The Public Administration Select Committee has been conducting an inquiry into ‘The Publication of Political Memoirs.’ We post here the uncorrected transcript of oral evidence given by Tony Benn, who presents a robust defence of openess.
“I believe Craig Murray, who was the ambassador in Uzbekistan, has been told that he cannot publish his diary. I think this is just in the interests of ministers; it is nothing whatever to do with the public interest, indeed quite the opposite, it makes it hard to hold people accountable for what they do.” Tony Benn
Oral Evidence Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on Thursday 16 March 2006
Witness: Rt Hon Tony Benn gave evidence.
Q386 Chairman: May I welcome Tony Benn, not for the first time, to the Committee. We draw upon you regularly, always to great effect and we are delighted that you are able to come to help us with one of our inquiries at the moment which is on memoirs. You of all people should be able to tell us about this as one of the great diarists of our time. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or shall we go straight to questions?
Mr Benn: May I just briefly say, and I put it in my note, that the balance of information between the Government and the people is what determines whether it is democratic or not. Looking over history, the Heresy Act of 1401 meant that if a lay person read the Bible they were burned at the stake. That was an attempt by the Government to control people thinking out for themselves their religious beliefs. Then the Church of England was nationalised by Henry VIII because he wanted to control the Church. Charles II nationalised the Post Office because he wanted to open everybody’s letters – I looked this all up when I was Postmaster General – and Hansard was imprisoned for reporting what was said in the House of Commons.
All of these related to the availability of information. The position at the moment is that the Government want to know all about us. When I use my Oyster card the police know what station I went into, where I went and when I came out again. My phone is bugged, or can be bugged, quite legally now and everything about us is known, but we are to know very, very little about what the Government do. Under the 30-year rule I shall be 111 before I know what the Cabinet minutes for yesterday are. I think that there is an imbalance and I am making a very, very simple point, which is that the argument about secrecy and so on confuses the convenience of ministers with the national interest.
My experience, if it is of any help, and I was a departmental minister for 11 years, is that there are very, very few secrets in Government at all. I once put this either to Burke Trend or Armstrong, I forget which, and they agreed with me. Some relate to security. For example, atomic matters are very, very secret, but even there I once had a document marked “Top Secret Atomic UK Eyes Only, page one of 20 pages, copy one of two copies”, so secret that we used to say “Leak before reading. Eat before you read”. It said that we could enrich uranium by the centrifuge. When I was reading this, New Scientist was publishing every week that it could be done. All I knew was that we could do it. They said they thought they could do it. I do not think that there is much.