Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 239)



  220. That proposal applies, as you have said, to the chairs of all state corporations including the BBC. Come on to recommendation six, and I quote it: "All other persons who are candidates for membership of public bodies should be interviewed by those who already serve on those bodies and the names of those recommended should be put to the responsible departmental minister, who would have to approve". Once you have got a Committee, elected or appointed, it could very quickly become an oligarchy, could it not? Do you see the minister as being the safety valve?
  (Mr Benn) I think if every member of every public body had to be vetted by a Select Committee it would not work. This is a moderation because the responsibilities are less onerous than being a chair. At the moment the departmental minister does it. I listed all the appointments I made which were fairly significant but they were numerous. All I am suggesting really is they would be interviewed not by a Select Committee but by their colleagues and then the recommendation would go to the minister who would, in a formal way, approve it. I would not expect him to be interested individually. I felt worried at the number of appointments I had to make because I did not know any of them. My officials would say "There is a very nice man in the South West who would like to serve on the area electricity board" and I felt a bit uneasy about that. Sometimes I would put up an alternative name which had come to me from other sources and the civil servant did not like it very much because, remember, when you get to lower levels of patronage the civil servants are the ones who really decide and that is not desirable either.

  221. That is a point very well made. Certainly in the old system it seemed to me that the senior civil servants, particularly those advising the minister, had tremendous powers.
  (Mr Benn) Enormous power. Without suggesting there is corruption there is a little bit of "I will scratch your back if you will scratch my back" because I can think of one civil servant who recommended somebody for a knighthood and when he retired he went on the board of the company of that person. I am not suggesting there is anything improper about it. I will give you an example that affected me, I did not realise it at the time. I was given an honorary doctorate by a University in Scotland and the head of that university was given a knighthood at about the same time and I wondered whether there had been any relationship between my doctorate and his knighthood but as both came through the civil servants I never knew.

  222. Just for the record I have never had a honorary doctorate.
  (Mr Benn) Oh, well. It is the only doctorate that is worth having.

Mr Wright

  223. Just to continue along the line of the public body appointments. I would suggest, going back to what Sir Sydney has just said about your recommendation number six, that there may well have been more appointments during your time than when you wrote in 1979: "The scale of it all is breathtaking and no medieval monarch can compare either in numbers or in importance" when you were talking about the appointments and patronage at that time. We have now got 30,000 appointments, surely this would tie the whole Government process up if we adopt five and six?
  (Mr Benn) I think chairs of public bodies are very important people. They do have executive authority and they control budgets. I think to maintain any sort of financial control, it is not unreasonable, you might not want to spend a lot of time on it, to ask them about their background. As far as the other members of the boards are concerned, I think it is not unreasonable that a board should be invited, as they would if they were appointing somebody to a job, to have a chance of seeing the person who had been put forward. I do not think it would be too onerous but maybe what we need now, as power becomes more centralised, is a much more formidable elective supervision of the Executive. The Executive has got so big. If you take peerage, I do not know if you are interested in that, I looked that up, there is an article my father wrote in 1922, Mr Gladstone made 30 peerages in five years, the present Prime Minister has made 248 in five years. The escalation of patronage now is on a scale which I think needs to be re-examined. Lord Salisbury made 42 peers in six years and Lloyd George 87 peers in six years and the whole thing has got out of control. That is why people feel, I think, that voting in an election does not have as much influence on the nature of society as they believed when they got the vote years ago.

  224. Do you not think then, to take your recommendation seven along to its extent, to suggest that perhaps local bodies should be promoted by local organisations rather than bringing it to Parliament?
  (Mr Benn) No, I think that is very, very important. I will tell you what triggered this in mind. I went once on a delegation to the local hospital in Chesterfield and the manager of the hospital when I arrived said "I will talk to the MP but I will not talk to the leader of the local authority". Actually this woman who was appointed by the trust said "I am not prepared to meet you". It so happened the chairman of the local authority had been campaigning for the hospital for years and I thought the arrogance of an executive in treating an elected councillor that way. I am a great believer in local government. If you look at the nineteenth century, after the Municipal Corporations Act of 1837, Birmingham had municipal housing, municipal transport, municipal gas, municipal museums and so on and the powers of local authorities have been greatly diminished. The least you can do is to give them some control over people being appointed in their areas. I have even gone further, if you look at my Commonwealth of Britain Bill, saying local councils should be in a position to demand the removal of a local official who is doing things they believe to be contrary to their interest. In short, I am saying that local councillors should be the backbenchers of the process, keeping an eye on executive power which spreads from the top. I do not know if it is clear. I agree the proposals are fairly radical but the idea that lies behind them is that you have to restore local accountability and who knows better the needs of a local community than people elected and they should have that responsibility. I do not know if you would agree with that but I feel that very, very strongly.

