Last week, Jeremy Heywood appeared in front of the Public Administration Committee.
Paul Flynn: In the interests of accuracy, compared to the fantasy account you have given of the views of this Committee, what we actually said in our report—and I have it before me—was that the “advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants.” That was our conclusion.
Sir Jeremy Heywood: That was your conclusion on the Nick Macpherson memo. I totally accept that. I wasn’t suggesting for a minute that you didn’t criticise that. I think you also made a general point that, in general, the civil service comported itself well during that period of stress.
Paul Flynn: Since then, we have had the other affair of a civil servant leaking an untruth with the co-operation of a Minister who lied about it and a protracted inquiry—in spite of a letter you sent me saying that it was going to be done very urgently—that wasn’t reported until after the election. Don’t you think this means that the view of you, and your lack of impartiality, described by David Owen, is justified now, and you have shown a persistent lack of impartiality over the years since you were employed by Tony Blair?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: I completely and utterly reject that, from start to finish. I don’t know where you want to start. Do you want to start with David Owen, or do you want to talk about the Scottish investigation, which—unlike many leak inquiries—actually got to an outcome? I think that was a very good inquiry, but, in all fairness, it was impossible to complete it until after the general election, because it was impossible to speak to Alistair Carmichael until then. I will go through these points one by one, if you like, but I utterly resent the allegation that I am not capable of upholding the impartiality of the civil service.
Paul Flynn: The effect of the untruth that was perpetrated by the civil servant, with the encouragement of the Minister—who actually lied to “Channel 4 News” and said that he had no knowledge of it—was that the damage was done during the election period. The result of your inquiry was not published until the election was over, when it could have had a very strong effect on that.
Sir Jeremy Heywood: That was correct.
Paul Flynn: And you described it as a couple of simple meetings that took place. It wasn’t a very elaborate inquiry that was required. Surely it could have been completed before the election?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: No, I promise you that it could not have been. We tried our very best to complete it before the election. But you have to give people an opportunity to give an account of their own behaviour; you can’t just publish leak inquiry investigations without talking to all the key people who have been accused of things. It is contrary to all due process.
Paul Flynn: Does the fact that you defend—and continue to defend—the conduct of the civil servant involved call your impartiality into question?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: I am not defending the conduct of the civil servant involved. I am basically defending myself, which is to argue that I think I completed that inquiry successfully, as fast as it could possibly be done, while respecting due process.
Paul Flynn: Another point made by David Owen last week was that he thought that you had some influence on the delays of the Chilcot inquiry. As this matter is now coming up again, as the war drums are beating again, and we are being encouraged to send our troops into a four-sided civil war in Syria, don’t you think that it is a matter of even greater urgency that we know now why Parliament was misled into sending 179 of our British soldiers to their deaths in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction? I understand that you were working for Tony Blair at that time, between 1999 to 2003, as his personal secretary. Is there any possible influence you can exert to accelerate the publication of the inquiry’s conclusions? Or are you washing your hands of it altogether?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: No, I am not washing my hands of it, but it is an independent inquiry and the timetable is not in my hands. Having said that, on behalf of the Prime Minister, I have repeatedly offered Sir John extra resources and so on, such as extra legal resources. At the Prime Minister’s request I saw him again recently. We had a private meeting at which I repeated that request. I just know that John Chilcot will complete this report as soon as he possibly can. He is as aware as everybody else of the importance of getting this done, and done quickly.
Paul Flynn: It has been six years now, and this is important. We have not yet started the inquiry into why we went into Helmand province in the belief that not a shot would be fired, which resulted in 450 deaths. Unless we as a Parliament can find out why we made these terrible blunders in the past, the House is not going to take decisions to send troops into what might be legitimate new wars. Is there anything you feel that you can do, or any influence you can bring to bear?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: The bit for which I was responsible was to consider in good faith the declassification request. I have done this as expeditiously as I could, and I have concluded on the side of transparency. We have repeatedly offered the inquiry further resources, but its members say that they don’t need them and they are doing it as fast as they can. It is an independent inquiry, and I cannot do any more than that. Everyone shares your frustration about how long this has taken from the Prime Minister downwards. That includes Sir John Chilcot, by the way.
Chair: This must be the last question on Chilcot.
