Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. It is often the case though which illuminates the principles.
  (Mr Benn) Yes, it is, of course, yes.

  Chairman: Thank you for that.

Mr Trend

  201. I am a Governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and I spend a lot of time in Eastern and Central Europe watching emerging political cultures make constitutions. They always look at ours with huge empathy because the position of the Prime Minister in this country is almost uniquely powerful. Many of their systems have got a much greater checking balance in them than ours have, particularly the power of Parliament. I will come back to that in a minute. Does the Crown, the real Crown, Buckingham Palace as it were, still have any residual power in the system? Can it influence 1922, the leadership of the country, the political leadership? Does it have an effect on whether an election can be called?
  (Mr Benn) The Chairman has encouraged me to give examples. I had lunch early in 1974 with the Iranian Ambassador during the miners' strike and I said to Sir Martin Charteris, who was the Queen's Private Secretary, who was there "Would the Queen be obliged to call an election if the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, asked for it?" He said "It is very interesting you should ask that, we have been considering it at the Palace all morning" so I knew there was going to be an election and I went and wrote my election address. Sir Martin Charteris was a very charming man but he was very naive in giving me that vital information. The thing about the British constitution which very few people understand is the Crown has the power, the Queen does not exercise it, the Prime Minister exercises it but—and here is where the Gough Whitlam example comes in—the Prime Minister could be dismissed by the Queen. Gough Whitlam was dismissed and we must be the only country in the world where a coup d'état run from the Palace would be legal. If the Queen decided to sack the Prime Minister today and the Prime Minister went to the court and said "I am Prime Minister", they would say "I am sorry, you have been sacked". So there are a few residual powers but in effect the Crown is what matters to the British establishment, that is why they are even prepared to sacrifice a King. You see Edward VIII was sacked because they wanted to keep the monarchy but the powers go to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has far more powers than an American President, and personally I find that difficult to accept.

  202. I find it hard to think of an example in the world of a political national leader who has more power than the British Prime Minister. I think he is well out on his own. In respect of that, how do we get from here, where we are, to a more desirable position? I agree with much of what you have said, the very strong and quite pernicious influence of the party system, because as long as the Prime Minister is derived from the House of Commons and has control of his party in the House of Commons and has a healthy majority, a cynic might say "Well, he can do everything he likes".
  (Mr Benn) Of course if the House of Commons was to take powers itself of the kind that I have suggested, the Prime Minister would have to come to the House of Commons occasionally and actually explain himself. I give one example which people do not often appreciate, as far as honours are concerned, the Speaker of the House is made a peer by the House, a humble Address to Her Majesty "praying that a signal mark of Royal favour be conferred." So that is the one honour conferred by Parliament. For example, if all major appointments had to be cleared by a Select Committee like this I am sure you would rigorously examine candidates for the Chairmanship of the BBC or any other major body and it would all be public so people would see what it was. That would be an enormous shift of prime ministerial power.

  203. In order to extend the powers of the Select Committee you would not effectively need the agreement of the Government under the current system?
  (Mr Benn) Unless the House said "Look, this is a matter for us" and we decide to do it. I think the House of Commons is rather too quiet in the exercise of its legislative function myself.

  204. To a certain extent we did that with the Chairmanships of the Select Committees in the last session. Remarkable in my experience.
  (Mr Benn) That is monstrous in my opinion, that the Government should try to control the appointment of chairs of Select Committees whose job it is to supervise the work of the Executive.

  205. You think that Select Committees should now develop the power to interview or even to take a proper part in the appointment of people who are going to run public bodies?
  (Mr Benn) It would depend whether it was the chairmanship.

  206. To a certain extent.
  (Mr Benn) At senior positions, yes, I do feel that should be done.

  207. We find it difficult in this Committee to interview special advisers, people who appear to exercise quite a degree of power in the affairs of the State. Would you think it a good idea that we would have access to special advisers?
  (Mr Benn) Yes because the words of establishing a Select Committee—correct me if I am wrong—is to summons "persons, papers and records". The House has never exercised the power of summons. For example, Lord Birt, I believe, has declined to appear, now of course he is a Member of another Chamber so it may be that raises constitutional difficulty but in general a Committee should say by vote "We want this person to come" and whatever position they occupy they should be able to summon them. That is what the committees do in the United States, they are much more powerful, as you know, than parliamentary committees and I regret that.