  225. My personal opinion is that more accountability to local people is to be welcomed.
  (Mr Benn) That is right.

  226. One of my questions was to suggest that perhaps the local authority should have more power in selecting people to sit on the local hospital board rather than bring them through the parliamentary system.
  (Mr Benn) As a matter of fact that does relate to the appointments I made. If, for example, when there was somebody to be appointed for the area electricity board for Merseyside, it had been provided that I went to the Merseyside Council and said "Look, I have got this appointment, who would you recommend?", that would be much better than me doing it on the advice of a civil servant who would have no knowledge of the area. If this idea of local accountability could be included in your report I think it would arouse a great deal of interest and a great deal of support because people feel that they are being governed by a colonial governor appointed from London without regard to local interest.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  227. Can I ask you about devolved government. Scotland and Wales now have an Assembly and a Parliament. How do you see that in the long term because patronage is different now? Are you going to look at appointing people to the Upper House, call it whatever we will because obviously we are awaiting a report on that. How do you see that affecting the continuity of Great Britain? I am not thinking in particular of Ireland, I am thinking more for Scotland and Wales.
  (Mr Benn) This is a very broad constitutional question. My Commonwealth of Britain Bill, of which I include an extract but that is available, was about the federal system. We really need a federal system, English Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or whatever you call it and a federal chamber. In my major proposal, the Second Chamber, which would be elected, would have a federal responsibility, rather like the Senate in a very loose way. I do not think anyone could reverse devolution now, the question is how far it goes and how the relationship between the national assemblies or parliaments relate to one another which is obviously a very, very big question.

  228. Clearly Kevin over there represents a Cardiff seat. Do you see his responsibility dovetailing in? If the Welsh Assembly says they want to do something which is totally against the elected government of the day, and I am taking Kevin as a Member of the Labour Party, how do you see the tie-up between the two because there is a fundamental constitutional problem on this, is there not?
  (Mr Benn) The argument needs to be looked at more broadly because the nature of government is that you are reconciling different interests. You might well ask the question how do you reconcile what we do with what happens in Europe.

  229. I was going to come on to Europe.
  (Mr Benn) And the World Trade Organisation and so on. I think it was Herbert Morrison who said if you cannot ride two horses at once, you have no right to be in the circus.


  230. Jimmy Maxton.
  (Mr Benn) Which I thought was a very vivid way of answering your question. I imagine if I was a Welsh Member or Scottish Member this would be a real thing because the Scottish Parliament would say one thing and your party and your own convictions and the British Parliament might say something else and you have got to think it out and reconcile it.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  231. What is your feeling on regional assemblies?
  (Mr Benn) If they are appointed, no. I think the real danger is they will become colonial administrations. A fully elected one may have merit but you cannot impose democracy if people do not want it, democracy is a product of a demand for it. I never detected much demand, certainly not for appointed regional assemblies.

  232. Let us just say there is not a regional assembly, you will have parish district, urban, metropolitan or county, regional parliament, maybe a Welsh Assembly and obviously a Scottish Parliament. Do you believe that we are being over-democratised?
  (Mr Benn) I would not have said that many of them are all that democratic. If you go up to the World Trade Organisation and the IMF and Brussels and the Frankfurt Bank and the UN and the Security Council, it is a very primitive system but I would have thought the objective was to try to democratise every layer from the parish council at the bottom. Are they still alive, the product of the penny rate, is that what your thinking is?

  233. Yes, but they are now being asked to declare their interests, they are almost becoming quasi-district councillors. Do you think that is right?
  (Mr Benn) I think openness is probably the most important element in democracy. If people know what is going on in every sense then I think that you are less likely to be put upon or abused by people who have power over you. That is my basic principle and that is why I am against the 30 year rule and in favour of open Government because if people know what is going on confidence is restored in the system and also accountability is restored.

