Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by Sir Christopher Meyer KCMG

  The purpose of this memorandum is two-fold:

  firstly, to address issues arising on 15 December from Mr Prentice's questions and Lord Turnbull's evidence. Mr Prentice's unfounded allegations of lying are sufficiently serious to warrant a more comprehensive rebuttal than I was able to give at the hearing; and I did not, of course, see Lord Turnbull's evidence until after the session;

  secondly, to underline the deficiencies and contradictions in the clearance process to which I submitted my book—and to suggest a remedy.

  It needs to be repeated that Chapter 5 of Diplomatic Service Regulations (DSR 5) requires permission to be obtained before publishing books or articles; taking part in broadcast programmes; doing interviews with the media; writing letters for publication in the press; giving lectures or speeches; and taking part in conferences or seminars—if any of these draw on information or experience gained in the course of official duties. In other words books are grouped with everything else.

  These rules have been constructed primarily for those still in service. But they are also supposed to apply indefinitely to retired diplomats.

  In practice the FCO appears to make a pragmatic distinction between those still serving and those who have retired. That at least has been my experience. On returning to London from Washington on retirement in March 2003, I informed the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Michael Jay, that I had been offered contracts by Channel Four News and ABC News to comment on the Iraq war. Sir Michael did not ask me to clear my lines in advance with the FCO. His only comment was to offer help with background briefing should I need it.

  In the next two and a half years or so, I gave many speeches, lectures and interviews; wrote a couple of articles; and sent a letter to the press. Though from time to time I sought briefing from Foreign Office contacts, at no stage did the FCO invoke DSR 5 in relation to this activity and request me to seek clearance in advance. This included an occasion on 4 June 2004 when Sir Michael called me to convey the displeasure of Ministers at remarks on UK-US relations I was alleged to have made to the media. Sir Michael disputes this and claims that he did, on that occasion, invoke the rules.

  It appears to be this difference of opinion between Sir Michael and me that prompted Mr Prentice to make his first allegation of lying. It is a false allegation. The essential reference material is the correspondence[1] between the Foreign Office and me between 30 June and 15 August 2005, which the Committee has in its possession and which appears to have been given to the press. The correspondence includes an exchange of letters between Sir Michael (26 July) and me (7 August). In my reply to Sir Michael I set out my version of our 4 June 2004 conversation, based on contemporaneous notes. I stand by this version. Sir Michael did not reply to my letter.

  Mr Prentice's second allegation of lying is equally without foundation. He asserted that it was a "complete lie" for me to have said that the FCO had never been in touch for two years. I never said any such thing. This is obvious from the very correspondence between the FCO and me that Mr Prentice cited. The point at issue was not the fact of a contact between me and the FCO in 2004; but what Sir Michael Jay and I said to each other.

  However, none of the above was reason for not clearing the manuscript of my book in advance of publication; and at no stage in these exchanges did I say that I would not show it to the Government. But it did set a context. In the correspondence referred to above, I pressed the FCO to explain the discrepancy between their approach to books and that to other forms of public expression by retired diplomats. It was also notable that, until the end of June 2005, the Department had shown no interest in the book despite my publishers' having announced very publicly in April 2005 that they had signed me up; and despite my having discussed the book with senior FCO officials from the autumn of 2004 onwards.

  Following the exchanges with Sir Michael Jay described above, Richard Stagg, the FCO's Director for Corporate Affairs, telephoned me in the second week of August to ask, among other things, where matters rested with my book. I explained yet again that the manuscript was still not finished. Mr Stagg followed up what had been a very reasonable conversation by writing to me on 15 August, the last piece of correspondence between the FCO and me and, again, in the Committee's possession. Mr Stagg's letter offered a fair basis on which to proceed and to submit my manuscript when finished. It said that he would be in touch with me again in early September.

  In the event it was not Richard Stagg, but Howell James, Permanent Secretary for Government Communications at the Cabinet Office, who called me in early September. He asked that I submit my manuscript to the Cabinet Office. This I agreed to do once it was finished. It was understood that the Cabinet Office would show the manuscript to interested Departments, notably the FCO. I finished the manuscript on 13 September. The page proofs were sent by my publishers to the Cabinet Office on 7 October.

  In his evidence to the Committee, Lord Turnbull alleged that I had made contractual arrangements for the publication of my book, which, in effect, presented the Government with a fait accompli: that publication had gone beyond the point of no return by the time I submitted the manuscript. There is a similar inference to be drawn from the Foreign Secretary's written answer to Mr Prentice of 28 November, where it is suggested that I withheld submitting my manuscript until the last minute before publication.

