Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460
WEDNESDAY 29 MARCH 2006
Q460 Chairman: That is because he
Mr Straw: It was not just because
he met me, but I have a role in that. I happen to be the Foreign
Secretary and he was working with me, and yes, he did have something
important to say. Of course he has something important to say,
as I have already complimented him, but what he had to say arose
from his admission to confidential discussions and his acceptance
of confidences. That was the basis upon which he received that
information and you cannot receive information on one basis and
then unilaterally decide you are going to change the basis upon
which you received the information, otherwise, to come back to
my pointand you are right, it is a really important debatepublic
administration will break down and the confidence of ministers
in officials who are part of a permanent civil service (whether
it is the Home Civil Service or the Diplomatic Service) will start
to evaporate, and that is an issue not just for the current government
but governments of all parties and at all times.
Q461 Mr Prentice: But Christopher
Meyer would say that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for
the gander, and there has been a whole stream of memoirs published
by politicians still around today, our colleague Clare Short,
the late Robin Cook, and so on and so forth. So that is what Meyer
would say, that is it quite wrong that retired diplomats should
have constraints put upon them, quite onerous constraints, which
do not apply to others?
Mr Straw: First of all, let me
say that I saw from Christopher Meyer's evidence that he was trying
to make some distinction between being a serving officer and then
a retired officer. The Diplomatic Service Rules as they were at
the time when he retired were very clear that these responsibilities
and obligations continued on him. Alsoand I think you flushed
this outit simply was incorrect for him to claim that he
was unaware of the Diplomatic Service Rules or that they had not
been drawn to his attention, because they were explicitly drawn
to his attention when we first got wind of his book by the head
of the relevant department on 30 June 2005. I have two things
to say on ministerial memoirs. First of all, ministers are in
a different position because ministers are publicly accountable.
This is reflected in Radcliffe and in the evidence of Lord Turnbull
and Lord Wilson. Ministers are publicly accountable for their
actions, so there has to be a point at which they can be brought
to account or offer account, particularly if they resign from
government as, for example, Clare Short and Robin Cook did under
this administration and Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe did under
the administration of Mrs Thatcher. But that said, rules should
apply to ministers, and they do, and in both Clare Short's case
and Robin Cook's case they submitted their text in accordance
with the Ministerial Code and got clearance. My understanding
is that in each case, certainly Robin's case, he changed some
part of the text.
Q462 Chairman: Geoffrey Robinson,
your colleague from Coventry?
Mr Straw: I am aware of Clare
Short, but I am not aware of -
Q463 Chairman: He just published,
he did not go through any of the rigmarole.
Mr Straw: He may get that, and
I think there is an obligation on ministers because it cuts both
ways. There is a particular obligation on ministers because it
cuts both ways. There is a particular obligation on ministers,
in my view, not gratuitously to criticise officials who cannot
answer back. That was one of the reasons why there was such concern
about the Crossman diaries, and that is reflected in the Radcliffe
Q464 Mr Prentice: Meyer is very,
very critical of the process. In fact, I called Meyer a liar.
Mr Straw: You did.
Mr Prentice: Yes, and there was a dispute
between Christopher Meyer and Sir Michael Jay about what happened
at the conversation which took place on 4 June, I think, 2004.
I have now received a letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth
Office dated 21 March which tells me, because we sought clarification
from the Permanent Secretary, "Michael Jay has been consulted"this
is from Heather Yasamee"and his recollection is that
while he may not have cited [the Diplomatic Service Regulations]
formally, he believes that he delivered a clear enough message
of concern that Christopher Meyer was getting close to crossing
the line protected by the Regulations." That is a point which
Christopher Meyer was making, that the process was just all over
the place. He maintains he was not told about these Regulations
in June 2004.
Mr Straw: In 2004, I think that
was in respect of something he had said on the television or radio,
not in respect of the publication of a book. It was later, as
I recall the sequence, that we discovered. I think it was something
on the internet.
