Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  Q40  Mr Hamilton: Can I pick up on something that you said earlier and in your submission about the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny generally? You mentioned that that this is the first time that you have appeared before the Committee and that you were surprised that you had not been previously invited to speak. Clearly, there is a large number of staff at the Foreign Office at different levels whom, if we had all the time in the world, we would love to talk to and whose evidence we would love to hear in this Committee. What is your alternative to what we actually do? You have been critical, and rightly so, but you have not offered an alternative to how we could improve parliamentary scrutiny and how people at your level and at more junior levels could give evidence and submit themselves to parliamentary scrutiny. What would you do?

  Mr Ross: Given my situation, I am a little surprised because I resigned over the Iraq war after giving evidence at the Butler inquiry. That evidence is still secret and it should be something in which the Committee might be interested. More generally, you are right to say that I should propose a constructive alternative in respect of how it could be better. One of the problems is the resources of the Committee. The Clerks and other officials who work for the Committee are extremely able and competent, but they do not have anything like the resources that are available, for example, to a United States Senate Committee on foreign affairs that has a large staff who are able to develop complicated analyses of the Government's policy. The number of subjects that you are able to cover is relatively few. That is a pity because British foreign policy is significant in many areas that are often obscure in the public debate. I suppose that, more fundamentally, the Foreign Office itself should be opened up a lot more. We have a highly deferential attitude to those who make foreign policy. In a sense, we are submissive. We allow them to get on with the business of foreign policy as long as we are allowed to get on with our lives back in Britain. It is a pact of irresponsibility. Reflecting on my 15 years at the Foreign Office, which dealt with many grave issues and where I was not scrutinised at all, I could not help but conclude that that was wrong not least because scrutiny makes for a much better policy. If officials feel that they may be held publicly accountable for their actions, they will take much greater care in their decisions. One of the serious problems with foreign policy is that individual officials, such as myself and the gentlemen who were here before me, bear no accountability for what they do, and what they do can have very serious consequences.

  Q41  Mr Hamilton: You must have been accountable to your managers, the people above you.

  Mr Ross: Yes, in theory, but that accountability was much more focused on my ability to draft good telegrams or execute nice briefings for my Ministers. There was not a component of moral accountability, for instance. I felt, looking back, that what I did about sanctions on Iraq was fundamentally wrong. Sanctions were ill-engineered and misdirected. They were targeted at the wrong group of people and, as a result, caused immense suffering in Iraq. They failed to achieve the ends for which they were designed.

  Q42  Mr Hamilton: Did you say anything at the time?

  Mr Ross: I did, but not enough. I felt that, as a group of officials, it was much easier for us to affirm each other and reinforce our sense of being right rather than to question each other. There is not a culture of open debate and questioning at the Foreign Office. When I tried to instigate open discussion of policy, I was often accused of being a troublemaker or an iconoclast. People inside the Foreign Office are marked in that way with a little red sign. It means, for instance, that you will never be ambassador to Washington. You might be ambassador to Belarus, but never to Washington. That is problematic and the way around it is to open the policy debate to outside scrutiny. I even feel that one should question whether we need an institution like the Foreign Office, an elite body that does this thing called foreign policy, because in fact foreign policy is everything. It is about every aspect of our lives these days. It is about global warming; it is about trade; it is about employment; it is about immigration, the stuff of domestic debate. The idea that we have a separate institution sequestered away from public scrutiny dealing with foreign policy is, I think, a myth that belongs in earlier centuries.

  Q43  Richard Younger-Ross: That is a fairly broad criticism of the FCO. Is that way of working not also a problem in the other Departments? Is it not a failing in the civil service per se rather than just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

  Mr Ross: I do not think so, for the following reason. In domestic policy, the mechanisms of accountability are much more developed, in that MPs, the press and the courts have a much greater role in scrutinising, for example, health policy or education policy. If a policy is going wrong in a city academy in Rotherham, for example, people will quickly scream about it, MPs will start interrogating officials and Ministers and there is a much greater sense of a real dialogue between the governed and the governors. Because the effects of foreign policy are felt much further away, there is not that feedback mechanism—it does not exist. For that reason, you have to take much greater care to scrutinise it more closely.

