Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

2  Background

Political memoirs in the early twentieth century

13. There is nothing new in the attempt to balance the desire to publish with the desire to keep certain administrative matters secret. After the First World War the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, fearing that official documents would come into the public domain as politicians and former members of the armed services penned their memoirs, drafted a set of strict instructions on the use of official papers. However, the Cabinet struck out the sections referring to Cabinet papers, and instead directed that former Cabinet ministers should have access at any time to the Cabinet records for the period when they were in office.

14. The current system for clearing political memoirs can be traced back to the precedent set by Winston Churchill when he finalised the third volume of World Crisis in 1926.[23] Potentially sensitive chapters were sent to the relevant government departments, and the whole text was given to the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Churchill suggested that the Cabinet Secretary should provide the Prime Minister with advice on whether reasons of public interest precluded publication of any document. Stanley Baldwin, answering a Parliamentary Question in March 1926, set out this procedure as a requirement for other ex-ministers before using such Cabinet documents. He stated that:

    Information of a confidential character should never be used improperly by any person, and in particular those who have held high office under the Crown are, in my opinion, under an obligation to consult the Government of the day or the heads of Department affected upon publication of any confidential matter of which they may have acquired official knowledge which may affect the public interest; and to obtain in any doubtful case formal permission.[24]

15. The issue came to a head again following the Second World War when the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, realised that a number of those who had held public office during the War would want to publish accounts of their experiences. Bridges had more success than Hankey in convincing politicians to restrict their freedom to publish. He wrote a memorandum to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, suggesting guiding principles in determining what use can "properly be made by former ministers in published writings of information obtained by them by virtue of their office". It states:

    …such books are usually written by former ministers to explain and justify the policy of the writer during his official life. This policy may have been the subject of public comment and its full defence may require reference to matters which at the time had to be regarded as secret. This suggests two general considerations:

    (a) A minister of the Crown, who is responsible to Parliament and whose official actions are properly subject to public comment and criticism, stands in a different position in regard to writings of the kind referred to, from Crown Servants generally, who have not had a minister's responsibilities.

    (b) To the extent that questions (e.g., of defence) have to be treated at the time they arise with exceptional secrecy there is a case for permitting a correspondingly greater measure of relaxation with regard to them, when the considerations (e.g., of military security) which formerly kept them secret no longer apply.

    The concern of the Government, on the other hand, is primarily with the effect of disclosures on future administrations. Here the essential point is to keep secret information of two kinds, disclosure of which would be detrimental to the public interest: -

    (a) In the international sphere, information whose disclosure would be injurious to us in our relations with other nations, including information which would be of value to a potential enemy.

    (b) In the domestic sphere, information the publication of which would be destructive of the confidential relationships on which our system of government is based and which may subsist between minister and minister, ministers and their advisers, and between either and outside bodies and persons.[25]

16. The Cabinet approved Bridges's proposals on 23 May 1946, and decided that former ministers, and others who had held office under the Crown, were under an obligation to consult the Government of the day, or the Heads of their former Departments, before they published any information obtained by virtue of their official positions. These principles were restated by Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister in 1960.[26] In the case of Sir Winston Churchill, it was not simply a matter of consultation, for the Cabinet Secretary actively collaborated on his war memoirs.[27]

The Crossman diaries and the Radcliffe Report

17. In the 1970s Richard Crossman's Cabinet diaries were posthumously published. Unlike earlier memoirs, the diaries gave full accounts of Cabinet meetings. In the introduction to the first volume he explained his motives:

18. In January 1975 the first extracts of the book were published in The Sunday Times without the consent of the Cabinet Secretary. The Attorney General sought an injunction to prevent the publication of the book or extracts from it on the grounds of the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings. The court upheld the principle that there was an obligation of confidentiality imposed on a Cabinet minister in the public interest of collective responsibility.[29] However, it found that there was a time limit on this obligation. As ten years had passed between the events described and the Crossman diary's publication, it was held that the book would not undermine Cabinet confidentiality. No injunction was sought against the latter volumes of the text, even though they were published less than ten years after the events they described.

19. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the Crossman diaries, a Committee of Privy Counsellors was established, chaired by Lord Radcliffe, to review the processes and principles involved in the publication of ministerial memoirs. The Committee's report (the Radcliffe Report) broadly endorsed the principles used in the Bridges memorandum. It stated that:

    45.  Within the limits of the general conception that the author is free to use his ministerial experience for the purpose of giving an account of his own work and not for the purpose of discussing or criticising the policies and opinions of other ministers who have been his colleagues, we identify certain separate categories of subject that call for restriction…

    46.  First, the author must not reveal anything that contravenes the requirements of national security operative at the time of his proposed publication…

    47.  The second category is… disclosures which would be injurious to this country's relations with other nations…

    48.  The third category has as its text the phrase "information the publication of which would be destructive of the confidential relationships… which may subsist between minister and minister, ministers and their advisers, and between either and outside bodies or private persons". The idea is very comprehensive, it involves the exercise of a much more subjective type of assessment than that required for the two preceding categories, and its application to any given set of circumstances calls for what is essentially editorial judgment. For this reason alone it does not break down easily into any set of more precise rules. It is a general principle and everything depends on its interpretation.

