Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q260 Chairman: So you do not put in hand your own inquiry, you just ask government departments.

  Mrs Catto: I ask government departments, yes. We know quite a lot about the person because we have a fairly full citation and at the senior level these do tend to be people pretty much in the public eye. The department are likely to know, and, indeed, the assessment committees are likely to know if there are any question marks hanging over them.

  Q261 Chairman: There are occasions when there are question marks, are there?

  Mrs Catto: Very occasionally.

  Q262 Chairman: Then what do you do?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: In that case we then report this to the Prime Minister as a comment on the recommendations. It happens in practice with the new system very rarely. It happened, of course, maybe a little less rarely under the old system, where there were a number of very high level, high profile cases in the case of nominations to the House of Lords, but that is outside our domain altogether now.

  Q263 Chairman: On these very rare occasions when something looks a bit wrong, you tell the Prime Minister.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Q264 Chairman: That you do not like the look of this.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Q265 Chairman: Then what happens?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: In practice, since the new system has operated, in any case where anything has been discovered that required comment it has not required any further action. The nomination has been withdrawn if necessary. There has never been a case where we have had any advice that we have given in that way disputed by the Prime Minister. As I say there have been only five cases and in all of them they were perfectly straightforward. There was nothing uncovered that required any kind of recommendation from us. This is one reason for our slight degree of impatience about the way the new pattern is working. We are conscious that in that area we are really doing a job to reassure public perceptions rather than a job that relates to the realities of matters of real public concern.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: It changed substantially as regards the workload of the committee from when it was the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, and now all the peerages going to the House of Lords Appointments Commission for scrutiny has certainly reduced considerably the work that our band of three carries out. We have the reports in the various interdepartmental committees that come forward, and where we have points that we wish to raise then we do raise them. Sometimes that means we get more information back, and at the end of the day, of course, we have to then hand it back to the Prime Minister who makes the decision—because it is not our decision as to whether someone does get that honour or not.

  Q266 Chairman: Listening to what Lord Thomson has said, it sounds as though there had not been a case where your view had not prevailed.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Not that I am aware of, no.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I have been associated with the committee for a number of years but I have been chairman now for a few years and during my period of chairmanship there has not been such a case.

  Q267 Chairman: One final question before I ask colleagues to come in. Your benchmark is taking a donation of £5,000, but of course political services can be much wider than that, can they not? It is a rather crude thing simply taking a donation. Someone can be helpful to a party in all kinds of ways in their professional life, someone working in the media, someone doing all kinds of things. Is there not a need to go rather broader to see whether people are rewarding their political friends or not?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Chairman, you raise an interesting question really. Some of us would argue—and I would certainly argue having spent my working life in politics—that political service to a political party of your choice quite independent of any financial donation you make is a worthy form of political service and is generally on the public record, so I do not think that of itself raises issues. Are you thinking of individuals giving services in kind?

  Q268 Chairman: It strikes me that the area of donation, although a very contentious area, is not at all the only area where people can provide political services, and if people have the ability to be awarded with honours then I would have thought vigilance on a wider front was required.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes.

  Q269 Chairman: You seem to be apprised of that.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I guess you are thinking about things, possibly—I do not know—like the provision of an office. It could be a transport, it could be a plane. I think an individual giving time of themselves is to be welcomed and encouraged for people to get involved in the political system, but our remit is to look at political donations and it is not surprising that you are raising the question you do because once you set your mind running at what is support for a political party of any kind it can run down all kinds of channels. But our remit is to look at political donations.

  Q270 Chairman: Again, Lord Thomson makes it clear that you have no hesitation at all in thinking of political service as being a perfectly proper reward in its own right. You would not want to subsume it under a more general category.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I express really a wholly personal point of view, but I regard political service as an honourable form of voluntary public service. If I may speak very frankly, I thought the Labour Party in my time made a great mistake in declining to offer honours to its working agents, for example, who are a devoted band of people who get precious little in the way of financial reward for their services.

  Chairman: Thank you for that. I will ask colleagues to come in.

  Q271 Mr Prentice: I know this is not your baby, in a way, now, because it has transferred to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, but, again following up this point, there was the ennoblement of the last general secretary of the Labour Party, David Treesman, but his predecessor, Margaret McDonagh was not ennobled. Do you think there is a case for some body, House of Lords Appointments Commission, just looking at the proprieties of this? Or is it just better to say, "We don't want to go there"?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Now I can only express a personal view about it. My view is I would agree with you that that kind of nomination requires to be examined in the general public interest—and is presumably examined, I assume, or the Appointments Commission has a right to look at that. At the end of the day I think any government and any prime minister, must, given our present political system, have the right to be able to send to the House of Lords as a working peer, and very often as a working minister, in effect, people of his own choice. I think equally making that appointment is a public act and should have reasonable scrutiny.

  Q272 Mr Prentice: Should there be a distinction between working peers and others? When we had Lord Stevenson in front of us a year or so ago he said to me, "It's a non trivial distinction between a working peer and a non-working peer."