  Q44  Richard Younger-Ross: To continue, you talk about foreign policy now being inclusive of all sorts of other areas. How do you feel that the Foreign Office works with the other Departments? Is its relationship with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, say, over climate change a healthy one?

  Mr Ross: Yes.

  Q45  Richard Younger-Ross: Who leads on that? How much does the FCO listen to what is being said to it by the relevant Minister?

  Mr Ross: I am probably the wrong person to ask. I have not worked in Whitehall since 1998, so I am pretty out of date on inter-departmental relations. Certainly, on Iraq policy, the only Department that we work closely with is the Ministry of Defence—and that was a pretty close relationship.

  Q46  Richard Younger-Ross: I wanted to return to the relationships between the FCO and Downing street. You said earlier that the Foreign Office would like to think that it had a different view—that if only it had been done the FCO way, everything would have been all right. You then said that there were cases where the FCO had stood out and said that things were wrong—that the legality of the war in Iraq is wrong. Our perception is that, over Lebanon, the FCO's view would have been different from Downing street's. How much does the FCO have a different policy from Downing street and what is the influence of Downing street? How does Downing street assert itself on the FCO?

  Mr Ross: This is an evolving story. It changes very rapidly. I have to say that I am pretty out of date on it. I have not been part of the FCO proper since mid-2002. But by that time it was clear that No 10 was absolutely dominant in foreign policy; any serious policy decision had to be submitted to No 10 before it could be put into effect. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with that. The Prime Minister is, after all, in charge of the Government. However, that is problematic because No 10 is inevitably a much smaller group of policy makers; its foreign policy team is very small indeed and may run the risk of losing the benefit of the much broader perspective that the Foreign Office might bring. At the end of the day, however, it is about politics and leadership. I do not think that I am the first to comment that Britain has a system that tends to concentrate power in the Prime Minister's hands and that that affects foreign policy and the Foreign Secretary as much as it affects anybody else.

  Q47  Richard Younger-Ross: What I am trying to come to is this: does the FCO change what it says to please Downing street, or does it hold the line and say, "This is what we believe to be the case"? You seem to imply that there is some shift—that things are said because that is the response that is wanted.

  Mr Ross: To be honest, I do not think that I am qualified to comment in broad terms, because I was only part of a particular piece of policy for a certain number of years.

  Q48  Richard Younger-Ross: You were an expert.

  Mr Ross: There, of course, the Foreign Office tailored its advice to what it thought the Prime Minister and other Ministers wanted to hear; that is what civil servants do. But my impression—it is only an impression; I cannot give you empirical evidence—is that over the last few years this has become a more subtle and insidious trend and officials increasingly have failed to give Ministers the range of options, particularly the more critical options on policy, that they might have.

  Q49  Andrew Mackinlay: You said that your evidence to the Butler inquiry is secret and will be for many years, but I invite you to consider something. It is my understanding that the evidence that you gave to the Butler inquiry is your property and that you are entitled to publish that information. You could certainly furnish it to the Committee. Will you do so? You implicitly said that you could not go into the subject because it was secret. I put it to you that it is not secret; the evidence that you gave is entirely your property and you could let this Committee have it.

  Mr Ross: I am torn.

  Andrew Mackinlay: You are criticising us.

  Mr Ross: I am not. In that sense, I am bound by law and not my views. I would love to give it to you.

  Andrew Mackinlay: It is your property. You are entitled to do so. In any event, it would be privileged here. None the less, my recollection of the Butler inquiry is that any evidence given is the property of the person giving it.

  Mr Ross: I was advised by the lawyers of my union that I might be liable for prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if it was to become public.   Andrew Mackinlay: It is privileged here.

  Chairman: I think we need further legal advice for Mr Ross on that rather than discussing it.

