Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q280 Sir Sydney Chapman: I would like to ask you a number of questions for confirmation or correction. The first is this: I have a little briefing note in front of me which says of your committee: "Conventionally, the Committee has sought a certificate from the Prime Minister assuring them that the granting of a political honour is not in any way related to the donation." Does that still happen?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I think that refers to what we have asked for in the present, new system, not from the prime minister but from the chairman of the Central Honours Committee who is dealing with the whole range of what I have called the Whitehall honours, outside the prime minister's personal recommendations. In order to clear the ground for us to do our particular duty, we have asked for such a certificate, that each of the people nominated on the general honours list is entitled to these honours in the judgment of that committee quite irrespective of anything we may discover about a political donation or anything else about their public character that might be relevant. I think that is a reference to that certificate from the Chairman of the Central Honours Committee that we arranged as a result of representations we made to both the secretary to the cabinet and, if I remember rightly, also to the Chairman of the Standards Committee in our discussions.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Yes. But we also ask on the donations, of course, for a statement from the Chief Whip of the party, and we have said that actually we would like that to be from the Leader of each of the parties who would have a much broader view of the people involved.

  Q281 Sir Sydney Chapman: My second question is for confirmation. You scrutinise all nominations for honours of CBE or above, except peerages.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Yes. We do not at the moment do CBEs for the practical reason that until the full register of donations is operating on a five-year cycle it was felt impractical administratively for us to take on that added numerical burden. At the moment we do knights, dames and companions of honour, but CBEs would come to us under the present machinery in a year or two's time.

  Q282 Sir Sydney Chapman: I see. How many of these knights, dames and others in each honours list? How many come before you twice a year?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Well, the whole list is before us.

  Mrs Catto: In each list there are usually between 30 and 35 honours at that level.

  Q283 Sir Sydney Chapman: There are also some honours awarded between the two honours lists. Do you scrutinise those?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: No.

  Mrs Catto: There was, for example, last year a special honours list for people connected with the Iraq war and that was published at the end of October. I do not think actually there were any very high level honours on it but the committee did not scrutinise those.

  Q284 Sir Sydney Chapman: At the risk of embarrassing myself, Mr Chairman, I would like to give an example. When I left the government I found I had received an honour. I am almost tempted to say that I was called to 10 Downing Street and between walking from the House of Commons to 10 Downing Street I was quite convinced that I might be going to be promoted as a minister.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Some of us have had that experience!

  Q285 Sir Sydney Chapman: The reality was somewhat different. The fact is that I was awarded a knighthood immediately. This was on July the something 1995. That nomination did not come before your committee presumably or your predecessor committee.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I do not know, I was not there then.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I think that would have come before our predecessors because that was a political honour, if I may say so—nonetheless creditable, from my point, for that. You have heard my view about working politicians.

  Q286 Sir Sydney Chapman: Yes. Whatever arrangements there are and whatever arrangements we may feel there should be, is there still a discretion for the Prime Minister to say, "I want to reward that person and I do not need to come through the Scrutiny Committee"?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: No, in the present situation there is still the absolute discretion of the Prime Minister to nominate whom he wishes for what he wishes but it has to come before our committee if it is in the range of knighthoods and dames. Even between honours lists, it would come to us. One of the unsatisfactory features of these things is that that kind of circumstance between honours lists for political reasons is often done at very short notice. Our very small committee has to jump to it as best we can, but it is not the most satisfactory aspect of our operations. But it has to come before us if it is a political honour.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: May I comment, thinking about an area that I personally feel very uncomfortable about, and that is the appointment of some peerages that are not subject to the normal scrutiny. The prime minister of the day putting someone into the House of Lords, for instance, to become a minister is not subject to the normal scrutiny. I think if you have a system of scrutiny it should be for everyone who is awarded. If it is for peerages, all the peerages awarded should be subject to scrutiny. I personally feel uncomfortable about that. It is not within our remit at the moment. It was not, I do not think, on the political honours. I do not think it was. It certainly is not at the moment under the Stevenson arrangements.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: The appointment of ministers in the Lords still rests entirely at the moment with the Prime Minister. It does not come to the Scrutiny Committee.