  208. We have tried also to invite the Prime Minister to attend our proceedings. Originally we were told he does not come because he does not have specific responsibilities. He only has specific responsibility for very few things and one of them turned out to the Civil Service, the Code for Ministers, so we asked him to come and be interviewed on the Code for Ministers specifically but he still would not.
  (Mr Benn) There is a precedent for that because Neville Chamberlain appeared before the Committee on the Official Secrets Act in 1939 which my father sat on and I am surprised that precedent has not been cited. Even if he says he will not come, if you vote to say he should, the House would then have to contradict your decision and that would put the House in a difficult position vis-a"-vis public opinion.

  209. Some special advisers are appointed by Orders in Council. I do not know what your view on that is.
  (Mr Benn) I had two special advisers, they had no executive power whatever. They sat in all my meetings and if the Committee had wanted to invite them I see no reason why the Committee should not have that right.

  210. This is quite theological but do you think there is a difference in this Committee asking civil servants to come if they are an ordinary special adviser or an Order in Council special adviser?
  (Mr Benn) I have no experience of Order in Council special advisers so I cannot really say but if you work for the Government under the control of a minister or the Prime Minister it seems to me you are a legitimate person to be cross-examined by a Committee if the Committee are told by the House that it should happen.

  211. In order to make things simpler some people are suggesting, and I cannot speak for the Committee but I suspect that we feel the time has come for a Civil Service Act in order to specify clearly the roles and responsibilities and duties and, indeed, to find a system to protect a civil servant from the possible invasion of political patronage within the system. Can you agree that the Civil Service Act has come to this?
  (Mr Benn) Yes. I put that in two provisions to protect. I was with Richard Wilson last night at Jim Callaghan's 90th birthday party and I am going to have a talk with him when he has retired. I think civil servants, for whom I have a very high regard, need to have Government policy explained to them, not to persuade them but so they know. I used to have meetings in any department I was in, I had mass meetings of all the civil servants saying "This is what I am trying to do" and not to persuade them but to give political guidance to their work. I never found any of them reluctant to do it. In most cases civil servants do not know what the minister is trying to do, which is the minister's fault. Stafford Cripps, when he was made President of the Board of Trade, held a meeting, which is where I got the idea from, in Church House I think and the whole Board of Trade attended and he explained what the policy was. That is not corruption of their purpose but giving them the steer that a minister is entitled to give as an elected person.

  212. At the moment we are waiting to see whether the Government will allow a Civil Service Bill and what it will contain. It still seems to me that in order to get from here to a more desirable position it is very difficult to see how you get round these very strong, very powerful party machines which exist here. All the party machines connive to keep the position broadly as it is. I suppose the answer is once you produce a Bill in Parliament, as you did do, but under the present system it has very little chance. Perhaps we should all leave Parliament like you.
  (Mr Benn) That depends entirely on the extent to which the legislature decides to make itself known to the Executive. The trouble is the legislature is too tame and is kept tame by the pressure of patronage in each party. I remember when Mrs Thatcher was there it was not so very different. I think the moment has come now when the House of Commons should flex its muscles and say "Look, we are not talking about policy, we are talking about the constitutional relationship between the two sides" because the Executive has now got overweening power and it does not need it, it should not have it and the only people who can take it away is the House itself.

  213. Finally, how can we encourage the Parliament to be more assertive and to try and balance the situation?
  (Mr Benn) My belief is only by explaining the relationship. For example, the question of Crown Prerogatives is not widely understood. I raised it years ago and people did not know what I was talking about. They said "You are attacking our dear Queen". It was nothing to do with the Queen at all, it was about the constitutional powers exercised. I think if this Committee's report when it comes to be written explains it, you would be astonished at the amount of public backing there would be for it. People are uneasy about this. Everybody now feels they are being managed and not represented and that is a fundamental weakness in our understanding of democracy.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  214. Mr Benn, I was fascinated when you briefly lifted the curtain on an exchange you had with Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen's Private Secretary. It calls to mind that some years ago as a senior whip I had a very grand sounding title, Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household. One of my duties was to have to write to Her Majesty every day.
  (Mr Benn) Yes.