Q465 Mr Prentice: Yes. I am just
going to refresh your recollection. This was the letter from Sir
Michael Jay to Christopher Meyer on 7 August 2005. I do not want
to get submerged in the detail, but he says, "As to our conversation
on the telephone in June 2004, we have, on the basis of your letter,
sharply different recollections." This is from Meyer to Jay.
"You called me to say that people `over the road',"
presumably Number 10
Mr Straw: Yes.
Q466 Mr Prentice: "as
well as Jack Straw and Patricia Hewitt, were concerned about things
that I said or been reported to have said. You added that I should
myself be concerned to have disturbed such major figures. Jack
Straw," he said, "may even call me." So that is
what it was all about.
Mr Straw: Can I just say that
two things happened. Back in 2004 there was concern about things
which Meyer was saying or writing, and I cannot actually remember
the basis of that. It certainly was not a book at that stage.
I was concerned about it and there was also concern in Downing
Street. I did not know Patricia Hewitt was concerned, but evidently
she was. As a result of that and also concerns in the officelet
me say the Diplomatic Service as a whole (if I may offer this
on their behalf) were actually very angry about Meyer's behaviour.
The result of that was that Michael Jay spoke to Christopher Meyer
in June 2004. Michael has set out his recollection and apparently
he did not directly draw attention to the DSR, but what is the
case is that back in December 2002 when he was sent a pre-retirement
letter by the then Head of the Human Resources Department, Alan
Charlton, on 2 December, he was told on page 13this letter,
I think, is before the Committee, a copy of the letter from Heather
Yasamee of 30 June 2005"After retirement you remain
bound by the duty of confidentiality under the Official Secrets
Act. You should consult the Head of Personnel Policy if you are
considering taking part in any activities (including writing for
a publication) in ways which may disclose official information
or use of official experience or which may affect the government's
relations with other countries". So he was very clearly on
notice, and he was reminded back in 2002, and then when this letter
was sent in June 2005 when we had got information that he was
going to publish a book, he was reminded explicitly of the terms
of the Diplomatic Service Code. There is no question about it.
So for him then subsequently to say that he did not know anything
about it or that in subsequent conversations Michael Jay failed
to say, "I am calling you in respect of DSR 5," is,
frankly, risible, laughable.
Q467 Chairman: Let us not get lost
in the detail, but why did you not just get Meyer in like you
got Greenstock in and say, "Be a good chap"?
Mr Straw: Because it was clear
from the conversations which Michael Jay had reported to me that
that was not going to work.
Q468 Chairman: Because he was not
a good chap, he was a cad, was he not?
Mr Straw: Well, that was your
description rather than mine, and I have already said, as I said
on the Today programme at the end of November when I was
first asked about this, he broke very clear trust, no question
Q469 Chairman: But if the conclusion
is that the good chaps do not get to publish and the cads do get
to publish, something has gone wrong, has it not?
Mr Straw: As I said to Mr Flynn,
there is a difference in the case of Meyer and that of Jeremy
Greenstock. Meyer's book is mainly tittle-tattle. Yes, if you
pitch your book at that sort of level the chances are that it
will not be subject to legal action, but what has happened in
the case of Christopher Meyer is that he has destroyed his reputation
and actually the sanction which he suffered, including from this
Committee, is far greater than any sanction he is likely to have
suffered in court. He has destroyed his reputation. I think Richard
Wilson or Andrew Turnbull said to this Committee that one of the
sanctions was ostracism. The guy has been completely ostracised.
