Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. A Prime Minister, any Prime Minister, it does not matter if it is Maggie or Tony Blair, what power do they have in reality now in the bigger picture? I am not thinking of America and Britain, I am thinking of a wider picture, because at the end of the day the Prime Minister can be overridden at any stage.
  (Mr Benn) A Prime Minister is not as powerful as he thinks he is, any Prime Minister, because as far as Brussels is concerned—The ancient rule that Tom Paine laid down that "the dead cannot control the living", has been abandoned because now the dead can control the living since you could elect a government in Britain, committed to a certain policy but if it was contrary to the laws agreed by the previous government you could not reverse it. The legislation in Europe is a sort of lobster pot, you cannot get in if you have got a veto but once you are in you cannot get out if anyone else vetos it. We have entrenched a European system of government in this country which puts a veto on Prime Ministers in Parliament, not just here but everywhere else, and I think that is a problem that will have to be addressed. I say it as a European, not as a nationalist, because after all we have had two world wars and I do not want another one. To that extent I go along with Ted Heath. I disagree with his conclusion but his argument that you have got to get an acceptable arrangement in Europe is correct.

Mr Heyes

  241. Can I take us back to local government, Mr Benn. You advocated an important role for local authorities giving them scrutiny powers over public bodies. I was personally very taken with the part of your Commonwealth of Britain Bill which sets out what looks to me like an ideal prescription for the power of local authorities. I have got to say as still a local councillor, with that array of powers available to me I might have been tempted to stay where I was rather than making the move to here. It does look to me like the ideal state. The reality is very different from that, the powers and the activities of local authorities are so heavily controlled. You said yourself that the powers are greatly diminished certainly from Victorian times and from more recent times. I am interested to know how you think we can make the move? How can we get from where we are now to at least make a start to move towards the ideal for local authorities that you postulate?
  (Mr Benn) I have never had the advantage of serving on a local authority so I looked at it from a different perspective. It always seemed to me that the difference between the public and the private sector was that in the private sector you could do anything that is not illegal, in the public sector you could only do things that are legal and therefore the capacity for local government to develop in new ways is restricted by statute. In my Local Government Bill, and I have got the full text if you want to see it, I said that local authorities should be able, like those in the private sector, to do anything that is not illegal and take the rap with their own electors if it is unpopular. What we did, and Herbert Morrison when he nationalised industry did the same, concreted them in to their existing objectives. Now, of course, objectives change but they were never allowed to move out and they should have been able to move out so long as it was legal and acceptable. For example, when I became Postmaster General I tried to do that and set up the Giro. I was able to do it because at that time the Post Office was a government department. I set up the Giro, national data processing service, set up postal buses so in rural areas if there was a postal bus going along you could get on it while it was delivering the letters, and that gave you a freedom which you lose as soon as it becomes a public corporation or a local authority. What you say is something I agree with 100 per cent. You would get a higher turnout at local elections, I might add, if your local authority could deal with problems which at the moment they are prohibited from dealing with because of the limitations of their statute.

  242. Can we ever get back to that ideal state, do you think that is feasible? We seem to be so far away from it now.
  (Mr Benn) No good ideas are feasible, are they? If we had been meeting here 90 years ago and I suggested votes for women you would have said "come on, live in the real world" but they got it. Parliament historically, in my opinion, is the last place to get the message. When the public has made up its mind about something Parliament picks it up about five years later. That is why I have moved from the House of Commons to other work.

  Mr Heyes: Perhaps to a local authority.

Kevin Brennan

  243. Some of your suggestions have an element of the US system about them, for example public appointments being subject to ratification by a select committee. What elements of the US's democratic system attract you and what parts do not?
  (Mr Benn) I think the American constitution with a greater elected element is good. I think the Congressional Committees are good, although they can be abused like anything. I think a wider spread election locally of local police chiefs sometimes elected locally in some way, is a good idea. I think the danger of the American system is the way in which political parties are funded. An old friend of mine, Jack Gilligan, who was the Governor of Ohio, who I met a couple of years ago, said you will never have democracy in America while big business funds both parties and expects a pay-off whichever one wins. That overrides what is the constitutional democracy of America. It is just bought. There is a tendency for that to come here too, I think. In general, openness, the Americans have a 30 second rule, as soon as it has happened you know it, instead of a 30 year rule. Congress is much more powerful. Graham Allen has suggested, of course, we adopt the whole American system, which I am doubtful about. At any rate, the House of Commons should reassert its role and that would be in line with local practice, local devolution, far greater devolution. Compared to the Common Market or European Union, there is nothing to stop California subsidising its own goods. It cannot tax goods from Colorado but it can subsidise its own products if it wants to to maintain employment but that is not allowed in Europe. I think it is worth studying.

