Letter: Whitehall's definition of an answer

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Sir: The evidence of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, to the Scott inquiry provided a remarkable guide to our secretive culture.

A minister can instruct an official appearing at a select committee to remain silent throughout, Sir Robin explained. A retired civil servant can be silenced by invoking his or her continuing 'obligation of confidentiality'. Should a committee wish to hear from two officials who have contradictory interpretations of the same facts, the minister can permit one to give evidence and silence the other. All this, Sir Robin explained, was a 'democratic process' because Parliament could later question the minister about the reasons for such decisions.

It was 'wholly exceptional' for MPs to be misled. To illustrate, Sir Robin cited the Government's denial of talks or negotiations with the IRA, a response obviously regarded as compatible with the written exchanges between HMG and the IRA, and the 'unauthorised' face-to-face meetings with government officials.

Lord Justice Scott suggested this was indeed a misleading answer, though one which may have been justified by the circumstances. Astonishingly, Sir Robin disagreed: 'It was a half-answer, if you like, but it was an accurate answer, and went to the point of what people were concerned about . . . This was an answer which was true but not complete, not designed to mislead . . . Half the picture can be true . . . it did not mislead. It gave half the picture.'

Many people, remembering the Prime Minister's declaration that talking to the IRA 'would turn my stomach', undoubtedly felt deceived, though in the circumstances may have tolerated the deception. It would have been reassuring to hear this acknowledged. To be told that it meets the Whitehall definition of a scrupulously accurate answer is far more worrying, raising questions about when, if ever, assurances should be


Yours sincerely,



The Campaign for

Freedom of Information

London, EC1

12 February