  Q287 Sir Sydney Chapman: Thank you. My final question: on the £5,000 threshold for donations—and I am asking for obviously a personal view you would want to give—it seems to me an extraordinarily low amount. I gather it is any time during the last five years, so one is talking about somebody who gives £1,000 to one's party for five years would meet the threshold. I just wondered if you felt in this day and age, notwithstanding inflation, that figure ought to be more realistic and ought to be much higher.

  Mrs Catto: I think the threshold is actually over £5,000 in any one year.

  Q288 Sir Sydney Chapman: It is. That is helpful.

  Mrs Catto: That is the one the Electoral Commission uses and the committee uses the same threshold.

  Q289 Sir Sydney Chapman: The reason I mention that is because the Neill Committee's recommendation said that the committee should scrutinise every case where a nominee for a CBE and above has directly or indirectly donated £5,000 or more to a political party at any time in the past five years. So that is not the case.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I am afraid the language is ambiguous. It meant at any one time. It is single donations of £5,000 and upwards that are regarded as the threshold for consideration in terms of an honour.

  Sir Sydney Chapman: Thank you.

  Chairman: We note what you say about being able to put someone into the Lords without any scrutiny at all as long as they make them a minister, which is an interesting idea.

  Q290 Brian White: My concern is that the whole system, including your committee, is very much made up of one small strata of our society and very much around the great and the good. To use a topical example, if Catherine Gunn was nominated for an award, I very much doubt if she would get through the system, as I am quite sure Clive Pontin in previous cases would not get through the system. What are you doing in your part of this field to look for greater diversity, to look at making sure that the honours system does not reflect that small narrow band of the great and the good?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: The immediate factual answer, and not in any way discourteous answer, is that we do nothing in that field because it is quite outside our remit. But since we are here because of our connection with the honours system to express our views about the generality of the honours system, I personally am very happy to say that I believe rather strongly that we need to modernise the central machinery of the honours system and ensure that the people who do the initial selection of the honours that come up are a wider mixture of people than at present. I think the civil service is in an ambiguous position, in the sense that traditionally, partly because of the history of civil servants being in lifelong careers, honours were a compensation for some of the other opportunities that civil servants gave up during their lives and they have a very substantial share of the honours system. I think it is quite right that in modern times that should be looked at. But I think the composition of the committee that surveys these matters should be looked at very carefully indeed, so that a more radical view, if you wish to put it that way, might be taken of those who be nominated for honours. But I am bound to say, again speaking entirely for myself, that at the end of the day you come back to the question as to who is ultimately accountable if you retain an honours system. If you abolish an honours system, then the landscape is clear, but if you retain an honours system, who is ultimately accountable? I cannot myself see any circumstances in which the government and prime minister of the day will not ultimately have to bear a residual responsibility for whatever selection emerges from whatever machinery, however modernised, is put in. I do think—again, speaking quite independently of party politics—the present Prime Minister, it is due to him for having made a serious attempt, setting up the Appointments Commission for cross-benchers in the Lords, for example, and in other ways setting up the whole register of political donations, in making the system that lies behind the honours system a good deal more transparent than it was when he arrived in office.

  Q291 Brian White: When Colin Blakemore came before us he talked about people in his position normally would expect to get a certain honour, knighthood. Given that Baroness Dean has talked about automaticity, how do you go about removing that expectation from certain posts, of expecting to get an honour, and, therefore, if they do not get it, it being seen as some kind of slight?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I do not wish to comment in any detail on the particular case.