  Mr Ross: If I may say so, Mr Chairman, it is an interesting point. In this room, one is under different legal circumstances than outside it. However, I feel that the matter should come to light. I do not think that it is right that such things should be kept secret. I do not think that the evidence that I gave is damaging to Britain's national interest. However, it is up to the British public and the British Parliament to know what the views of people such as me were in an important inquiry into policy.

  Q50  Andrew Mackinlay: I am putting it to you that I am absolutely certain—although the Clerk and your lawyers will advise on it—that it is totally privileged here. It is your property. In view, particularly of what you said both in a written submission and what you have said here—all of which is legitimate, and with which I have a great deal of sympathy—it is time to make up your mind. You might want to reflect on that when you leave the room, but you must not come back at a later stage and criticise us. One bears the scars of lots of inquiries, not just on Iraq, but on Sierra Leone, where there was obfuscation by lots of people. Lots of people said that we have not probed or scrutinised. When people come here, they are worried about the Foreign Office lawyers behind them, and people whose names we do not know. It is make-your-mind-up time.

  Mr Ross: It is a fair point, and I have brought a copy with me.

  Andrew Mackinlay: If it is on rice paper, I shall eat it after I have read it.

  Mr Ross: I shall be delighted to give it to you. If you want it, maybe the Clerk can give it to you.

  Q51  Chairman: Can we move on? Do not worry about the bell; we shall carry on for a while. Can I ask you about your assessment of the structure that Mr Hamilton talked about in his questions? How could a Government and a civil service work effectively if, at any point, any member of staff could be summoned to give their own personal views that did not reflect the views of the Department to an outside body, while that policy was still evolving? Do you know where I am coming from?

  Mr Ross: Yes.

  Q52  Chairman: I just wondered how that could work in practice. I am taking the implication of what you said earlier as meaning that somebody, some way down the pecking order in the system, could be summoned to come to a Committee to give a view that was not necessarily the Department's view, which was not the Minister's view or that of the more senior people in the structure, but would undermine the process of government?

  Mr Ross: I have to say that that is the great myth of government: that you need a kind of secret process, where officials can work without scrutiny in order to produce proper policy. I simply do not believe that. The evidence of foreign policy making over the last few years is that scrutiny is desperately needed. It is not for me to tell you the mechanics of how that might work, but I would not accept the blandishments of Government that they cannot work under scrutiny. Of course they can.

  Q53  Chairman: So what you are saying is that advice to Ministers should not be confidential under all circumstances?

  Mr Ross: No, I am not saying that. Of course there are certain things that would need to be more limited in terms of their public discussion, but the way that it is now is extremely superficial. To go back to the document that we are supposed to be talking about, it is a deeply superficial document and does not tell you anything about the actual detail of British foreign policy. That level of public and parliamentary discussion about British foreign policy is, to me, inadequate when the consequences of that policy are so important.

  Q54  Sir John Stanley: The document does, of course, refer to Afghanistan, and indeed you refer in your own paper to the fact that you served briefly in Afghanistan after we invaded. With regard to Afghanistan, do you agree that it was an entirely legitimate, legal, necessary invasion? Give us your assessment, if you would, of how well or not so well we have done since the invasion took place.

  Mr Ross: I absolutely agree that it was legitimate, and I supported it fully. I still do. Where I criticise it is that from the very beginning of when we were there both the Afghans and the British and American military who were there were clear that we needed to devote a lot more forces to stabilising the country. Afghanistan, as you know, is a huge country, very ill served by infrastructure. There were not proper roads, not even a proper telephone system when we got there, yet we sent a tiny number of troops, mostly to be based in Kabul. My job in the embassy was to talk to political leaders and receive representations from delegations around the country. They all had one single message, uniformly, which was, "We need stability, we need security." For that, we needed more forces. There is a direct connection with the Iraq invasion, because it was very clear that forces were being held back, even at that point, for the later invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the senior British officers in the International Security Assistance Force, which I helped to set up in the UN security council, said that their equipment and men were being held back in order to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. That was in early 2002.