  244. Effectively the US system, which is based around electing all sorts of positions that we appoint in this country, without big business money would be an approach that you would be attracted to?
  (Mr Benn) America is a continent, is it not? The parallel between the United States is not with Britain but with Europe. If you had a European constitution, to come back to that, based on the American model you would elect a President, a House of Representatives, a Senate, you would abolish the Commission, you would abolish the Central Bank, and I think it would be cumbersome but it would be democratic and this is something you have to think about. What I doubt is whether the British or French or German electorates would assent to laws passed by the European Parliament, like the House of Representatives, where the balance of power was held say by the Albanians. I think they would not feel that was close enough to them. The American system has got a very powerful democratic impulse in it which is something worth studying. Jonathan Friedland wrote a book about it. I do not share his conclusions but I think a lot of the analysis there conforms with my own experience.

  245. As I recall, back in the 1970s when you were a Minister and thereafter you were quite critical of the Civil Service in many ways and the power that they exercise, or the way in which they exercise power over ministers, or try to exercise power over ministers. Is there a case to be far more radical than the consensus that currently exists that, yes, the wonderful tradition of the British independent civil servant should be preserved and so on and that special advisers are horned beasts and are to be controlled and quota-ed in number to make sure that they do not spread any further through the constitution? Is there any case, in fact, for looking at the American system and instead of having 81 political appointees when the Government changes, having the 6,000 or so that they have in the United States so that you have people at the higher echelon of the administration who are there to deliver the democratic programme of the victorious elected party or Prime Minister?
  (Mr Benn) No, I am not in favour of that. I think the spoils system in America where a new President spends six months, or now three months, (it used to be six months because the inauguration was in March in the old days because it took so long on horse back to get from Los Angeles to Washington), spends his time appointing people is open to such corruption. I am critical of that sort of system and I will explain in what sense, but not of civil servants, I found them of incredible integrity and capacity but, of course, they believe they run the country and the minister is staying in the Royal Suite at the Grand Hotel where the managing director is the Permanent Secretary, and they offer a minister a deal, "If you do, Minister, what we want you to do, we will put out to the press that you are one of the ablest ministers we ever had to deal with". I was not prepared to take that deal but it was on offer. During an election, as you know, civil servants write two briefings, one for the Conservatives and one for Labour. On one occasion in 1974 I got a brief accidentally that was for the new incoming Secretary of State for industry "other than Mr Benn." They had written three briefs, one for the Conservatives, one for somebody else and one for me. I got an idea of what they really wanted because those documents, the brief for an incoming minister, which I have always kept, are one of the most important documents in the constitution of this country. They tell you what the Civil Service wants you to do and presents it as if it is what you said you would do. I noticed that when we were defeated in 1979 many of the things that were done by the incoming government had been recommended to me by the Civil Service in 1974. So they are worth watching but do not think that they are not brilliant people, because they are, or people without integrity, they are, they are not bought and sold, so do not misunderstand me. I am glad you asked the question.