Paul Flynn: Okay. I do not know whether you recall that in 2005, this Committee recommended a form of parliamentary inquiry, which would be under the control of Parliament. What we seem to have with Chilcot is a monster of an inquiry with an almost infinite capacity to be delayed by the guilty, including possibly your old boss, so that they can carry on and live their lives prosperously afterwards, and possibly take places in the House of Lords next month. Don’t you think that we need to look at a different form of inquiry that is under democratic control, and can be speeded up and not endlessly delayed?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: I don’t think that anyone is deliberately trying to slow down the inquiry. I really do not think that that is the position. I genuinely don’t think that that is the position at all. I totally take the point that, once the inquiry has completed its work, we need to take a long hard look at why it took so long and what lessons we can learn from that, but not in a way that interrupts the last phase of the inquiry. The inquiry just needs to get its head down and complete its work.
Paul Flynn: Lord Owen also mentioned the Government’s conduct in sending out 2 million letters to businessmen in April, just before the European election, that contained, among other things, a Government mantra, a Conservative party slogan. He thought that that move should not have been allowed. Do you agree that that was a mistake?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: Not at all.
Paul Flynn: Were you involved in it?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: I was involved in approving it, actually. I thought it was sensibly worded. Let’s be clear: the employment allowance was introduced by the previous coalition Government but had cross-party support. It was not a contentious policy. It was a month or so before purdah started, and that was European and local elections, not national elections. It was another way of communicating with small businesses, in an attempt to raise the take-up. This allowance was not automatically given to people; they had to claim it. Previous experience had been that, without proper marketing, there would not be a very high take-up. Every attempt was being made through marketing, use of intermediaries and this new technique of getting the Prime Minister to write personally. An attempt was made to try a different technique, relatively cheaply compared with other marketing devices. I think it cost around £400,000, for which a mailshot was done for 2 million people. The evidence I have seen recently is that it was actually quite successful. It was much more cost-effective, for example, than TV advertising or expensive marketing.
Paul Flynn: Apart from the timing of the letter, don’t you accept—
Sir Jeremy Heywood: The timing of the letter was determined by the start of the financial year. That was 5 or 6 April and it was sent to coincide with that, not with purdah.
Paul Flynn: Would you accept that politics is now conducted in subtle ways, such as propaganda by mantra? Certain phrases are used over and over again, as was demonstrated in recent coverage of this House by Michael Cockerell, where Conservative MPs were told to include something about the economic plan in every parliamentary question. A long list was given of this great litany of people repeating the same words. Those words appeared in the letter. Don’t you think that is political abuse of the Government’s position, which you approved of?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: Not at all. I looked again yesterday at the letter. I don’t think it is written in a partisan way. It is not a political letter; it is not a partisan letter.
Paul Flynn: It contains a party political slogan.
Chair: For clarification, Lord Owen was concerned about the timing of the letter, less concerned about its content.
Sir Jeremy Heywood: The content is completely unexceptionable, I think. Any reasonable, fair-minded person—not steeped in politics anyway—would look at that letter and think it a perfectly reasonable letter to write. The great news, which the Committee should be interested in, is that it succeeded in raising take-up of a cross-party-supported allowance. What is not to like about that?
Chair: Final question, Mr Flynn.
Paul Flynn: This is my final question. The general judgment of you by Lord Owen was “I think his capacity to make a judgment between the interests of a Prime Minister and the wider Cabinet, for example, or between the interests of Ministers collectively and civil servants is open to question.” He went on to say that your whole career “has been spent in the hothouse atmosphere of politicians’ private offices and three successive Prime Ministers”. He went on to say that you were private secretary to Tony Blair. Don’t you think that you have been so marked, and that your character has been shaped in such a way, that you are not really fit to carry out your duty in an impartial manner now?
Sir Jeremy Heywood: No, I don’t think that is the position and I don’t think that is the Prime Minister’s view or that of the previous Prime Minister. I have served to the best of my ability successive Governments of different political complexions and have had no complaints on that score. I believe I can do the job very well. I have never met David Owen. If he has those sorts of concern about me, I wish he would come and talk to me about them. He has no idea what I do day to day.
Paul Flynn: I think we will make our own judgments on that. Thank you.