Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)



  Q440  Paul Flynn: The name of the Greenstock book is The Cost of War and would you not agree that the cost of war in Britain was born by the 102 families who lost their loved ones as a result of that decision to go to war in support of Bush, and is it not more plausible that the reason you wanted to stop the book was to prevent the full truth of the war and its aftermath being published?

  Mr Straw: No, not remotely the case, Mr Flynn. You are right to say that those individuals and their families have born the very high cost of war. As it happens, from the extracts I read I do not think the book by Jeremy Greenstock is remotely disobliging about me at all and on the whole from what I saw it was actually supportive of the Government's case rather than not supportive. But I come back to this key issue, which seems to me fundamental for the Committee and to be behind the whole of these rules, which is that if either Jeremy Greenstock or Meyer had said to us when they were in meetings with us, "Look, you need to know that I'm writing all this down and I'm going to publish a nearly contemporaneous record of confidential discussions in which I am participating," we would have had to have said, "Well, thank you very much, but you cannot do your job." They could not have done their job, is the answer. So there is an issue here not just about the publication of memoirs, there is an issue here about how you obtain and maintain good governance in the interests of the country.

  Q441  Paul Flynn: Craig Murray's book—and you would agree, I believe, that Craig Murray worked in a country with an odious regime which he alleges routinely murders and rapes its own citizens using the agents of the state, and in fact he alleges that they boil prisoners alive. He was distressed by what he saw in his period as our Ambassador in Uzbekistan and he wants to get that information in the public domain. He claims that he was strung along by the officials. At the official level he had no trouble, it was the exchange of emails, messages and letters, and he withdrew many parts of the book to accommodate the Government's objections, but when he got to your level, the political level, he was stopped and he lays the charge that he was stopped entirely by you, personally by you. Is that right?

  Mr Straw: First of all, let me make this clear in respect of Craig Murray: we supported Craig Murray in the position which he took in respect of the abuse of human rights by the Uzbekistan Government. That is not just in private, it is true in public as well. If you look through the human rights reports which we have published over the years, they clearly supported what he was saying, not least based on his own reporting. As for the decisions which are currently being taken in respect of Craig Murray, how it works in government is that submissions come up to ministers and where a permanent secretary may, by the rules, have technically the final decision, it is rare for a permanent secretary to act without seeking the opinion of the Secretary of State. In the case of Craig Murray, he has been a deep embarrassment to the whole of the Foreign Office at an official level as well as of concern to ministers. I made the final decisions and I can provide the Committee with a note of the sequence of those decisions, but I am responsible for those decisions.

  Q442  Paul Flynn: Craig Murray claims to have under the Data Protection Act and Freedom of Information Act detailed documents which consist of minutes about the handling of the disciplinary procedure against him, and in particular he says they give irrefutable evidence of the detailed personal involvement of the Secretary of State, Jack Straw, both in holding minutes and in writing minutes in the setting up and detailed conduct of the disciplinary charges against him. This evidence is included in the text of his book and he says that you have repeatedly denied that you have any connection with the action taken against him. Is that true?

  Mr Straw: I would have to see the details. Of course the Permanent Secretary kept me informed about the disciplinary processes which were to be begun against Craig Murray, but were subsequently withdrawn, a decision with which I had nothing whatever to do, neither with setting up the disciplinary process nor its withdrawal, let me say. It is also quite important to bear in mind that Craig Murray in the end left the service on medical early retirement, he was not sacked.

  Q443  Paul Flynn: He argues that the laws of defamation, libel, the Official Secrets Act, Data Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act, the lot, give enough protection to make sure that he does not overstep the mark so far as the publication of his book is concerned. His legal advisers approved the publication of the book.

  Mr Straw: His legal advisers?

  Q444  Paul Flynn: Yes. The only reason it has not been published—and we do not know what is in it—is that your Department and you personally threatened to use Crown copyright against him, which would involve his publishers in an expensive legal action and effectively gag Mr Murray. Is that true?

  Mr Straw: We have made our position clear to Mr Murray and that has been laid out in correspondence. I do not have a copy directly here, but I can get one in a second. That has been made clear to him. Of course, if you come into a service—and I do not believe that even you, Mr Flynn, are suggesting otherwise—you sign up to a contract in that service, accept all the privileges which go with being members of the Diplomatic Service, but obligations too—

  Q445  Paul Flynn: What are the obligations which apply to Christopher Meyer?

  Mr Straw: Allow me to finish, please. If you then break those obligations, or appear to break those obligations, then of course you must bear the consequences.

  Q446  Paul Flynn: But why do they not apply to Christopher Meyer? Christopher Meyer almost certainly broke those obligations and you did not act against him because what he was writing was tittle-tattle, but when someone is writing something which has serious consequences about our relationship with America you ban the book?

  Mr Straw: No. As I say, there is this fine but rather important distinction to be made between, as you describe it, tittle-tattle—and much of Meyer's book was tittle-tattle of the salacious kind—where the advice was (and it was pretty clear) that there was no point pursuing Christopher Meyer through the courts and other circumstances where the potential damage to the national and the public interest appears to be more substantial. You have a particular view of our relationship with the United States, but I think there is a general principle here which does not only apply to our relationship with the United States but with Germany, the Russian Federation, the People's Republic of China and any other country with whom we have diplomatic relations, which is that those relations cannot be properly conducted unless the core part of them can be conducted in confidence. I may say that that was agreed by Parliament when we were taking through the Freedom of Information Act. So what we are seeking to do in this is not very different from policies agreed by Parliament not very long ago after very extensive debates on the Freedom of Information Act.

