Secrets, Lies and Lessons

- Monday, 19th January 2004

 

Article by Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP published in the London Evening Standard Monday 19th January 2004

Tony Blair probably thought an Inquiry would just see off conspiracy theories that the government had somehow been murkily involved in Dr Kelly?s demise. In practice, it has thrown light where the Government would prefer there were darkness. Were Lord Hutton to refrain from making any judgements and merely recount what actually happened, what we have learned from his inquiry so far would still reveal a damning picture of how this government operates.

As a former Cabinet Minister was struck by how the evidence from the inquiry conflicts with the normal rules of government.

I wrote to Lord Hutton asking why there were no notes of the key discussions involving the Prime Minister and his senior Ministers and advisers when the decision was taken to name Doctor Kelly. He replied caustically that "only a small number of notes made by Private Secretaries were sent, and these notes were very sparse and of no relevance?.

This is strange. One of the things I discovered on becoming a Minister is that your Private Secretary listens into and takes notes of every phone conversation and meeting you hold. That note-taking process is essential for good government. It ensures that decisions are implemented.

Moreover, the very existence of a note taker acts as a subconscious check inhibiting any consideration of personal or improper factors. Unless the whole culture of government has changed the only circumstances in which no note would be made would be if a Minister told his Private Secretary not to take notes or not to monitor a call. The only reason a Minister would do that would be if he knew the discussion was improper or dodgy. So the absence of notes of Mr Blair‘s key conversations speaks for itself.

One glaring omission in the evidence submitted to Hutton was the transcript of the Prime Minister?s threefold denial - highlighted by Michael Howard - that he personally authorised the release of David Kelly?s name. Lord Hutton has confirmed to me that press cuttings of the relevant press conference were brought to his attention by his staff "I did not receive a transcript of the press conference from the government ? I assume because it took place after Dr Kelly?s death.? So he may feel excused from commenting on the Prime Minister?s veracity on that occasion. But the rest of us are free to draw our own conclusions.

Another puzzling thing about the government?s evidence was their decision to release information about Dr Kelly. Soon after becoming Secretary of State for Social Security I was taught a healthy lesson about how information should be handled. A Departmental study had come up with an embarrassing fact known only to us. Then to my astonishment it appeared as the headline in The Guardian. When I asked my Chief Information Officer how they had got hold of it he replied, "I gave it to them. They asked a question to which that was the answer. My job is to give information.?

When my apoplexy subsided, I realised that he was absolutely right and came greatly to respect him. He explained: "There are only two kinds of government information: that which is confidential (in the Kelly case the disciplinary procedures against staff) and must be withheld; and all the rest which must be released if requested.?

The bizarre thing about the government?s defence of their decision about naming Dr Kelly is that they have invented a third category: - information which, though confidential, can be released as the prize in a guessing game with an MoD press office.

I recall only two leaks from my Department. On both occasions we found the culprit. They were not charged but disciplined, so their names were not released. I tabled questions to every Department asking whether the practice has changed. The answer from the Ministry of Defence blows the government?s case apart. It reveals that the MoD has investigated no fewer than 47 leaks since 1997 but in no case was the suspect?s name released - "in line with ? the practice of successive governments not to comment on the outcome of such enquiries?. This casts the gravest doubt on Tony Blair?s claim that the naming of Dr Kelly was handled "by the book? and Geoff Hoon?s claim that "we followed very carefully the established MoD procedures?.

Overall the Hutton evidence reveals an emerging breakdown of the traditional relationship between Ministers and officials. Ministers seek to escape from the restraints imposed upon them by record-taking civil servants. They place political appointees in charge of traditionally apolitical civil servants. Whereas in the past Ministers acted as shields to protect civil servants from political pressures, now ministers deploy civil servants for political purposes.

Dr Kelly?s (wholly improper) briefings were a symptom that officials have increasingly had enough of being used and abused for political purposes. The unhelpful frankness of Sir Kevin Tebbit in revealing that Tony Blair chaired the meetings authorising the release of Dr Kelly?s name was equally a symptom that the mandarins will no longer tolerate established rules being disregarded.

I have found Lord Hutton to be brusque and no-nonsense in my dealings with him. But no judge wants to bring down a Prime Minister. So his report will probably try to restrict blame to a minimum and focus on practical recommendations. let us hope that he makes robust proposals to restore the independence and impartiality of our civil service. On the Scott precedent the government should feel bound to accept all Hutton?s major recommendations in principle. But how long will it last in practice? I am usually no fan of legislative solutions but I will only believe new labour‘s chronic tendency to politicise our institutions will be contained if we adopt a really tough Civil Service Act enshrining its traditional culture in statute.

What really concerns people is not the minutiae of how Dr Kelly was treated but whether Tony Blair took us to war on a false prospectus. This is beyond Lord Hutton?s remit. But the picture his Inquiry paints has a bearing on it. If it shows the systematic distortion of procedures of good government, an obsession with media manipulation, ruthless disregard for individuals and rules and a cavalier approach to the truth on a minor dispute with the BBC, it will strengthen the case for an independent Inquiry into the big issue of how we came to invade Iraq.

I concluded before the war that Saddam probably had no useable weapons of mass destruction. But I voted, albeit reluctantly, to remove a tyrannical regime which threatened the stability of the region and undoubtedly had possessed and wanted to re-acquire WMD. Blair may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons. But we cannot let government get away with fabricating wrong reasons to do the right thing - or it may feel free to fabricate reasons to do whatever it wants.

 

 

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