  234. Can we move on. You were an MP for 50 years and you have seen in your time the amount of people voting at General Elections coming down and in district elections, county elections, it is disgraceful. The European elections last time—I will not put words in your mouth—were simply appalling, the turnout was disgraceful. How do we, as a country, not reeducate but realign ourselves with people so they feel they want to vote? Is it because democracy is out of control? Is it because the Prime Minister has too much power? Is it because we, as Members, are notable to do our job in the right way as you would have been able to do, say, 50 years ago?
  (Mr Benn) The European election was a fraud because I have not got a Euro MP I voted for, I was only allowed to vote for a party. I cannot write to any European Member of Parliament and say "You are my MP" because they will say "No, I am not, I was on a party list and you voted or did not vote for me". I think that was utterly destructive of the accountability of European MPs. I in the past, and you now, have the experience of being employed by your constituents. In Chesterfield every bus driver, street sweeper, home help, policeman, employed me. I had the right to say what I believed and they had the right to get rid of me. I think that the democratic discipline, which is a very severe one, is the only way of restoring confidence. If you ask why people do not vote now, I think it is because they are not fools and they know that power does not rest in the House of Commons any more. In a way I think we are almost back to 1832 before the Reform Bill. The world is run by a handful of very powerful people, just as in 1832 the only people on the electoral register were two per cent and they were all rich, white men. I think we need a new Chartist movement, I hope I am not being too political, to restore the idea of being represented.

  235. That is what we want you to be. I have just looked at your EC Commissioner's oath and this is basically you will act to the best of your ability in the general interests of the Community, the Community as in the wider community.
  (Mr Benn) The European Commissioner, now you have mentioned it, is an interesting one because when I became a Privy Councillor, and it has not met for 38 years which is why I suggested it could be modernised out of existence, they read me this oath which I quoted in there, if you have had the chance to look at it. It is a very amusing oath because it pledged me to protect the Queen from all foreign prelates, potentates and powers.


  236. And you did very well.
  (Mr Benn) All I can say is when they read the oath to me I said I did not agree and they said "you do not have to agree". I said "what do you mean" and they said "we have administered the oath" and at that moment I knew the meaning of the phrase "I have had an injection". If, however, I am then so good that I am appointed to Brussels I take another oath that I will take no notice of any nation state, so Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten have taken one oath as Privy Councillor to pledge to protect the Queen from foreign prelates, potentates, and then another oath saying they will not take notice of the Queen or anybody else. I do think the oaths are much more important. Nobody ever takes an interest in oaths but I will tell the Committee, and I hope it does not offend you, I have had to tell 17 lies to sit in Parliament because my allegiance was to my constituents and my conscience and not to the Queen. Douglas Hogg said this the other day in the House, he said "what has our allegiance to the Queen got to do with our work as MPs?" I was very struck by that and I congratulated him on it. It is offensive. I think if we are the high court of Parliament we should have another oath "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". I did suggest that once but it was not very popular. It would be a very interesting oath for MPs to have to take, would it not, when they took their seats?

Mr Liddell-Grainger

  237. There might not be many MPs. Can I follow on the European line. Reading your diaries over the years—Are you going to bring them up to date, by the way?
  (Mr Benn) The next volume called Free at Last is coming out at the end of the year.

  238. Excellent. That is another plug. You changed your views on Europe.
  (Mr Benn) Twice, yes.

  239. You changed them dramatically. I am interested about the European situation because I personally see it as a fundamental way of undermining democracy in nation states, so we become a federalist collective and therefore there is nobody who has any say in anything and the power is vested in 13 or 14 very powerful people. Do you see this as the beginning of the end of the state?
  (Mr Benn) I have changed my view twice. First I was against it and then in nineteen whatever it was the Cabinet discussed it and I said we should apply, then I served for four years on the Council of Ministers, I was President of the Council of Ministers for Energy, and it was an extraordinary experience. It was the only committee I have ever sat on, or chaired, that I was not allowed to put a paper in, only Commissioners can put in papers. You cannot put in a paper if you are a Council Minister, so all initiatives lie with bureaucrats. Then the laws you agree there, using the crown prerogatives, as far as Britain is concerned, repeal existing statutes here and introduce new laws. Then, of course, the bankers now under the Maastricht Treaty are the people controlling the Chancellor's capacity to spend and borrow which is why privatisation is going on. At the end I came away feeling from experience that this needed to be transformed into another proposal. I did not bring one of my other Bills today, a Commonwealth of Europe Bill, which would cover the whole of the continent but harmonisation would be by the consent of individual parliaments. It would be slower but at least you would never go beyond the consent of the parliaments of the countries involved. My fear at the moment is if this centralisation goes on the whole thing will bust up like Yugoslavia and it will create the very nationalism which I hate, because I am not a nationalist, I am a European and an internationalist. That is a summary of my arguments. I think it is a threat to Parliament and public.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 7 May 2002