  215. And say what was going on. I am conscious as a former minister we are bound by the Officials Secrets Act. Do you think those messages, as they were called, should be made known to the public before the 30 years is up? If they are worth publishing?
  (Mr Benn) Well, I once met Sir Robert Armstrong—I knew him anyway—at a dinner after he had retired and I put to him the point that I had never heard anything secret as a minister, except three things: what was going to be in the Budget the night before, and I was always afraid I would sleepwalk and tell someone; secondly, what was the Government's negotiating position at a conference that had not taken place and, thirdly, how to make an atom bomb. I could not think of any other secrets I had ever been told as a minister. Therefore, ministers of all parties very easily assume that their own political interest is in the national interest. There is a totally different interpretation. I think Herbert Morrison once said "Socialism is what a Labour Government does" which was a very convenient explanation. I think many ministers do regard their own policy as being in the public interest, and it must be kept quiet. The 30 year rule, for example, is an astonishing provision because I will have to live to 107 to know what is going on now. For example, when the figures came out from the 1970 papers in January, I discovered the army was against internment in Northern Ireland, well I was too but I was denounced for it as a supporter of terrorism, now it turns out the army was against it, for different reasons maybe. Why should things be kept secret other than to protect the political interest of the ministers of the day? So I feel very strongly. What your letters to the Queen said I will not ask as a matter of discretion but I would be surprised if they were even as full as Hansard and that is published.

  216. I take a slightly different view, a more ignoble view, on that. Given what I wrote about some of my colleagues I would be very happy to be six foot under before they were published.
  (Mr Benn) You would get a big advance no doubt for publishing your letters.

  Chairman: He is trailing his book here.

Sir Sydney Chapman

  217. We were talking earlier on about the Prime Minister declining to meet a Select Committee. Presumably you support the view that the Liaison Committee—which of course as you know consists of the Chairmen of all Select Committees—should have the right to call the Prime Minister before it, you would agree with that?
  (Mr Benn) Correct me if I am wrong but my understanding is that every Committee, including this one I presume, has the power to summon persons, papers or records. Now if you did as this Committee decide to summon the Prime Minister, who would be a very suitable witness because of the area you are discussing, and he refused, you would have to go then to the House, I understand, to get endorsement of your summons and no doubt the Liaison Committee would be very interested because it would affect every other Committee. I think it must be in your power if you so choose to summon him and then he has to respond.

  218. I would just like to ask you about developing two of your draft recommendations, number five and number six. If we take number five first, and I just put it on the record "All chairs of public authorities, or any body, including public private partnerships, vested with the advertisement which describes the work they would be required to do, be appointed by a procedure that is open and all candidates should be interviewed and the appointment made by a Select Committee, after a public hearing". Could you just develop what you mean by a Select Committee? For example, a single Select Committee or a Select Committee drawn up according to each appointment? Could you just develop that, I would be very grateful.
  (Mr Benn) I have made a general point here but, for example, if you were talking about the BBC or the Chairman of the ITC, I would have thought it would be quite proper for the appropriate Select Committee to organise itself in such a way to have a hearing comparable to the one that I am going through now. If I was applying for the job at the BBC now you would ask me a lot of questions: my background, my knowledge of broadcasting, my interest, how I thought the political balance should be handled, why does this and that happen? That would all be public and then the Select Committee would make a recommendation which I think in effect would have to be decisive. I added public private-partnerships—although I am not very keen on them—because if people are going to have transferred to them, by Government, responsibility over the public services they become in a way public servants and they too should be examined. "Did you work for Enron? Were you associated with Andersen Consulting?" if you have just asked to be made Chair of the Financial Services Authority or whatever it is. It would seem to me these are proper questions which would reassure the public that it was not cronyism which is what I think is now widely and probably improperly but widely suspected.

  219. I understand that. I just want to concentrate on the composition of Select Committees. Would it be different people for particular jobs or would it be a permanent Select Committee? It is a Select Committee of the House?
  (Mr Benn) A Select Committee of the House. It would be for the House to determine how to do it. If it turned out that the task of vetting appointments was so large the House might decide to divide it up or might decide that existing Select Committees would have responsibilities in certain areas. For example, the Public Administration Committee might feel it right under your own remit to do some of the interviewing necessary for some of the jobs that I have mentioned.

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