Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Rt Hon Lord Owen CH

  In May 1991 I submitted the manuscript of my autobiography, Time To Declare, to Sir Robin Butler, then Secretary of the Cabinet. I felt bound by the guidelines set out in the 1974 Radcliffe Report but as will be clear by the correspondence, which I attach (Annex), there was a negotiation between myself and the Cabinet Secretary. This correspondence is already in the public domain as part of my papers held by the Special Collections and Archives Department at the University of Liverpool, of which I am Chancellor.

  As you will see I reserved the right to make the final decisions on the guidelines in the light of advice from Sir Robin and did not consider his judgement absolute. Of course, I gave great weight to his views on whether they contravened the requirements of national security. On whether they injured the country's international relations, I gave his views serious consideration. On whether they undermined confidence in relationships within Government I made largely my own political decisions. Broadly speaking, I considered it right to delete all named criticisms of members of the Civil Service or Diplomatic Service since I think it is a good rule of thumb that politicians should keep named criticism to that of their political colleagues who are in a position to defend themselves.

  It seems now, from the outside, that the undoubted mess we are in over political memoirs or diaries from politicians and civil servants is that the traditional separation between impartial administration and political decision making has become damagingly blurred. The Committee will see evidence from the enclosed correspondence that this was starting to develop in 1991. This blurring has, in my view, become much worse in recent years because of three factors:

    1.  The appointment of two political appointees, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, by the Prime Minister in 1997 with executive power over members of the Civil Service and Diplomatic Service.

    2.  The creation in 2001 of two new Secretariats in 10 Downing Street, the European Secretariat and Overseas and Defence Secretariat, which have contributed to a level of incompetence in the Prime Minister's handling of the proposed European Constitution and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    3.  The diminished role of the Cabinet Office, Cabinet Secretariat, Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet itself from 1982-1990 and from 1997-2006.

  I have never known a time in the last 40 years when there has been so much disillusionment, bordering on contempt, for politicians by civil servants and diplomats and vice-versa. Hopefully the next Prime Minister will restore the separation between political advisers and civil servants, abolish the two Secretariats in No 10, and restore the authority of all four aspects of Cabinet Government. If that happens there is a good chance that mutual trust and respect can be restored and the UK governed with much greater competence and far more public support, whether at home or abroad.

9 January 2006

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