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I do not agree with that myself.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: No, I do not. I am a member of the Appointments Commission but I do not actually agree with that either. On your earlier point which you asked Mr Thomson, Mr Prentice, I find automaticity something that is not naturally attractive to me. If the argument you are putting forward is: if one gets it the others should and if they do not is this improper, I do not think that carries a lot of weight. I think they all should be scrutinised and that is the remit. That is rightly so. But I think the political judgement for each of the political parties is down to them as to who they want as working peers whilst the current system is in being.

  Q273 Mr Hopkins: If I may take a rather more radical tack, the Chairman has talked about favours in return for peerages, for example. Worth more than £5,000, surely, would be the support of a newspaper. A proprietor and an editor of a newspaper supporting a political party at election time would be worth much more than £5,000. That is an example of the sort of favour that could be done for a political party, is it not?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Having spent a lot of my life in the newspaper industry, that conjures up for me all kinds of worries. Let's take the 1997 election. I think The Financial Times for the first time in its history came out and said elect a Labour government—which was a shock, I think, to everyone. I would not suggest they were seeking any kind of political favour and I would not suggest that was any kind of support in that sense. It is the way of life for newspapers to take a view, just as the The Sun is vehemently opposed to the euro and was vehemently opposed to a Labour government for many years. I would need convincing that that actually is a political favour. In any case, how would you reward it? Traditionally, in years gone by—thank goodness not today—editors of certain papers were almost guaranteed a peerage. That does not happen today in the way it did.

  Q274 Mr Hopkins: I am not saying it has happened, but it could happen and it would be worth rather more than £5,000 to a political party. That is the only point I was making. And there are other areas where one could reward people.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Yes.

  Q275 Mr Hopkins: That brings me on to my main point—and I have raised this before with the Committee: Could we not just separate the award of honours of every kind from the political process? So that prime ministers and governments had no say whatsoever and we had an independent panel of worthy people giving honours and awards because they are good people; a sort of committee of platonic guardians who are completely independent-minded people and nothing to do with politics.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: You tempt me, I am afraid. I do not myself have a great belief in this ideal world of some group of independent platonic guardians who themselves have a higher degree of virtue in terms of the responsibilities that lie in distributing honours or appointments. I think the profession of politics has suffered—and maybe it is at fault in many ways—in the reputation it has these days in terms of public esteem. Equally, I think, the general body of British public civil servants, of whom I have had much experience and now particular experience in the honours field, their behaviour in terms of the present machinery of honours is absolutely meticulous and is certainly as good, and better I would think, than a group of the great and good, having had to be selected by the government authority of the day in taking on that job. I think there is advantage myself in having a central point in the system—and we might come on to that—that is quite widely composed both of civil servants and of independent citizens of distinction—but I do not carry my thoughts to the belief that you want that because you cannot trust your politicians and civil servants any longer. I profoundly dissent from that view.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I would endorse that entirely. I rather suspect such a committee, given a life of three or four years, would be up before a committee like this being scrutinised as to why they are not as independent as they were intended to be.

  Q276 Mr Hopkins: I only threw that in as an example of the way we might, if we wanted an honours system at all, do it—as one alternative. The point was to separate the award of honours entirely from politics and take it away particularly from the Prime Minister.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: It is at the moment. It comes through the various departments.

  Q277 Mr Hopkins: There has been some discussion at previous meetings of the committee that all prime ministers have considerable influence, especially adding and subtracting names at the last minute.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Yes.

  Q278 Mr Hopkins: Making peers in the House of Lords. That is very significant. One does not want to say too much in public about particular examples but it is a convenient way of moving somebody from one place to another, to give them a peerage, perhaps, if they are very difficult in one area. If, shall we say, a prime minister had a very awkward Foreign Secretary—and we have a wonderful Foreign Secretary, so I am not talking about the present incumbent—and really wanted to shift him or her out of the way politely, he might offer them a peerage and say, "Well, you can go out to grass in the Lords, have a wonderful time. That is the reward for relinquishing your post and yet without any loss of face." That is just an example. But my real concern is that it is part of this great network, the spider's web of patronage, exercised largely through Downing Street and which increases the already high degree of centralisation of power in our political system which is, I think, increasingly coming under scrutiny and something that some of us worry about a lot.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I personally do not see it like that at all. I do not see it as having a wonderful time in the Lords either. You want to be there some times! I think there is an argument to have some kind of centralisation; otherwise you are going to get disparities about treatment in the sense of who comes forward—and the political peerages are separate now anyway. I think most people can see that and they are scrutinised by the Appointments Commission.

  Q279 Mr Hopkins: In Sweden, I understand, they have abolished their honours list entirely. They have got rid of honours and it has not caused the skies to fall in. I am a great admirer of things Scandinavian, if I may say. What impact would that have on British life, political life, the British Constitution? Would it not be an improvement?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Personally, I do not think so. I do think that the honours system requires regular review and, therefore, I very much welcome the fact that your Committee is conducting such a review at the moment, because I think you need to make sure that it is meeting the changing needs of society and the nation and there are a number of ways in which I think things could be improved. But, by and large, there is something to be said for society and the nation finding a machinery for recognising people of worth in terms of their service to the community. It will always be an imperfect system but I think most countries have it and I personally would think it a pity if we were to take the radical situation of simply having no honours system at all. Having said that, I do think there is a good deal of room for the kind of examination we are conducting.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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