  These allegations are false. They are based on a misunderstanding of how publishing works. I handed in the last three chapters to my publishers on 13 September. As soon as the manuscript had been edited and turned into page proofs, it was, as stated above, submitted to the Cabinet Office on 7 October. Two weeks later, on 21 October, the Cabinet Office telephoned my publishers to say that the government had no comment to make on the book. Following this clearance, the publishers decided on 24 October to make 10 November the date of publication.

  My publishers were, of course, extremely keen to publish before Christmas and were organised to do so. They pressed the Cabinet Office to conduct the clearance process as fast as possible. But, had the Cabinet Office raised objections, or sought extensive changes, the publication of the book would almost certainly have had to be delayed; the publishers could not have pressed ahead against my wishes. There would have followed the process of negotiation described to the Committee by Lords Turnbull and Wilson, both of whom presided over the publication of numerous memoirs by politicians and special advisers.

  It has to be understood—and I would be surprised if this were not the case in the Cabinet Office—that entering into a contract with a publisher is an elastic transaction (it has also to be said that it makes no sense for former civil servants, as opposed to those still serving, to submit to the Government anything other than a manuscript edited by a publishing house for publication). My publishers were aware from the beginning of the requirement to show my manuscript to the Government and the question mark this could put over the publication date. I myself completed the manuscript two months later than stipulated in my contract. I thought it more than likely publication would be put back to the spring. Sir Jeremy Greenstock has been reported in the press as saying that he has put his manuscript in the "fridge", despite his having signed a contract to publish his book in 2005. There was, therefore, no question of the Cabinet Office being confronted with a fait accompli: the button to publish was pushed after the process of clearance was completed.

  Finally, there is the question of what constitutes "clearance". In my own case the Government have surrounded the issue in a fog of confusion, which makes a mockery of the system. This goes as far as Lord Bassam's saying in the House of Lords that "it would be wrong to say that they [the memoirs] were cleared", a notion echoed by the Chairman's apparent incredulity that I should believe my book to have been cleared. If the book was not cleared, then what exactly was the process to which I submitted it at the invitation of the Cabinet Office?

  It took more than two weeks before, on 8 November, my publishers received a four-sentence letter from the Cabinet Secretary confirming the 'phone message of 21 October that the Government had no comment to make on the book. But in the very next sentence Sir Gus O'Donnell made a comment: to the effect that he was disappointed that a diplomat should disclose confidences gained as a result of his employment. The nature of these alleged confidences was not disclosed.

  Mr Straw's written answer to Mr Prentice of 28 November takes a similarly contradictory approach, replete with comment. He lists the criteria for assessing texts: harm to national security or defence; harm to international relations; and harm to confidential relationships within government. He says that the book was judged against the "standard criteria for clearing [my emphasis] publications under the rules". He then goes on to say that no changes were sought to the book because it did not offend the first two criteria: harm to national security and harm to relations with the US.

  As to judging the book against the third criterion—harm to confidential relationships within government—Mr Straw takes a different tack. Without providing any detail, he levels the charge that I breached trust and confidence, a most serious accusation. If that is the case, a number of questions need to be asked. What were the breaches? Why did the clearance process not pick up them up and request that I make changes? If, as the Foreign Secretary asserts, the book "undermines the key relationship between civil servants and ministers", why was it allowed to pass? Why is it that the government, having said that it would make no comment, has commented extensively since?

  To eradicate the inconsistencies and deficiencies currently surrounding the publication of political memoirs does not call for radical surgery such as new legislation or the placing of material under Crown copyright. The Radcliffe criteria at the heart of the present system remain perfectly serviceable. What is missing is consistency and clarity in their application and in the definition of the duty of confidentiality. There should be, for example, a level playing field for civil servants, special advisers and ministers on leaving Government.

  But the machinery for reviewing political memoirs may need strengthening: for example, by a small committee, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, comprising some permutation of publicly appointed lay members, special advisers and civil servants, who will read and rule on manuscripts. The Committee would decide both on content and on where the public interest lies as to the timing of publication. This case-by-case approach would seem preferable to setting an arbitrary and universal timescale before memoirs can be published.

  As for enforceability, a requirement to submit manuscripts to, and respect the judgement of, the committee should be written into civil servants' and diplomats' contracts. The work of the committee would be made easier if Civil and Diplomatic Service rules made a distinction between those still working and those in retirement, where this is sensible.

12 January 2006

1   1. Yasamee to Meyer 30 June
2. Meyer to Yasamee 12 July
3. Jay to Meyer 26 July
4. Meyer to Jay 7 August
5. Stagg to Meyer 15 August 

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