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Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are the current rules regarding the rights of retiring diplomats to publish memoirs, including accounts of their official lives, or to join public debate on matters of public interest.

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the current rules governing the publication of memoirs and involvement in public debates and media appearances are set out in the Diplomatic Service Regulations, a revised copy of which was deposited in the House Library in March 2006. The main criteria are that disclosure of official information should not prejudice national security, harm international relations or be destructive of the confidential relationship between Ministers or between Ministers and officials.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very reassuring Answer in the light of some recent newspaper reports. Does he agree with me that the important point and the crux of the relationship between Ministers and senior diplomats and Ministers and for civil servants is that they can have frank and robust exchanges without fear that those will turn up in the pages of newspapers or in memoirs? To that end, does my noble friend agree that the codes for Ministers and for civil servants should both be reviewed to encourage Ministers and civil servants to exercise a little more self-restraint and self-discipline than some recent examples have demonstrated?

My Lords, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee conducted an inquiry into the publication of political memoirs, which was published in July last year. The Government are currently co-ordinating and preparing our response, and it will reflect my noble friend’s concerns.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Prime Minister, during his 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, made a habit of virtually never staying at a British embassy but instead staying at hotels? Does the noble Lord agree that that pattern of behaviour not only increases public expenditure but, more seriously, cuts the Minister concerned off from the resources, advice and expertise available in the embassy? Does the Prime Minister intend to continue behaving in that way in his present office? Can the Minister offer any explanation for that strange pattern of behaviour on his behalf? Is it not possible that the reason may be anxiety regarding the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, in her questions?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has asked a question that it would be difficult and perhaps even inappropriate for me to answer. As a new customer of our embassies overseas, I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to stay there and be briefed by our ambassadors.

My Lords, I speak as a diplomatist who has not published any memoirs. Like the noble Baroness, I warmly welcome what was said today about the rules, and there will be a very general welcome among present and past members of the Foreign Office for her suggestion that the same rules should apply to politicians as to officials. There have been suggestions from time to time that we were moving in the direction of a blanket ban on memoirs by officials working in the Foreign Office. Does the Minister agree that that would be unfortunate? Obviously, from time to time, there may be a bad penny and there may be people in the Foreign Office, as anywhere else, who may be indiscreet and lack good judgment. On the whole, I think people will behave themselves.

My Lords, the noble Lord should be reassured that already this year some 10 books and 20 articles by former Foreign Office officials have been cleared for publication. The rules were established several years ago, and nothing has changed since 2006, so there has been no effort to tighten things up since then. Every one of us at ministerial level in the Foreign Office believes that there is a major contribution to be made to the foreign policy debate by retired diplomats.

My Lords, does the Minister think that the rules for retired UN officials are more appropriate than those for retired Foreign Office officials? Perhaps he will tell us when he is about to write his memoirs. All of us on these Benches believe that, as far as possible, there should be a bias towards openness and that the same rules should apply to officials as to special advisers and Ministers. There has been a great outpouring of material on British foreign policy in the past 10 years. One thing that has worried us is the very different treatment that Christopher Meyer received to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, when it seemed to many of us that Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s memoirs had a great deal to contribute to the public debate.

My Lords, in the case of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the ball is in his court, and if he wishes to come back to the Foreign Office that is still an open issue. I agree that he has a tremendous contribution to make to the discussion. Again, we have tried to align policy with our requirements under freedom of information so that the same rules apply across all government disclosure; that, except where it interferes with national security or with the confidentiality of discussions, there should be as much disclosure as possible, because a well informed public are a better educated one in this area.

My Lords, it is extremely reassuring when the Minister says that he agrees that retired diplomats should be able to contribute to national debate. But how does he reconcile that answer with the extremely limiting restriction in the Diplomatic Service Regulations? They state that retired diplomats may not enter into any commitment to publish or broadcast,

“any personal account of their employment or any material which draws on, or appears to draw on, official information or experience gained in the course of official duties”.

Is this not in the Minister’s view a quite unnecessary restriction, particularly in a liberal democracy? Is it not time that such revised regulations, which seem to revert to an earlier era, were revised in a much more liberal direction, so that Members of this House—many of whom are here as a result of the contribution that they have made to public life—would not have to rely on parliamentary privilege?

My Lords, I, like the noble Baroness, was quite shocked to read the first sentence of DSR 5 to which she refers. I was directed by officials to read the rest of it, which specifies arrangements which essentially put the responsibility on officials to consult the Foreign Office if they feel that they might be in breach of what I think are well understood guidelines. When the Government’s response to the House of Commons committee report comes out, we will use that opportunity to draft a regulation which is more in line with the 21st century and which avoids broad and misleading statements.