues will want to ask you about some of the details of that case—he put a very, very strong argument about where the balance of public interest would lie in a case like his. He said, "Mistakes were made over Iraq and part of the whole point in writing about it is in the public interest, the lessons to be learned from the true story rather than from assumed facts or distortions of facts. I think there is a value in some transparency about these things in the public interest." Is that not a strong argument?

  Mr Straw: I think it is a strong argument. I do not think it is a conclusive argument, and it has to be balanced against other considerations. Could I just make it clear that I have absolutely no criticism to make of Sir Jeremy Greenstock. He observed the rules, he submitted his book. I had a discussion with him and that would have been preceded by some correspondence. We had a difference of view, but he accepted that the rules were such that in the end it would be my view which would prevail, and let me say that he is a diplomat whom I hold in the highest regard, and also on a personal level I have got very great affection for him. I just want to make that clear. As it happens, what I read of the book was rather helpful to the Government's case in respect of Iraq rather than unhelpful, so there was no suggestion of seeking to stop its publication because of embarrassment. Could I just say in respect of that, Chairman, because you asked me about that in the truncated discussion, the rule in DSR 5, paragraph 2, is "create the possibility of embarrassment to the Government in the conduct of its policies". We are not talking about embarrassment to the Government generally or embarrassment to individual members of the Government because something has been said personally disobliging, and it is quite important to say that that rule is qualified by "in the conduct of its policies". Of course, above all with issues of war it is crucial that there are records and that these records are in due course available for scrutiny by historians, by parliamentarians and by the public. That has always been the case and that is absolutely fundamental because in war, more than anything else, ministers should be fully accountable, responsible and answerable for the decisions which they have advised Parliament of, and they have put men and women in harm's way and some of them will have been killed and injured, which has been the case in respect of Iraq. Coming to this discrete issue about Sir Jeremy Greenstock's book, he was only able to gain those insights that he had because everybody around him, including me, assumed that he was following the same rules and conventions of confidentiality as everybody else in the room, everybody else who was receiving in writing minutes and memoranda. So he had privy access, confidential access. I think in that situation—and this is a point which in the end without very much debate he accepted—it cannot be for one individual to determine whether those conventions and rules should or should not be broken because the system simply cannot operate in such circumstances. It has to be some kind of objective set of rules and objective criteria.

  Q435  Chairman: The problem is, he went through all the processes. As you said yourself just now, he played exactly by the rules, submitted the manuscript, was getting all the clearances and then you saw him, I think, and told him he should not do it?

  Mr Straw: No. There was one thing which he might have done, and I think we now make it very clear in the new rules, which is to seek approval in principle before entering into a contract with a publisher. As I say, I have no criticism of him in respect of that, but it happens to be the case that if he was applying the rules to the letter then he should have sought prior clearance for the writing of the book and that may have saved a lot of difficulty. In any event, there was correspondence with Jeremy. I then had submitted to me an extract, not the whole book, and I know that he made the point to you when he saw you that I had not read the whole book. I have got a huge amount to do, but what I did do was to read all the extracts which had been flagged up for me which were relevant and got a sense of it, and I felt that it should not be published because it breached a number of the criteria laid down by Radcliffe and reflected in the DSRs. In the end—and I do not know whether you are complaining about this—ministers have to make decisions. If you are saying to me he felt strung along by officials, that is simply not the case. As I recall, officials were in no different a position from me, but in the end these things are matters for ministers in any event.

  Q436  Chairman: But the Diplomatic Service Regulations say: "The final authority for all members and former members of the Diplomatic Service is the Permanent Under-Secretary"?

  Mr Straw: Yes, and the Permanent Under-Secretary agreed with me as well, let me say, so there was not an issue between Michael Jay and myself, but I am entitled to have an opinion in that situation, I would have thought.

  Q437  Paul Flynn: What we heard in evidence from Mr Greenstock was, "At the end of June 2005 Sir Michael Jay informed me that the Foreign Secretary had just become aware that I was intending to write for publication and had expressed strong objections, though he had not read the text." Greenstock told us that the writing is clearly written for publication and all the signals were that it would be okay and that you personally had intervened before you had read the book and said you did not want it published. Is that true?

  Mr Straw: I had been given a synopsis of what was in the text, I had not read the text at that stage, but I took exception in principle to the idea of a very senior diplomat publishing a record of events which were as fresh as they had been in such circumstances. I just come back to the point I made right at the beginning—

  Q438  Paul Flynn: Rather than repeat the point, could I carry on as there is a number of questions I want to ask in the limited time? Is not the difference that your attitude to Christopher Meyer's book (which was tittle-tattle and of no great consequence) was that you were happy to see that go ahead, offensive as it might have been to you personally, but that you had strong objections to Craig Murray's book about Uzbekistan and Greenstock's book because they were in a different category, because they talked about something serious, which was the relationship between Britain and America, and that was something which might embarrass you and embarrass the country and you wanted to stop them being published?

  Mr Straw: There is a complete consistency between the decisions which were taken in respect of the Meyer book and those taken in respect of Jeremy Greenstock's book, and also which have been taken in respect of the Murray book. In the end, a judgment was made in respect of Meyer's book—and this was spelt out by Lord Turnbull when he gave evidence—that we were unlikely to succeed in obtaining an injunction to restrain publication because it was mainly tittle-tattle. It was fairly inoffensive tittle-tattle, but Meyer was disobliging about me, amongst many other people, but that seemed to me to be not remotely a reason for seeking to prevent publication. For that reason, Meyer was written to on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary to explain that we were not going to seek to restrain publication, but neither were we approving it. In respect of Jeremy Greenstock's book, it was different and the reason it was different was because we judged that it did breach those criteria laid down in Radcliffe and which successive governments have followed.

  Q439  Paul Flynn: But the criteria which you were   worried about, surely, was the personal embarrassment to yourself as Foreign Secretary?

  Mr Straw: No.

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