Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



  Q460  Chairman: That is because he met you!

  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 point—and you are right, it is a really important debate—public 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. Also—and I think you flushed this out—it 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 Report.

  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 office—let 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 13—this 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 about it.

  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 for him.

  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 disused—two senior civil servants have been removed recently, Nigel Crisp, Johnston McNeill—they 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 memoirs—and there are going to be more of them—do 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 doubt—Sir 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 Office—I have not seen that article and it is actually a parody of the situation—what 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 time.

  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 content is?

  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. Yes.

  Q477  Jenny Willott: At the time meaning before or—

  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 case?

  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 time around?

  Mr Straw: I cannot speak for my ministerial colleagues, but I think they are more likely to than not these days.

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