  246. So in terms of Parliament, you have described how you think the House of Commons has perhaps declined in power in your 50 years of experience as a Member of Parliament. When would you assess in the era of universal suffrage that the House of Commons was at the height of its powers?
  (Mr Benn) Well, it is a difficult thing and I do not look back on a golden age. I think one of the great mistakes of old men is to say in the old days that it was marvellous. There was a time when you could ask the Prime Minister a question and get an answer. I do not mean this disrespectfully. In the old days the Prime Minister answered specific questions. I put a question to Churchill once about our nuclear relations with America and he answered it. Now you can only ask him "when are you visiting my constituency" and "what are you doing today", the two silliest questions, the result of which the Prime Minister has got no capacity to anticipate the question and he cannot give the answer. That has been a terrible decline. I think Ted Heath began transferring all the questions to the departmental minister other than will you visit my constituency and what are you doing today. You must not think it was ever grand. If you ask me when the democratic impulse was at its strongest, I would say it began with Tolpuddle and the Chartists and the Suffragettes. It reached its fruition in terms of Lloyd George's reforms on pensions and so on and then the welfare state. Remember, the welfare state was a product of a wartime coalition, so I am not making a political point, Churchill and Atlee worked very closely together. The post-war consensus from 1945 to 1976, or whenever it ended, before Mrs Thatcher came to power, was a period when I think the democratic impact on people's lives, health service, full employment, trade union rights, the welfare state, was at its greatest. Now I think the power is being taken away again systematically and deliberately and the anti-globalisation movement is in a way, for me, the recreation of the

  Chartists, so young people are saying "we want some control over the world we live in". You can say that some of them are silly and violent and all that but their basic argument is that we have lost control of the world and they do not vote because they do not think voting for anybody is going to do anything about the World Trade Organisation, Brussels, Frankfurt, Washington or anything else. So you have to understand their resistance. Whereas in 1945 the turn-out was enormous because people felt, "The War is over, we are never going back to mass unemployment and Fascism, we want to build a new world". The 1945 result did not come from the charisma of Clement Attlee (who had about as much charisma as a mouse, he was short and bald as a coot and had a little moustache) and Churchill had all the charisma but because the people wanted a change. Hansard had to be re-printed in those days. It was very cheap and people bought the Hansard to see what was being said. All that has been replaced by the change in the structure of power. I am not blaming individuals. I think it is a product of the way that the global economy has developed.

  247. Is it as much a product of a culture of contentment?
  (Mr Benn) No, no, no. Nobody ever stopped me in the street and said, "Tony, I am not voting for you on Thursday because I think you are doing such a marvellous job." The culture of contentment is one of the most foolish messages sent from Millbank Tower.

  248. It was J K Galbraith's phrase rather than Millbank's.
  (Mr Benn) It was. Galbraith was a very formidable guy but he never said that people did not vote because they were content. I cannot remember. Did he say that?

  Chairman: He did not. Thank you very much. Annette?

Annette Brooke

  249. I have been wanting to turn it on its head. Is the growth of quangos absolutely inevitable? I just wonder rather than trying to devise all these processes, should we not get to grips with the fact that there are all these people to be appointed one way or another?
  (Mr Benn) If we had confidence in local government—which, remember, is a threat to central government and quangos are not a threat—to take an example, if I am not too controversial, no Prime Minister particularly liked County Hall across the River as an alternative government. The last but one Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, abolished it because of that. Many of the functions of quangos could be done by local authorities or by some form of controlled and democratic selection of people taking part. It is so much easier, instead of having to deal with a councillor who has been elected and has a bit of authority, to deal with somebody you have appointed. I rather share your view about that.

  250. The fact that we have had this massive growth of appointments seems to me to be the obvious cause and it seems to me that we should be looking at that. On the other hand, in some of our other interviews it has come through that really you could look at the functions of the good citizen and the good citizen perhaps should be serving on some sort of body. How do we reconcile the idea of democracy but also wanting to involve citizens and giving them a true role in society and giving them some ownership?
  (Mr Benn) I have never regarded democracy as being like brushing your teeth in the morning, which is good for you. Democracy is your right to be a participant in your own future rather than a spectator of your own fate. I also think it is a great mistake to think that democracy is about polling day. It is partly about polling day and the capacity to remove a Member of Parliament or a Government is the thing that makes the difference but between elections democracy is about what people do in their daily lives. To give the example of the suffragettes again, they did not have the vote, they were not able to participate but, by God, they chained themselves to the railings, were arrested, went on hunger strike, were forcibly fed by the wardresses, and in the end there was such a row that women got the vote. When I was born women were not allowed to vote until they were 30. Men were so arrogant that they said, "We cannot trust the wife until she is 30". Indeed ,the abolition of multiple representation only occurred a couple of years before I was elected. There were business votes and university votes. If you were a university graduate you could have three votes. So my reading of politics is that all change comes from activity underneath and then the message gradually gets through to the people you elect. I would not say to somebody that your main democratic responsibility is to vote, although it is a vital one. I would say if you believe in the environment, join environmental groups like Greenpeace, if you believe in women's rights, if you believe in trade unions' rights then campaign because that is what government have to listen to. I know having been in the Cabinet that when a body of opinion develops no Government can disregard it. Let me give you a non-political example. When Hamilton killed those children in Dunblane, Michael Howard, the Conservative Home Secretary, banned handguns within six months. He may have never thought of it before but public opinion was so strong he had to do it. That is how the democratic process works. It does not trickle down, it bubbles up. That is in a nutshell what I feel about it. I do not know if it answers your question but it is what I feel.