He has also raised huge questions about the credibility of the
Press Complaints Commission. So the legacy of his publication
and his betrayal is a very substantial one and a very poor one
Q470 Mr Burrowes: In relation to
these memoirs, such as Sir Christopher Meyer's and others, you
talk in the context of the issue of trust in public administration
and good governance. Is not the problem, though, and in a sense
the mess that is around in relation to these memoirs, not so much
the issue of publication but ironically what those who are publishing
are seeking to expose, which in the words of Lord Owen (who gave
evidence to us) concerns the separation between impartial administration
and political decision making, which has become blurred, and in
his words has led to disillusionment bordering on contempt for
politicians by civil servants and diplomats, and vice versa, and
indeed in Sir Christopher Meyer's case he seeks to expose a fiction
that Foreign Office and its diplomats are being cut out of the
loop between Number 10 and the White House, and others have similarly
probably expressed displeasure as well. It is that fundamental
concern within the administration that they are seeking to expose
which has led to the problems we are in now?
Mr Straw: I do not think that
is the case, as a matter of fact, and here I am parti pris,
but I do not believe that there is any difficulty in relations
between ministers and officials in the Foreign Office, and equally
there was none when I was Secretary of State for the Home Office,
the Home Secretary. Also, I was not aware that David Owen had
said that, but I have to say that in many ways I think the relationship
between civil servants and ministers is healthier than it was
30 years ago when I worked alongside David Owen, when he was the
Parliamentary Under-Secretary to Barbara Castle. Of course, there
is going to be creative tension between ministers and officials,
for sure, precisely because officials are permanent and are going
to take a long view. Officials will also wish to ensure that ministers
do not cut corners, and ministers will be impatient, trying to
get themselves and their government re-elected, and so there is
that tension; but it is also the case that government these days
is infinitely more accountable than it was 30 years ago, much
more accountable. All sorts of things were covered up, and could
be covered up, 30 years ago which could not possibly be covered
up today. There were no Select Committees to speak of 30 years
ago. The Departmental Select Committees did not get going until
late 1979. The level of the number of parliamentary questions
which were put to ministers was a handful compared with today.
There was no Freedom of Information Act, no Human Rights Act.
So the level of scrutiny is very substantial and, what is more,
on the precise point, Mr Burrowes, you are raising, or I think
you are implying, where an official believes that a minister is
acting improperly, there are, first of all, proper procedures
for dealing with that and there is legal protection (provided
those procedures have been followed) for whistle-blowers which
were not there 30 years ago.
Q471 Mr Burrowes: Yes, but I just
take it a bit further, whether the culture has changed, particularly
for civil servants. I recognise, perhaps, to some extent the accountability
issue in relation to politicians, but as far as civil servants
are concerned, when they see themselves used, abused or disusedtwo
senior civil servants have been removed recently, Nigel Crisp,
Johnston McNeillthey may see that their accountability
can only be shown eventually in being forced to seek to publish
their own accounts and there may be a sense of grievance now which
Lord Owen himself says was not there previously, that the way
an administration deals with its civil servants can lead to that
grievance, which leads ultimately to people wanting to publish?
Mr Straw: I regret any situation
where individual civil servants are subject to severe public criticism
and I do not think it is right either. I am happy to criticise
officials who I do not think are doing their job, but I think
part of the responsibility that rests on ministers is that they
are not party to exposing that criticism on officials publicly
because they cannot answer back. I am very clear about that. Can
I also say that the fact that one or two permanent secretaries
may have resigned early or taken early retirement is nothing new.
There were cases in the sixties and seventies, and they continue
as well. It is a feature of all governments that from time to
time people in such senior positions may not see eye to eye and
may feel that they have, as it were, served their time and their
purpose and will then take early retirement, but I do not think
that is evidence that the conventions are being undermined.
Q472 Kelvin Hopkins: Specifically
following what David was saying, these memoirsand there
are going to be more of themdo give the very clear feeling
that morale in the civil service was lower than it was and that
Meyer may have been a lightweight, a bit of a smart alec and so
on, but he did feel he was being marginalised. He was a senior
Ambassador who was marginalised in a very serious situation. Others
are trying to publish and not being permitted to do so, and others,
no doubtSir Nigel Crisp and others (Lord Crisp as he is
going to be now)will publish in due course. They are obviously
unhappy and frustrated and this seems to fit with an article today
by Michael Binyon in the Times suggesting that all power
is actually being taken by Downing Street, the Foreign Office
is now no longer the glory it was and that it could be replaced
by a fax! That is a quip of his, but on the other hand, he is
making a point. Is it not the case that government is changing
significantly, that power is being more concentrated and that
ministers are now seen by the civil servants to be Downing Street's
representatives in their departments, not their representatives
in Cabinet, which is what they used to be?
