Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)|
8 NOVEMBER 2006
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
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
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 mechanismit
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 Defenceand 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 viewthat 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 wrongthat 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
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
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 shiftthat 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
Q48 Richard Younger-Ross: You were
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 impressionit is only an impression;
I cannot give you empirical evidenceis 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
Mr Ross: I am not. In that sense,
I am bound by law and not my views. I would love to give it to
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
Q50 Andrew Mackinlay: I am putting
it to you that I am absolutely certainalthough the Clerk
and your lawyers will advise on itthat 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 hereall
of which is legitimate, and with which I have a great deal of
sympathyit 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
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
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
Q53 Chairman: So what you are saying
is that advice to Ministers should not be confidential under all
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
agoI accept that my impression of it was highly selectiveit
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 outlookthere is no alternative, in your viewin
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.