Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 248-259)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q248 Chairman: Could I call the Committee to order and welcome our witnesses this morning from the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, or, indeed, as we call it now, the Honours Scrutiny Committee. Lord Thomson and Baroness Dean, it is very, very kind of you to come along. As you will know, the Committee, extending some work it was doing on prerogative powers, is going to look separately at the Honours System. As part of that, it seemed important to try to understand quite how the Honours Scrutiny Committee fits into this, so we might want to ask you on aspects of your work and then probably to ask you for some thoughts on how you think wider reforms might contribute to a reworking of the system. Would you like to say something by way of introduction?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Thank you, Chairman. Perhaps I could mention that I have with me of course Baroness Dean. Lord Hurd, who is the third member of the Honours Scrutiny Committee, is abroad in America and so makes his apologies. I think he hopes perhaps to give you some separate submissions of his own at a later stage. Mrs Catto, of course, you have already had as a witness before you but she is sitting here in this case as the Secretary of our committee.

  Q249 Chairman: Thank you.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Chairman, I thought it might be helpful in introduction if I tried to describe what is now called the Honours Scrutiny Committee and how it fits into the wider landscape of the Honours System which we are now examining. Our role is in fact a very limited one, albeit a sensitive one. We do not initiate any recommendations for honours, nor do we have any input into the shape and character of honours policy as a whole. Historically we were set up in the early 1920s following a scandal about honours when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. The Political Honours Scrutiny Committee gave confidential advice to the prime ministers on matters of propriety in the case of honours for political services, particularly in cases where individuals have given financial support to the party of their choice. It was a remit confined to a tiny minority of recipients within the wider honours system, and it is perhaps worth pointing out that the Committee never has had a veto over individual candidates: we simply made certain inquiries and advised the prime minister in confidence if a particular award seemed likely to attract adverse comment. Our duties have now substantially changed. Peerages, which were a major and a particularly sensitive area of operation in the earlier regime, are now scrutinised by Lord Stevenson's Appointments Commission. At the same time, the new register of political donations under the Electoral Commission has created transparency around all political donations which are over £5,000. Therefore, the renamed honours committee is now confined to two duties. First, it deals with the small number of those on the general Whitehall list recommended for senior honours, such as knights or dames, who are on the register of donations. Separately, it examines for propriety the small number of names outside the Whitehall departmental list which are put forward personally by the Prime Minister. In the changes to the system now under discussion in your Committee, it might be simpler in our view and more straightforward if these duties were carried out by privy councillors within the new statutory Appointments Commission, where, as it happens, Baroness Dean and Lord Hurd are already members. We continue to exist in an odd way as a matter of history but it really makes little sense, certainly in my personal view, to have two separate bodies carrying out such similar functions. I thought that might be helpful as background explanation.

  Q250 Chairman: That is very helpful. If I have understood you correctly—and it is rare to have it—you seem to have come here to argue for your abolition.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Indeed, Chairman.

  Q251 Chairman: Well, this is a novel kind of witness!

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: That is the unanimous view.

  Q252 Chairman: Really?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Yes, it is.

  Q253 Chairman: You have become so utterly redundant that you would like someone else to do it.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes. I was not, of course, I am bound to say, arguing for the abolition of my colleague Baroness Dean or Douglas Hurd because they already sit on the Stevenson Committee and deal with peerages which were a major part of our previous responsibilities.

  Q254 Chairman: Yes. Notwithstanding that, I think it would be quite nice to get from you some understanding of how this system has been trying to work. As you say, your bit of it is all concerned with this worry about the politics of it and whether there is any link between, usually, giving money and receipt of honours. In terms of how you work, how have you been able to put in hand inquiries that would provide the reassurances on that front?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: We are served extremely ably, if I may say so by Gay Catto, who is the Secretary to the wider honours system but then within that looks after our particular responsibilities. I am bound to say that one of the reasons for my rather recommending that we should look for our abolition and absorption into a different and wider framework, is that there are difficulties about our present working. We get, through the main honours system, the lists of the senior honours. The normal honours—the Whitehall honours, so to speak, the knights and the dames and the companions of honour—we often get them fairly late. Mrs Catto then has the quite difficult task, as it turns out, of going through the totality of these lists and measuring them up against the register of donations, the new register of donations from the Electoral Commission. I am bound to say to you that the arrangements that the Electoral Commission makes for this do not seem to me to be totally satisfactory and might bear some examination by your Committee, because they operate, for example, entirely on-line now and I was astonished to find that as Chairman of the Honours Committee I could not get a printed paper of the register of donations out of the Printed Paper Office in Parliament. It is not easy to identify whether the name put forward for a general honour is the same person as the person who has made a donation of more than £5,000. If it is a very distinctive name, of course, it is perhaps easier; but if you have an ordinary common name like George Thomson, for example, it is not at all easy and it is done under great pressure. In practice we have now been operating this for three years. Out of the total number of general honours nominations, there have only been, I think, five nominations who were also donors under the register of political donations: four of them were from donations to the Labour Party, one to the Conservative Party, so it is a very small minority of the totality that was finally unearthed by the earnest work of Mrs Catto and her colleagues. Then we make the usual inquiries into general questions of propriety, the donation now being in the open arena thanks to the transparency of the new arrangements, and on that basis we give advice to the prime minister. Then, separately from that, the prime ministers have always had the right to make a small number of direct recommendations of their own. Wherever they are made directly by a prime minister without going through the general machinery of the honours system, we have the duty of there again examining them for propriety and giving confidential advice to the prime minister. That is the way we work at the moment.

  Q255 Chairman: This is fascinating. Of course the House of Lords Appointments Commission is only concerned with peers, but you are wanting to give them senior honours as well.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I think it would be convenient and consistent if within the Appointments Commission, which is in any case to be put, as I understand it, on a statutory basis, there were a sub-committee, so to speak, of privy councillors who carried on the duties as carried on at present by the Honours Scrutiny Committee. I am bound to say that, apart from the particular nominations of our prime minister which will always have to be examined quite clearly in terms of their special character, the job of examining the general honours system, arising out of our experience of three years of it, is primarily a role of dealing with public perception rather than a real role of uncovering matters that should be of public concern.

  Q256 Chairman: As you have described how you operate at the moment, you try to find out—and you have said there are difficulties in doing it—those people who have given £5,000 or more in donation.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Q257 Chairman: The red lights flash around those. There are not very many of them, you tell us.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Q258 Chairman: Then what do you do? Do you look them up in Who's Who? Do you ask if they are good chaps? How do you know that they are fit and proper persons?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Mrs Catto's office, in our service, then makes a report to us of inquiries about their general background. They have already been very closely examined by the interdepartmental Whitehall system, and, indeed, under our arrangements we get a certificate from the chairman of the central honours committee certifying that, as far as their own record of public service, their honour is fully consistent with that record of public service. We already have in the public arena their political donation to the party of their choice and we then make additional inquiries if there is any background of criminal convictions and that kind of thing that might affect the advice that we give. It is a pretty narrow area of inquiry that we make now—quite a serious one in this area but very narrow.

  Q259 Chairman: But you do not have a team of moral investigators, do you? You just have to find out what you can.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Perhaps Mrs Catto might like to make a comment about how it works in practice.

  Mrs Catto: The inquiries I make on behalf of the committee are with government departments, really just asking any government department who might know something about the candidate in question whether they know of any reason why that person is not a fit and proper person to be recommended for an honour.

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