Mr Straw: No, I do not agree with
that analysis. First of all, on the issue of morale, there is
no evidence whatsoever that Christopher Meyer or Craig Murray
are exemplars of morale or anything else in the Foreign Office,
indeed the anger that is felt by the vast majority of people in
the Diplomatic Service about what they see as a personal betrayal
by people whom they treated as colleagues is absolutely intense.
Also, if you happen, Mr Hopkins, to have been to the leadership
conference, which we held in the Foreign Office yesterday, I think
you would get a sense that morale is pretty good. This has been
a very tough period, the last three or four years, because of
September 11 and everything else which has gone subsequently,
and the financial circumstances, because of those pressures, have
been difficult, but the Foreign Office has come through that,
in my judgment, with flying colours. On this old saw about power
shifting to Downing Street, it is the case that where you have
a strong Prime Minister he will seek to exercise authority over
individual departments. That is not just true for the present
Prime Minister, it was true for Margaret Thatcher and it is true
for any Prime Minister down the ages who feels in a dominant position.
But secretaries of state who are doing their job acknowledge the
authority of the Prime Minister, but also ensure that they argue
with the Prime Minister, argue in Cabinet and argue bilaterally.
That has always been my approach, certainly not to spill the beans
publicly but to be very robust in what I think is the right judgment,
and sometimes the Prime Minister may agree with me, sometimes
he may not. Let me say in respect of the Foreign OfficeI
have not seen that article and it is actually a parody of the
situationwhat happens is that where you have a country
moving to war the decisions have always in respect of that shifted
to Downing Street, and that is right because the ultimate responsibility
for leading the recommendation to Cabinet and to Parliament has
to be a matter for the head of government because there is no
more serious issue than whether a country should go to war. I
have actually seen this over the last four and a half years, but
as that decision is implemented and other issues move onto the
agenda of the Prime Minister then the focus, in this case the
foreign policy, shifts back. If you take, for example, the most
dominant issue of the day today, which is Iran, the whole of that
dossier is being run in the Foreign Office by me and by my officials.
Of course, I have kept the Prime Minister informed and his officials,
but it has not remotely been a dossier which Downing Street has
in any sense been initiating, and the Prime Minister has been
very happy indeed with that. I could go through a whole list of
other dossiers as well.
Chairman: I do not want to get too wide
if we can avoid it. I am anxious to get you away by the time you
need to be away, so perhaps we could rattle it along a bit.
Kelvin Hopkins: I will come back another
Q473 Jenny Willott: You seemed to
suggest earlier that you believe it is fundamentally wrong for
a diplomat to publish memoirs of any kind, no matter what the
Mr Straw: No. If I have given
that impression, I have not meant it. Diplomats have often published
memoirs. I thought this was a joke when I read it in my briefing
and it turns out that one diplomat recently published a book about
his memories of bird-watching as a diplomat. It would be absurd
to try and have any control over that. It was called A Diplomat
and His Birds. I will get it for Mr Prentice! But I do not
say that, and provided diplomats are willing to submit to the
rules, that is fine. Quite a number have published memoirs, but
the fundamental issue here is the issue of time. Plainly, after
30 years people publish books and that is very different from
three years or three months.
Q474 Jenny Willott: I was going to
ask about that because what we have been looking at as part of
this inquiry is whether the current rules work, and if not what
should be done to change it. Do you feel that the current rules
are working at the moment or that they do need alterations?