  251. I suppose the issue is that it is not only not voting, it is that people do not want to take on some of the onerous responsibilities, even down to a school governing body, if you like, because it is too onerous. If we are going to go beyond the big issues which you mentioned like anti-globalisation and you are going to engage people in some way, what is the link? People are not happy about the National Health Service but there is no linkage in terms of appointments to various bodies from the people who are unhappy about the National Health Service, so it never really links up in the present state. What can MPs do to actually change things?
  (Mr Benn) People feel powerless. If it is not too controversial, I feel that many people think the Government is apathetic about them. If you are a pensioner and the link of pensions with earnings is broken you think, "The Government doesn't care about me." If you are a student and you have to pay a fee you say, "The Government doesn't care about me." So apathy is two-sided. If people feel that the government is not caring for them they do not care for government. That could only be dealt with by a refreshment of the democratic element in government and that is why I think the House of Commons and local authorities have got such a huge role to play. I am not coming up with an instant remedy but my own feeling is that we are all now controlled and when you are controlled you wonder whether it is really worth voting because you say, "What is the difference? What will happen?" I do not mean the difference between the parties but whoever is there, what can they actually do? That is something which is a reflection of the way power has shifted, first from the King to the electorate and then from the electorate to the global economy.


  252. Could I just ask you one other question which came out of some things you were saying earlier on and I suppose is very current this week and that is to do with the Crown and particularly when we talk about Crown appointments. Have you ever been able to work out what the Crown is?
  (Mr Benn) What the Crown is?

  253. Yes.
  (Mr Benn) Yes, it is a very subtle system. I have thought about it very carefully. The Crown is a legal entity with enormous power occupied by a Monarch who has very little power. The power is transferred to the Prime Minister, who has enormous power, and the establishment, in my opinion, regards the Monarchy as absolutely essential and, I mentioned earlier, they got rid of Edward VIII because they thought he would endanger the Crown. It is very clever because if you criticise Crown powers they say you are criticising the Queen but you are not. They use affection for the Royal Family to protect the powers that are undemocratic. The other thing about having a monarchy—and, I have never been personal to the Queen, she did not pick the job, she was born to the right parents in the right bed at the right time, so I am not being personal—is I think that the culture of deference, the idea that we were all born either at the top or at the bottom, is wrong. Every country has people who think they are better than others but Britain is the only country where most are trained at birth to believe that they are better than you are. All this bowing and scraping. When I am told that the Crown symbolises the national identity, I say, "Look half a minute, I am a grandfather, I live in London, I was an MP and a Minister." My identity is really around what I have known and done in my life and I think that is an unhappy ingredient in the Monarchy. If the Queen lived at Buckingham Palace and changed the guard it would be lovely but I do think there is something about the culture of deference which is very destructive of self-confidence, which is necessary if we are ever going to make real improvements.