20. The Report justified restrictions on its third category of information as follows:

    51.   …the argument in its favour is quite simple and does not gain by elaboration… Those who are to act together in pursuance of a policy agreed in common do require and expect the observance of confidence as to what they say to each other; and unless they can be assured of the maintenance of that confidence they will not speak easily or frankly among themselves. Opinions, perhaps unpopular, perhaps embarrassing, will be muted or suppressed if they are known to be liable to future disclosure at the whim of some retired colleague. Business which should be discussed by the whole body will tend to be settled by two or three in a corner.

21. The Report, whilst recognising that any time limit "must necessarily be arbitrary and general" recommended a time restriction of 15 years during which the author should be bound by the principles and procedures in the Report. Once 15 years had passed, authors would be free to publish as they wished, with one exception: an ex-minister should not reveal any advice given to him in confidence by those in the public service whose duty it had been to advise him. Identifying such advice and the adviser should not be done until that adviser's professional life within the Civil Service had ended.[30] The main recommendations of the Radcliffe Report were accepted by the Cabinet and remain the basis for the current system.

22. However, two of the Report's conclusions were not acted upon. There is no evidence that ministers have routinely been given a copy of the Report itself on their appointment, as was recommended. In addition, Radcliffe recommended that "each minister would be furnished at the start with a separate memorandum abstracting the substance of this Report and asked to sign a declaration similar to that which he signs with reference to the Official Secrets Act".[31] This met flat refusal. Lord Donoughue, the Prime Minister's adviser, told us that in the Wilson Cabinet Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot all refused to sign such a declaration:

    … sitting around the table were Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, who periodically were scribbling the text for their future diaries, and of course a number of Cabinet ministers might well see that as a well-earned pension. It was a strong move from the centre of the machine to control diaries and memoirs, and it did not work because the Cabinet committee was not sympathetic, and a number of them simply refused to sign what they were supposed to sign….[32]

23. Although the Radcliffe Report dealt primarily with ministerial memoirs, it also considered publications by former members of the public services. The principles for publications by civil servants should be the same as for ministers but the procedures required to give effect to the Report's conclusions were considered a matter for individual government departments.

1993 Cabinet Office guidance note

24. In 1992 Lord Lawson published his memoir, The View from Number 11: the memoirs of a Tory Radical.[33] Although he had followed the processes laid out in the Radcliffe Report, Lord Lawson's memoir provoked concern within the Government because of its accounts of discussions between Cabinet members and its references to advice from named civil servants.[34] As a result, a Cabinet committee was set up chaired by Lord Wakeham, the then Lord Privy Seal. It produced a note of its conclusions, which did not move the discussion on from the Radcliffe Report. Like the Radcliffe Report it stressed that, as well as not revealing anything that contravened the requirements of national security or damaged relations with other countries, the author (whether a former minister or public servant) must:

    …refrain from publishing information destructive of the confidential relationships of ministers with each other, and of ministers with officials. In particular, references to individuals and their view of particular circumstances may be permitted provided that their disclosure would not damage either ministers or officials—particularly those still in office—in their work….[35]

25. The Wakeham Committee's conclusions are reproduced in the Directory of Civil Service Guidance.[36] They are not, however, referred to by the Ministerial Code (which refers to the Radcliffe Report) or the Civil Service Management Code. The Wakeham Committee was mentioned by Sir Jeremy Greenstock in evidence to this Committee, but the Cabinet Office was unable to find any records relating to the Committee other than the final note which it produced.

23   See David Reynolds, 'Official History: how Churchill and the cabinet office wrote The Second World War', Historical Research, Vol. 78, No. 201, August 2005. Back

24   203 HC Deb 5s. 559 Back

25   Memorandum from Sir Edward Bridges, circulated to the Cabinet on 10 May 1946, as quoted in the Report of the Committee of Privy Counsellors on Ministerial Memoirs, January 1976, Cmnd. 6386, para 13. Back

26   618 HC Deb 5s, 570-1 Back

27   David Reynolds, 'Official History: how Churchill and the Cabinet Office wrote the Second World War' in Historical Research, vol. 78, no. 201, 2005, pp 400-422. Back

28   Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister. Vol 1: Minister of Housing 1964-66 (London, Hamish Hamilton), p 12. Back

29   Attorney-General v Jonathan Cape Ltd [1976] QB 752; [1976] 3 All E R 484 Back

30   Report of the Committee of Privy Counsellors on Ministerial Memoirs, January 1976, Cmnd. 6386, para 86. Back

31   Ibid., para 71. Back

32   Oral evidence taken on Governing the Future, 26 January 2006, HC (2005-06) 756-ii, Q 206 Back

33   Nigel Lawson, The View from Number 11: Memoirs of a Tory radical, (London, Bantam), 1992. Back

34   Oral evidence taken on Politics and Administration, 2 March 2006, HC (2005-06) 660-iii, Q 220 Back

35   Guidance Note on the Conclusions and Recommendations in the Report of the Radcliffe Committee on Ministerial Memoirs (Cmnd 6386, January 1976) and their Application, 1993.  Back

36   The Committee did not report in public, but the principles set out in the guidance note are reproduced in the Directory of Civil Service Guidance Volume 2 under the section entitled "Ministerial Memoirs: The 'Radcliffe Rules' and their Application". Back

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