Mr Straw: They are working up
to a point. I think it is wrong to suggest, either in respect
of officials or ministers, that they have totally broken down.
Most officials understand the obligations on them very clearly
and observe them, which is why they are so angry about what happened
in the Meyer case, and I think most ministers do, but there can
be some who push things. The codes did work in respect of Clare
Short and Robin Cook, two very high-profile people who resigned.
The 15 year rule of Radcliffe has plainly broken down, in my judgment,
and also so far as the Diplomatic Service Rules were concerned,
it was clear that there were some ambiguities; not enough, in
my view, to allow Christopher Meyer to excuse his behaviour, but
there were some ambiguities, which is why I issued a change of
rules recently. I said, I think in a letter to this Committee,
that I thought it was necessary to do that immediately but I wanted
to take account of the recommendations this Committee had to make
about whether they ought to be changed for the future.
Q475 Jenny Willott: With Christopher
Meyer's book, since he was not asked to make any changes to it,
was the process done correctly or not? He was not actually asked
to make any changes, which appears from the evidence that we have
taken to be unusual, if not unique. Do you not think that he could
be justified in actually considering that therefore he was okay
to go ahead and publish?
Mr Straw: No, not remotely, and
he was told explicitly and in writing that the fact that he was
Q476 Jenny Willott: Before or after?
Mr Straw: At the time, as I recall.
Q477 Jenny Willott: At the time meaning
Mr Straw: Just bear in mind that
he played a game and he sought to avoid his obligations under
the rules for weeks and weeks and weeks. He has plainly written
the book well in advance of what he said. He then kept writing
these hysterical letters to officials in the Foreign Office, complaining
to one of the Director-Generals about the pompous and bureaucratic
way in which he had been treated when in fact he had simply been
asked to abide by obligations. I may say that as the head of one
of the largest missions in the world, he was himself requiring
all the people who worked for Her Majesty's Government to meet
them themselves, so he knew very well what the rules were and
he was playing around. It is only very late in the day and as
a result of this informal intervention by Howell James that he
came to submit the book at all.
Q478 Jenny Willott: Some of the things
which we have been looking at as possible alternatives have been
looking at the use of Crown copyright to make it less profitable
for people, which would clearly help, time limits, whether it
should be actually specific time limits or whether it should be
dependent upon whether some other key players have left their
particular roles, and so on, and also whether it should be a contractual
obligation within people's contracts of employment that they seek
clearance. Do you think that those would have helped in the recent
Mr Straw: Certainly this was a
point which was put rather forcefully by members of this Committee.
There is concern about the way in which people may profit, and
profit rather handsomely, from breaking confidences which they
have obtained in the course of what are actually rather well-paid
jobs, which they could only undertake because they had said they
had accepted confidences. So I think looking at issues of profit,
holding them to account and contractual obligations are very important
and I think the Cabinet Office has submitted a memorandum to you
today setting out the proposed changes in the Civil Service Code,
which has some of those in mind. Could I just say, Ms Willott,
that the publisher of Christopher Meyer's book was written to
on 4 November to be told that we have no comments to make on the
proposed book, and then going on to say it is not my responsibility
to check whether remarks attributed to individuals were accurate
or complete and that he should not therefore imply from this response
that the book has any form of official or unofficial approval.
As I say, this point was made by Lord Turnbull. First of all,
he said that courts have, over history, been more or less unusable
in terms of enforcement and these obligations are ones which are
there partly in law but partly in convention, because that is
the way our institutions work.
Q479 Jenny Willott: Yes. Could I
just mention the motives which might be put in place if the rules
were going to be beefed-up. Going back to what Tony said at the
beginning, which is that when there was the hoo-ha into the Crossman
diaries back in the 1970s, most of the Cabinet seemed to refuse
to sign up to or agree a lot of the recommendations. Do you think
that your ministerial colleagues would agree to new rules this
Mr Straw: I cannot speak for my
ministerial colleagues, but I think they are more likely to than
not these days.