  Q55  Sir John Stanley: So you are saying to us that, right from the outset, we made insufficient commitment of our own armed forces to Afghanistan and that we should have rebalanced rapidly between Iraq and Afghanistan. On top of that, what do you feel about how well we have done on the political side in Iraq overall? We have record narcotics production this year; how well are we doing on that front and how well are we doing on the human rights front?

  Mr Ross: Politically, the objective was to build a functioning democracy in Afghanistan, and, at least superficially, that has been created. That is admirable and a brave effort, particularly on the part of the Afghans involved. What they do not have is security and stability throughout the country, as is evident from our news every day, particularly in the south. The allies never occupied or stabilised the south; there were never allied forces in significant numbers there. In fact, the toppling of the Taliban was only a Kabul and northern Afghanistan phenomenon. In any case, the Taliban were very weak in the north, if non-existent, because the north was dominated by Tajik warlords such as Dostum and others. So to that extent, it is still a very uncertain endeavour and one that is still at grave risk of failure, because the Government is not firmly rooted in the whole country and there is an ongoing war in the south that it does not look like we are winning right now. I do not therefore think that democracy is stable and secure for the long term. We should not leave until it is, and one piece of evidence of that is the continuing production of drugs, particularly opium, which was widespread before we got there and is even more widespread now. The reason why it proliferates in the way that it does is that there is no alternative economy that can offer ordinary Afghans anything like the same income. Until there is stability and economic development of a much greater and longer-term scale, that will continue to be a problem.

  Q56  Mr Horam: But however well meaning our intervention in Afghanistan, and I think that most people thought that it was legal and justified, events have unfolded in the way that you describe. However great our military resources may become, the reality is that one sees no real future for any kind of solution to those problems. "Why are we there," is increasingly the question, "and what good will we do?" I hear you say that we should not leave until some sort of democratic situation is in place in Afghanistan, but given the history of the country, that seems highly unlikely in any civil future.

  Mr Ross: I do not think that that is necessarily the case. I do not accept essentialist explanations of places such as Afghanistan as historically incapable of democracy. It is not a unitary state in the way that we think of ourselves or other western European countries. It is a state made up of many different ethnicities and tribes. When I was there a while ago—I accept that my impression of it was highly selective—it was rather moving how every Afghan that I talked to was absolutely passionate about their desire for more participative, representative and legal government, not just as an alternative to the Taliban but as an alternative to what are normally called the warlords: people such as Dostum or Ismail Khan in Herat who ruled with viciousness, oppression and illegality.

  Q57  Mr Horam: Do you think that we can actually bring that about?

  Mr Ross: Part of the problem with our initial incursion into Afghanistan is that those very warlords were our allies in our primary objective, which was getting rid of al-Qaeda/Taliban. That undermined our objective of building democracy, because it reaffirmed those people in their roles, and it has made it a very great problem for more legitimate types of people, such as Karzai and people like him, to assert their authority. I am afraid to say that it cannot be underestimated how little we knew about Afghanistan before we went in. We had not had an embassy there for many years. I remember vividly sitting with the British and American special envoys for Afghanistan, shortly before the invasion, in New York where they were meeting. I was the note taker for their meeting; I covered Afghanistan as well as Iraq in New York. Both were highly intelligent men. They sat and told each other how much they knew about Afghanistan. Neither of them had visited and neither spoke any of the languages, but they had both read the same three books about Afghanistan.

  Q58  Mr Horam: Despite all that, you think that we should still allow British soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan, because we have no alternative?

  Mr Ross: I think that once you invade a country, you have an obligation to make it right. That is a legal as well as a moral obligation under the Geneva conventions.

  Q59  Mr Horam: Despite your rather pessimistic outlook—there is no alternative, in your view—in your paper you said that there is always an alternative.

  Mr Ross: I talked about the alternatives for general British foreign policy. Once you invade a country, say that you are going to produce a democracy and promise the people there emphatically and fist-poundingly that you will stand by Afghans, you damn well do it.

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