  254. What I am wanting to press you on is whether the idea of the Crown—and I understand all the points that you have just made—does not have a resonance which may be quite useful to have, standing for a notion of public interest, of public service that goes beyond transient governments of the day, and that if someone regards themselves as a servant of the Crown, whatever this funny thing called a "Crown" is, it on the whole has a beneficial rather than a malign effect on their performance of duties?
  (Mr Benn) I would question that. There are many civil servants who feel their duty is to the Crown, not to the Minister. People said to me, "Look, Minister, this is my responsibility to the Crown." As far as the public is concerned they do not think of the Crown, they think of the Queen. The Queen is very popular, for obvious reasons—she has been there a long time and the Queen Mother and so on—but I do not think that people know what the Crown is really because it is something never discussed, except that if you criticise Crown powers you are held to be criticising the Queen, which is very unfair. I have introduced several Bills to replace the Monarchy and I have sent them all to Buckingham Palace and I got very nice letters back saying thank you very much for sending them. As you know, you cannot even debate the Royal Prerogative without the consent of the Queen. Of course, she never withheld her consent. I got lots of letters from Buckingham Palace saying "by all means go ahead with your Bill", but nothing ever came of it. It is a very powerful force in our society. I do not take the view that it is above politics; it is a very, very political instrument.

  255. I am pressing you on this idea that if someone is a servant of the Crown it feels different from simply being a servant of the state?
  (Mr Benn) But you are not a servant of the state. None of us as MP's are servants of the state. We are servants of our constituents. What you are giving me is the trickle down theory of integrity whereas I am in favour of the bubble up theory of integrity. I have never felt any allegiance to anybody other than the people whom I represent (even if they did not vote for me) and my own conscience. I think what you are saying is so fundamental that you could argue would it not be better if the Crown appointed MPs. After all, peers are appointed. As you know, the Prime Minister has gone back and he has "modernised" the second chamber back to the 14th Century because in the early days there were no hereditary peerages, they were all life peerages, so he has taken us right back to the medieval time when the King appointed them. I could imagine the Prime Minister appointing MPs soon. It can be done. You offer somebody a peerage to get him out of the House and then you parachute Shaun Woodward in. That is getting awful close to having an appointed House of Commons.

  256. In your delightful way you are parodying the argument. Let me try this one more time. I asked the question genuinely because I am interested in what you think about it. I have this sense that a civil servant—and I am not talking about elected politicians—who regards himself or herself as a servant of the Crown (which he or she is) that that has something to do with the preservation of traditions of political impartiality, incorruptibility, all these things that we associate with the Civil Service in a way that they would not be if they were simply servants of the state.
  (Mr Benn) No I do not take that view. I think what is important about the Civil Service is their professionalism. They are people of ability who have been selected after examination and interview. They are people of great ability and great integrity. The fact that they are employed by the Crown has got nothing whatever to do with it, unless they want to use it to bypass a Minister. What you are saying is something so fundamentally undemocratic—the idea that integrity is only possible if it comes from the top and not from the bottom. I doubt you would have voted for the Reform Bill of 1832.

  257. This is the parody —
  (Mr Benn) There were people who said in 1832 that if you extend the franchise it will undermine democracy. Asquith said in 1910 if women get the vote it will undermine democracy.

  258. You do not think this idea of the Crown has any resonance which is positive in any way at all?
  (Mr Benn) I am not being personal about the Queen.

  259. We are not talking about the Queen.
  (Mr Benn) If you look at this country the first attempt to get us into the European Union was Julius Caesar. He occupied us and we still had the single currency, the penny. Then William the Conqueror arrived and he stole all the land and gave it to his Norman friends. If you look at the role of the Crown or successive occupants, far from being non-political they have been the expression of wealth and privilege throughout the whole of history. Of course, in our present system where we have a constitutional monarchy, all that has gone. I have noticed something—I wonder if you have—we talk about Britain as a democracy and in the House of Commons we talk about "parliamentary" democracy but the Queen when she comes always talks about the "constitutional" Monarchy. The Queen never mentions democracy because as far as the Palace is concerned the House of Commons consents to her law-making. Look at the words of enactment of a Bill. They are: "Be it enacted by the Queen's most excellent Majesty, by and with the advice . . ." All we do is advise her. I take a different historical view but also a different moral view because I was brought up on the Bible. My mother taught me that in the Bible there is a conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness and I was brought up to believe in the prophets. This is a theological argument. It was an argument at the heart of the Reformation so forgive me if we differ. It is probably not on your agenda but it is a very, very interesting concept and one that people in power love to maintain because it keeps them in power.

  Chairman: You have put me on the wrong side of all those arguments so I am going to call Michael to ask one final question.

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