Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)



  Q480  Jenny Willott: Do you think most of the spin doctors of Number 10 would?

  Mr Straw: If you are asking me about special advisers, I think that special advisers are much more in a position of civil servants than they are of ministers. I served as a special adviser for three and a half years and you gain confidences from other civil servants as a special adviser doing your job which you would never ever gain as a minister, so I happen to believe that similar rules should apply to special advisers.

  Q481  Jenny Willott: So as to civil servants rather than to ministers?

  Mr Straw: Yes, broadly the same as to civil servants rather than as to ministers, and special advisers are not accountable for their actions. Although they are political appointees, in terms of their accountability they are in a more similar position to civil servants than they are to ministers.

  Q482  Chairman: Just on Jenny's point there, if the Prime Minister came forward with the proposition, "Look, it is time to put a line in the sand here, boys and girls. We have now decided that we are going to have some new rules. You cannot publish for so many years. No more of these instant books, diaries. It must go through the Cabinet Secretary and there must be prior approval for anything you want to do," you would be there first signing up?

  Mr Straw: If the recommendations were sensible, yes, I would.

  Q483  Chairman: Of the kind that I have described?

  Mr Straw: Yes, I would.

  Q484  Chairman: Do you think your colleagues would also?

  Mr Straw: I cannot speak for all my colleagues. As I say, I actually think the atmosphere in Cabinet these days is much more collegiate and collective than it was at the time of Crossman, Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, significantly more. Could I just say this about timescales, because Jenny asked me about that: similar issues have arisen in respect of freedom of information. Whether information should be made public is always a matter of time. There is some information which comes out sometimes 100 years later which was highly secret but there is no point in keeping it quiet after 100 years. Most information we publish at 30 years. What we agreed in the House—and the Chairman will remember this—in discussions in respect of the Freedom of Information Act was that the 30 year rule was too crude. There is quite a lot of information which can be published and made available under the FOI almost contemporaneously. You have got to make a judgment about where the public interest lies.

  Q485  Chairman: You said 15 years is dead in the water. If Jeremy Greenstock comes to you this year and says, "Okay, last year I couldn't, this year can I?"—

  Mr Straw: The 15 years has plainly not been followed.

  Q486  Chairman: When could he?

  Mr Straw: I was just about to make the point, Chairman, that it depends on what exactly he is talking about. To use an example which would not be in his book, but if there were a compromise of intelligence then 15 years would be too short in most cases, but if it is the normal run of the mill, well after the particular administration has left office—

  Q487  Chairman: That is the test, you think?

  Mr Straw: I think it is part of the test. It is not conclusive, but it is part of the test.

  Q488  Jenny Willott: Do you think Alastair Campbell is behaving in an honourable way?

  Mr Straw: Yes, I do, from what I have seen, and he actually let me have a copy of the letter which he had written to this Committee where he has made it clear that he is intending to stick by the rules, and that is in character as well.

  Q489  Grant Shapps: Foreign Secretary, we were actually privileged to have Sir Christopher Meyer in here as part of his world book promotion tour for DC Confidential and, to be honest, I did not really particularly take to him, a slippery sort of character, hard to pin down, and very difficult to lay a glove on, as the media pointed out afterwards. I can understand why he really gets up your nose actually, but can you actually name one element, something he wrote, which is actually damaging?

  Mr Straw: His book was not stopped, and if it had been directly damaging to the public interest we would have sought to stop it. I read your evidence, Mr Shapps. I thought the press were very unfair, actually. I thought you had laid a glove on him, but there we are.

  Grant Shapps: You will not get round me that way!

  Mr Straw: But it was because he did not appear to have breached the key criteria for legal action that we did not stand in the way of its publication, but neither did we approve of it, and that needs to be made clear. It was a breach of trust, no question about it. As I have said, as a result of the publication, I think he has suffered reputationally far more than if we had pursued a legal action, whether he won or lost in his particular case.

  Q490  Grant Shapps: He may have suffered reputationally but probably not financially, I should imagine, in this particular case, but could you name me one element which was actually damaging, or are you conceding there are none?

