Civil Servants: Publication of Memoirs

– in the House of Lords at 11:22 am on 17 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 11:22, 17 November 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What guidance is given to recently retired civil servants regarding the publication of memoirs relating to their period of service.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, rules for civil servants on the publication of memoirs relating to their experience in government are set out in the Civil Service Codes of Conduct.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the publication of Sir Christopher Meyer's memoirs—DC Confidential—represents a serious breach of confidence which now makes his position as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission entirely untenable? As trust between Ministers and civil servants is vital for good government, will he and his colleagues now review and enforce the rules for both civil servants and Ministers?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, my noble friend makes very valid points. He is absolutely right. We firmly take the view that former civil servants must continue to observe their duties of confidentiality after they have left Crown employment. I am sure that that view is shared across your Lordships' House.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be deeply regrettable and damaging to the conduct of public business if the effect of the deplorable publication of Sir Christopher Meyer's memoirs were to reduce even further the reliance of Ministers on professional advice, on confidentiality, on discretion and on the trust of public servants, whether from the Home Civil Service or from the Diplomatic Service?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I welcome the comments of the noble Lord, speaking as he does with vast experience. Those sentiments are well understood. It would be extremely regrettable. Trust and the ability to rely on things said in confidence in a private place are important in the conduct of good government.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, is it the Government's policy to extend the rules and guidance to the spouses of senior Ministers? I ask because, in respect of the book that has already been mentioned, the Foreign Secretary expressed outrage on the radio at the references to the state of undress of former Prime Minister Sir John Major in briefings. I recall that the first time I read such references, including a quote from the then-Mr Christopher Meyer, was on page 252 of The Goldfish Bowl, the author of which was a certain Cherie Booth.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the page reference. I shall look it up and read it with even greater interest than I would have previously. Clearly, what people say in their biographies, autobiographies and so on is a matter for them. We would do well to reflect on the need for quiet reflection and confidentiality in what we reveal about ourselves.

Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour

My Lords, at what level in the Civil Service were these memoirs cleared for publication?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, it would be wrong to say that they were cleared. The book was referred by its publishers to the Secretary of the Cabinet, Sir Gus O'Donnell, and in reply, he wrote:

"I am grateful for the opportunity to have had a chance to offer comments on the proposed book and can confirm . . . that the Government has no comments to make on the proposed book. However, I have to admit to being disappointed that a former diplomat should disclose confidences gained as a result of his employment".

He makes this important point:

"More generally, as I am sure you will appreciate, it is not my responsibility to check whether the remarks attributed to individuals are accurate and complete, and you should not therefore imply from this response that the book has any form of official or unofficial approval".

Those words are well meant.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, on the other part of the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, if the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, the chairman of Ofcom, was found to be trying to sell a television programme to television companies, his resignation would quickly be asked for. Is it appropriate that the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission should go hawking his memoirs around Fleet Street? Does that not confirm that the Press Complaints Commission is really a sweetheart club for newspaper owners?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord has made the second of those important points on a number of occasions. I know that it is a view shared by many people. In respect of the noble Lord's comments about the juxtapositioning of Sir Christopher Meyer's position and the revelations in DC Confidential, I agree that they sit strangely at odds with each other.

Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench

My Lords, I associate myself with what my noble friend Lord Wright said on this matter. There can be no possible right for civil servants or diplomats to publish information about the former Prime Minister's shirt tails. Indeed, there can be no public right to know about such matters, which are irrelevant to a Minister's conduct as a Minister.

Will the Minister refresh his memory of the Radcliffe report on ministerial memoirs? The report is now some years old, but its recommendations are as relevant now as they were then. They are for a requirement on Ministers—and I think there should be a similar requirement on civil servants—to sign an acceptance of the recommendations in the report and to observe them; that is, to accept deletions or amendments proposed on grounds of national security, of international relations and, within 15 years of leaving office, of breaches of confidence.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the Radcliffe rules were an important contribution. The most important thing that they make plain is that those who have been involved in public life should refrain from publishing information destructive of confidential relationships with Ministers, each other and officials generally. That is an important rule of which we should all take note. Those who have been in the Civil Service or the Diplomatic Service should also take careful note.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, anything which could—

Photo of Lord Goodlad Lord Goodlad Conservative

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House about the applicability of the Freedom of Information Act to such memoirs after being subjected to vetting, but prior to publication?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a question that raises a number of other issues on which I should like to reflect. He makes an interesting point. I shall write to the noble Lord and of course share the contents of that correspondence with your Lordships' House.