  Q292 Brian White: No. I merely used it as an example.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I do not think you could ever in any human system remove the fact that some people will feel aggrieved that they have not been amongst the chosen as well as the other people feeling extremely content that they have been so honoured. My impression of the honours system, from a reasonably sceptical point of view, involved in it, is that it gives pretty general satisfaction to those who are honoured without undue resentment elsewhere. But automaticity, as Baroness Dean has said, is one of the issues with regard to the operation that ought to be looked at very carefully. I would make what again is a personal comment on what I read about the Blakemore case—and I understand the background to it—that, I think, curiously enough, if that case had been dealt with by accountable ministers rather than very conscientious and concerned civil servants anxious not to cause too much difficulty, there might have been a bolder view taken of it, which for my part I would much have welcomed.

  Q293 Brian White: You do not question a recommendation that has come forward to you for a high honour simply because of the post of that person. You do not yourself challenge that as a committee?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: That is not within our remit.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: It is not within our remit at all, but it is within your remit, if I may say so.

  Q294 Brian White: I just wanted to be clear exactly where the boundary was, that is all.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: If I may, Chairman, commenting on your first question, it is not within our remit to try, if you like, to get much more a mirror of Britain in the honours. But that does not prevent us having individual views. I agree with the view that Lord Thomson has put across, and it is not surprising, having worked together on a committee and seeing things come through and reading in the media. The disproportionate number, going back some years, of men as opposed to women at CBE level, for instance, always made me feel very uncomfortable. I think certainly the work of this Committee in trying to get the honours system to bring forward more people of a wider diversity in Britain than we have seen must be a very valuable contribution to public life. Going back to the earlier point about shall we have an honours system at all, I am sure MPs will know better than I know that when their constituents get an honour it is a great deal of pride to them and their families that they have been recognised, and it is great that more of them are coming forward, but it would be even better if we could get more diversity in the general run of honours across the board.

  Q295 Brian White: My final question: In this era of devolution, what relationship do you have to the First Minister in Scotland and in Wales, if any? Or is it purely through the Prime Minister that you deal?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: In our case, when I am talking about our committee and its terms of reference, we have no direct links there at all, but I think Mrs Catto could give you some information about that.

  Mrs Catto: Honours is not a devolved matter in any of the devolved administrations, but obviously in the devolved administrations their civil servants do a lot of the work in identifying people to recommend.

  Q296 Kevin Brennan: Have you ever considered, Lord Thomson, instead of abolishing your committee, of perhaps abolishing the Stevenson Committee and you taking over their responsibilities as an alternative?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I am beyond temptations like that!

  Q297 Kevin Brennan: It just seems that you have a fairly tight, small operation here that could do the job probably just as well, if not better, at less expense and so on.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Baroness Dean is a member of both our committees, so she is in a very good position to give you a balanced view about this.

  Q298 Kevin Brennan: What would your view be of that suggestion?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: We have not even considered that because our role has been so reduced in size that it seems to make to us eminent sense (i) to have one body doing it rather than duplication and (ii) as in fact the government have now accepted that there is going to be a statutory Appointments Commission, then it is appropriate, we think, that it comes under that commission. For us to start to fight, if you like, a turf war I do not think is going to achieve anything. So, no, it has not occurred to us that we should do that.

  Kevin Brennan: You could give it some thought.

  Q299 Chairman: The real oddity of what you propose is that not only does it just take care of peerages but it would seem odd to have a committee that is concerned with cross-bench peerages to be given the whole range of honours responsibility. And is it not doubly odd, when there is a feeling that we need to be separating out honours from service in the second chamber, to muddle it all up even further? We would compound our difficulties, would we not?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: Of course, our opinion is reached against the background that the decision has been taken, in that what you call the Stevenson Commission actually scrutinises the political peerages now. That decision was taken and that job transferred from our committee over there. That has been done now, so we are left, if you like, almost with the tail end of the bit to do. If that is the way the tide is running, then it seems silly that we are out on a limb, if you like, as a small body. It should be centralised. The government have decided it goes to the Appointments Commission—that is something you may choose to comment on—but that is why we reached the decision.

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