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6 September 2007

The gagging of the mandarins

How the Foreign Office systematically silences critical civil servants

By Edward Clay

Proper public discussion of foreign policy should involve diplomats, including retired ones. Their lifetime vow of submission to the Official Secrets Act and good sense still leaves room for useful debate. Following recent excitement about political memoirs, Whitehall started contemplating more restrictions on freedom of expression for former civil servants. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, embarrassed by undiplomatic disclosures about ministers, overreacted and charged ahead of other departments. It enlarged the scope of rules inhibiting serving diplomats from speaking, writing, or otherwise expressing any view, without prior clearance. Retiring mandarins are now warned that the rules bind them for life.

I know how the FCO intends the rules to work. I retired in 2005, before the change was promulgated. I later competed successfully for a job to champion the FCO’s Chevening Scholarships. I objected to the letter of appointment I was asked to sign: reflecting the new rule, it sought to gag me not only in my part-time, non-sensitive job, but for ever more.

The FCO was keen to get the job done, so I started work while another way was looked for of contracting my services. But Lord Triesman, under-secretary at the FCO, eventually refused to agree to my working without signing up to the gag, not just for then, and for the day or two a week I would be working, but retrospectively, and for the rest of my life. I was shown the door, unpaid.

I believe that the way I was treated had everything to do with my campaigning against the UK’s indulgence towards corruption. The day Triesman said “nyet” was the very day (17 January 2007) on which I commented, on the Today programme and in the Guardian, on the damage done to the government’s anti-corruption policies and international standing by its decision to call off the Serious Fraud Office’s inquiries into BAE Systems’s Saudi business.

Campaigning on corruption is hardly a breach of loyalty or confidentiality. Does upholding, in retirement, long-standing policies on good governance constitute a failure of the FCO’s new lifelong obedience test? I campaigned on corruption when in service, with the FCO’s support. Since I retired, I have looked more closely at Britain’s own responsibility for facilitating the expatriation and laundering of proceeds of corruption in foreign, and particularly poor, countries: we made pledges and passed laws that the government instructed us diplomats to campaign on, and to embed in our strategic priorities. A mere year ago Tony Blair, as prime minister, appointed Hilary Benn, then international development secretary, to be the Whitehall anti-corruption co-ordinator. The decision to drop the investigation into the BAE bribery allegations fatally undermined his credibility, and ours.

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Corruption weakens the institutions of a badly governed state that is receiving aid. Development aid to facilitate reform or social improvement in an anti-reform, bad policy environment of such a country has doubtful value. The FCO and Department for International Development evidently do not like debate on the conundrum of aid: that more can mean worse. Still less do they like attention directed to the flawed policy environment in the aid donor’s capital, in this case London.

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Making these points is a nuisance to governments, but they need to be made. Irritation is no justification for governments to breach the rights of individuals.

The Commons select committee on public administration has recommended efforts to balance the value of openness against the requirement for restrictions in some circumstances. The government has yet to reply. Its information policy is in disarray, particularly following Alastair Campbell’s disclosures.

It remains to be seen whether future retirees will flout the FCO’s legally dubious gag; the FCO clearly intends to hear progressively less from its retired and senior members, unless it approves of what is uttered. It suppresses valedictory despatches from retiring ambassadors, afraid of criticisms. There have been whispers of an attempt to get mandarins to sign over copyright on anything they write – novels and poetry, as well as despatches.

The FCO tells retirees that the rules applying to their serving colleagues also apply to them, for ever. Books, articles and lectures have got to be cleared months ahead. But the real rub comes with the requirement to give five days’ notice of what they intend to say in any appearances on, or articles in, the media: any public comment based upon any of their professional experience is covered, far broader than previous strictures on official secrets or confidentiality. Unspecified civil or criminal proceedings are threatened for transgressors.

It is the essence of oppressive regimes to give sweeping authority to officials, whose force lies as much in its uncertainties and variable application as in its explicit threats. Why does any of this matter? In an increasingly frenetic news environment, and with government news management alive and well, the ability to call on the interpretation of retired civil servants is an important and useful check on a system that is otherwise without much balance.

The severely restrictive terms of the revised FCO regulation are an infringement of the right to free speech of former Crown servants. It shows a lack of confidence and brittle defensiveness in the FCO. I hope the public administration committee induces the FCO and Cabinet Office to draw a more reasonable balance between restraint and the broader public interest (which includes the promotion of informed debate), and individual rights. If parliament does not win this argument with the bureaucrats, we shall all have to watch our backs. This article has not, incidentally, been cleared.

Sir Edward Clay was director of public diplomacy at the FCO (1997-99) and high commissioner to Kenya (2001-2005).Illustration by A Richard Allen