  Mr Straw: What I concede—and I have not got the book in front of me—is that there was no case for seeking legal action or to prevent him from publishing it, which there could have been and have been sometimes in respect of other publications. Nonetheless—and this is the point about this—the law is a very restrictive facility in these circumstances. The fact that there was not a basis for taking legal action against him does not mean that we approved it. We did it because it was plainly and very significantly a breach of confidence.

  Q491  Grant Shapps: So really actually what you have experienced is what we have all experienced, that he is the sort of guy who gets under your skin? He is annoying? You do not approve of his book, but actually there is nothing that he did that was wrong?

  Mr Straw: No. Let me say that when I was dealing with him day by day, from time to time, when he was Ambassador in Washington I rubbed along with him because I actually think (to come back to my point about the permanent civil service) that that is what you have as a duty as a minister. You take the collective civil service as is and get on with it. I have got no particular views on that.

  Q492  Grant Shapps: So the problem is actually, as you have described it, that really he has just been unprofessional? That is the complaint, that he has been unprofessional, but he did not do anything illegal?

  Mr Straw: Plainly, he did not do anything which caused us to take him to court, and I have answered that, but he had been unprofessional. He had broken the trust which was fundamental to him getting the job and keeping the job.

  Q493  Grant Shapps: Did you, whilst you were working with him, suspect that he might be the kind of cad that he has turned out to be?

  Mr Straw: No. If I had thought that he was going to write a book of this kind, then I would have said to him, "I don't think you can carry on doing your job."

  Q494  Grant Shapps: So whilst as an Ambassador he may have thrown exceedingly good parties, you would not have thought there was any reason not to stay at his residence, for example?

  Mr Straw: No, I always stayed at his residence. Let me also say that I asked him to stay on because he was due to leave, and did leave, at the end of February 2003. That meant there was going to be a six or seven month hiatus between him leaving office and David Manning taking over, because it was important that David Manning should stay as the Prime Minister's diplomatic adviser for that period of six months or so leading up to the summer. I asked him if he would carry on, but in the end he refused to do so, for reasons which he has sought to explain to the Committee, and I respected his decision.

  Q495  Grant Shapps: So would you now go and stay at the residence of the Ambassador, knowing what could happen?

  Mr Straw: I do stay at residences, is the answer. I know this was an issue raised by Andrew Turnbull. I do stay at residences. I have got direct responsibility for Ambassadors and it would be absurd if the Foreign Secretary chose to stay in hotels rather than using the opportunity to stay in the residences -

  Q496  Grant Shapps: It is good to hear this experience has not put you off!

  Mr Straw: No, no, and going back to Mr Hopkins's point, what the Meyer book has done, I think, has been to re-enliven these conventions in the minds of officials. I think there will be very, very few members of the Diplomatic Service doing a Meyer in the foreseeable future.

  Q497  Grant Shapps: I see, so actually in your mind not only has he damaged his own reputation by disgracing himself and therefore it has been extremely detrimental to him, but it has also done the job of reminding all the other civil servants that they cannot do the same thing? So this is rather a satisfactory outcome?

  Mr Straw: I think he has reminded them. These conventions have enforcement behind them, but they cannot work unless people voluntarily sign up to them and follow them. It has just made the service as a whole very angry, and this again was a point brought out by Andrew Turnbull, that if you end up in a situation where trust breaks down significantly between ministers and officials then you will have to move towards the kind of system which you have in the United States, which I happen to regard as satisfactory.

  Q498  Grant Shapps: I am pleased you mention this, because this is what I want to come on to. Could I just cover this last point. We have talked about Paul Brenner's book which Gordon brought up and you mentioned the idea of the American system which means that civil servants are actually political appointees. In fact on another investigation we had your brother in here, I think peddling the same line. Is this something you would favour, perhaps?

  Mr Straw: My brother is my brother and he must be responsible for his own views. Personally, I am signed up broadly to the current arrangements because I happen to think they work and I think that if you go down the path of the American system or, say, the French system you end up with more problems than you solve.

  Q499  Chairman: May we have five minutes?

  Mr Straw: Could we make it three, because I am really pushed for time.

  Chairman: I want to try and make sure that everyone has had a go, but we will be very quick.

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