Threatening public service pensions

There's increasing public concern about the new rule by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office that seeks to prevent diplomats publicly expressing views on current issues after they have retired, drawing on their experience of international affairs during a lifetime in the Diplomatic Service, unless they have prior permission to do so from the government (see for example this, this and this).   One aspect of this that's attracting interest is whether the FCO would seek, or threaten, to terminate or reduce the pension of a retired diplomat if he or she failed to observe the new censorship rule (see, for example, this). In my comment on the issue on the Daily Telegraph website I wrote:

…in the past the FCO has not been above threatening the pensions of retired officers who risk embarrassment to ministers and mandarins. The threat might or might not be bluff: few of us have sufficient private means to risk testing that in court.

Eagle-eyed blogger Tim Worstall has published a useful and characteristically lively post on the FCO gag in the online magazine The Business, and a retired diplomat and former ambassador, Oliver Miles, who frequently contributes to media discussion of current issues, has posted a comment on the Worstall piece, focusing on the potential threat to retired officers' pensions, which he and Tim have given me permission to reproduce here: 

I am interested in the question of the threat to withhold the pensions of retired ambassadors (I would be – I am one). I note the reference to Dr David Kelly, and such a threat may indeed have been made to him for all I know. I know of one former ambassador who has stated in a semipublic forum that he was threatened (while still serving) with loss of pension. But to the best of my knowledge pensions have never in the past been withheld except in cases where individuals were guilty of treason. Although Diplomatic Service Regulations made under the Order in Council procedure have the force of law, you have to go a long way back to find a time when the royal prerogative meant that the Crown could simply do what it liked. Civil servants, both from the Home Civil Service and from the Diplomatic Service, have successfully sued their employers on employment matters. I am pretty sure that if it came to the point, the FCO legal advisers would warn ministers that an attempt to withhold the pension of a retired officer, unless perhaps he had been convicted of a serious crime, would be thrown out by the courts.

But the David Kelly case, if indeed the threat was made, is relevant here. Most retired people, certainly including me, would view with horror the idea that their own pension and their widow's pension would be jeopardised by some action of theirs, even if they believed that the Crown would eventually lose in court. So as an instrument of pressure to be used by an unscrupulous employer deprivation of pension is a winner.

A sobering and persuasive conclusion!


3 Responses

  1. Andrew Milner says:

    Remember "Spycatcher"? Peter Wright only went public because he felt he’d been short-changed over his pension. Even if HMG cut his entire pension, imagine Mr. Wright was crying all the way to the bank. And remember how the government of the day literally spat the dummy and started quoting the Official Secrets Act? They never learn. If you've got a big enough whistle to blow, and feel you have a book in you… Former ambassador still carries a lot of weight. Surely the David Kelly case would make a government cautious, because it doesn't look like it's going away any time soon. The government seem to be in the loser’s corner. Suicide and there’s the pension threat. Murder and it could bring down the government. Why Tony, you’ve gone quite pale.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Andrew.  We now have another Official Secrets Act prosecution, this time of an FCO official, Derek Pasquill.  The New Statesman is describing this prosecution as an abuse of power and promises to "pursue this with vigour".  And Henry Porter is on the same case in the Observer, with lots of support on Comment is Free.  It looks as if Mr Pasquill may possibly be technically in breach of the Official Secrets Act (subject very much to what defence he puts up when it comes to trial) and the formal position must be that it's no defence to a charge under the OSA to claim to have acted in the public interest, which would be as veritable charter for whistle-blowers all over the shop:  but if the public interest case is sufficiently strong, it seems doubtful whether the government will find a jury willing to convict — cf. the Clive Ponting case.  There's a useful summary of the Ponting, Spycatcher and other similar cases at  But you need to be either very rich or very brave and high-principled, or all three, to risk both your pension and your liberty by deliberately acting the whistle-blower and knowingly breaking the OSA in the far from certain hope that despite your guilt in law, a sympathetic jury will refuse to convict you. 

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    I’m surprised the BBC website doesn’t mention the Jonathan Aitken 1971 case, summarised on a Guardian website:

    "Jonathan Aitken accused of offences under the Official Secrets Act for passing on classified information to the Sunday Telegraph about the Biafran war in Nigeria. He was acquitted of all charges having pleaded that it was his "duty in the interests of the state" to have done so".

    I thought that was the classic example of a jury refusing to convict even though guilt according to the letter of the law was proved.


  3. Andrew Milner says:

    I wrote the above before I saw the Daily Mail’s lead story last Saturday. Interesting to speculate that perhaps pension blackmail is what keeps Mrs. Kelly on message with the Authorised version. Today the Mail conjectures that the Bush Administration was blackmailing Tony Blair to secure his “full-hearted” support for the Iraq invasion. To me this is so last season; was working my way through this theory over a year ago. Assume Saddam began selling Iraqi oil in Euro from November 2000; now look at the sequence of events. With the petrodollar cycle and the dollar’s role as reserve currency under immediate threat, doubt if Blair needed much blackmailing. Because a US economic collapse would surely trigger a world economic collapse and all our pensions would be in jeopardy. Of course if the euro replaced the dollar as the currency for oil transactions and then trade, Europe would be in the driving seat and the US would be looking at a world of hurt. With its huge trade imbalance, the economy must surely be its Achilles’ heel. The US is fast running out of friends, so when those countries that have it in for the US finalise a strategy that doesn’t involve shooting themselves in the foot … Nice neutral Buddhist country, anyone?