  Q447  Paul Flynn: How can we be certain that you are acting in the national interest, or by seeking to ban these two books acting in your own personal interest to avoid embarrassment to yourself?

  Mr Straw: No, I am not acting in my own personal interest.

  Q448  Paul Flynn: Would that be a legitimate thing to do, would you say?

  Mr Straw: In any event, if I were to, that would come out in any court action which may take place. In the case of the book by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, as I say, I have no criticism of the way he has conducted himself. He was a very fine diplomat who provided excellent advice to the Government. I regard him as a friend as well and, as it happens—and I have already said this—so far as I know, the book was not remotely disobliging about me in any event and on balance supported the Government's position. In respect of the Craig Murray book, let me say that Mr Murray has already published an awful lot of his position on websites, and that has been very well known, and were there to be legal action I am sure that one of the points Mr Murray would take would be that there was some kind of personal interest by me, but there is not and the record books show that.

  Q449  Mr Prentice: Is the Foreign Office going to take legal action against Craig Murray's publishers if they go ahead and publish the book?

  Mr Straw: We have written to Craig Murray setting out the legal position. I am afraid I am not, Mr Prentice, going to anticipate decisions we make. We do not know precisely what the book will contain and where there is any consideration of legal action it is not wise to air one's options in public, and I am not going to.

  Q450  Mr Prentice: Apparently, there is going to be a film made with Alan Partridge, Our Man in Tashkent!

  Mr Straw: Yes, so I see.

  Q451  Mr Prentice: What are we going to do about the film?

  Mr Straw: Let us cross that bridge when we get to it, is the answer.

  Q452  Mr Prentice: Craig Murray says that because you have an interest in all these matters, you should not be the person who has the final say, it should be an independent disinterested body of people. There is some force in that, is there not? If books are being published and they mention Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, doing this, that or the next thing, it would be better if someone other than Jack Straw decided whether the book should be published?

  Mr Straw: First of all, I am told—and I have not read the Murray book—that it does not contain much detail about me. There is no suggestion in the book that I was personally concerned or involved in his dismissal, and I was not personally concerned or involved in the disciplinary proceedings, which in the end were aborted; nor was I involved in the decision to agree early medical retirement for him, I want to make that clear. He did, as you know, decide to stand against me in Blackburn. That was his democratic right. I am sitting here because I won the election and he is not sitting here because he did not, so I do not feel any personal animus towards him and we both conducted ourselves in the way in which people conduct themselves in elections, and it is his democratic right. The position is that we have not approved the book, we are not going to pursue legal remedies to prevent publication, but we have reserved our rights and we will actively consider our legal options if he publishes. I think that is entirely reasonable.

  Q453  Mr Prentice: Can I go back to Jeremy Greenstock, whose book is in the fridge at the moment! He was our man in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 and he cannot tell the world about his experiences, but Paul Bremer, who was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has just published a book. Have you read Paul Bremer's book?

  Mr Straw: I have not read Paul Bremer's book.

  Q454  Mr Prentice: I do not want to sound impertinent, but you are the Foreign Secretary. Why have you not read the book, or had someone in the Foreign Office do a little précis of it and boil it down?

  Mr Straw: I do not want to sound presumptuous here, but I guess I know a good deal of what is in it anyway and, frankly, he is not on my reading list.

  Q455  Mr Prentice: Does it shock you that you are not in the index, not one reference?

  Mr Straw: No, not at all.

  Q456  Mr Prentice: This was in 2003 and 2004, and yet there are lots of references to Jeremy Greenstock.

  Mr Straw: Good. He was working alongside Jeremy.

  Q457  Mr Prentice: And Bremer is describing events which Greenstock presumably would describe if his book was available for publication! It is a funny old world, is it not?

  Mr Straw: Let me just say this: first of all, of course there will be loads of references to Jeremy Greenstock in the book because they were working alongside each other in Baghdad, so it would be astonishing if he wrote a book about his experiences in Baghdad without mentioning Jeremy Greenstock. As far as I recall, I only went to Baghdad once during the period when Bremer was there. The other point, and it is a very important point, is that you are suggesting that the rules or lack of rules which apply in the American system should apply to the British system. Okay, but the two are not cognate and in the American system, as we all know, the whole of the senior staff of the administration are politically appointed. So the conventions and rules which apply in respect of those staff are completely different from those which have to apply if you are to have a permanent civil service which serves successive governments. Mr Prentice, you know that to be the case, and it is absolutely fundamental. If we were to have a system in this country where everybody at a senior level in the Foreign Office, all 460 members of the senior management service of the British Foreign Office, bar a few, or even the majority, were political appointees who went through the same kind of system including agreement in Parliament (as happened in the States), then the conventions and rules which should apply in respect of both simply would be different. But our system is not that system and our conventions and rules have to be established to take account of ensuring that our system can operate properly. Since you are the Public Administration Committee, I just say to you that public administration would collapse if we had a permanent civil service which simply could not be trusted by ministers. It would not work.

  Q458  Chairman: We are testing both sides of this argument, and it is a real argument.

  Mr Straw: I know you are, and it is a serious argument and if I may say so, without being impertinent, it is a really important question which he raises.

  Q459  Chairman: But the point is, we tend to think here the sky is going to fall in if things happen, and then we find the sky does not fall in. Paul Bremer publishes his book and the sky does not fall in. The Americans do not say, "We can no longer conduct our foreign policy because these people write books like this," and you get Greenstock, as you say, a very responsible figure, who thinks he has got something to contribute to public debate, no tittle-tattle, very responsible, and yet you say he cannot do it, despite the fact that he has been through all the clearing process?

  Mr Straw: He has not gone through all the clearance process because he did not get clearance, and he did not get clearance for a very good reason.

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