Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q300 Kevin Brennan: Picking up the Chairman's point, in terms of your personal views on the issue, do you think that being appointed to a legislative chamber like the House of Lords should be regarded as an honour in the same way as receiving a gong of some sort for worthy service to the community? Is it not an entirely different theme?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I personally think that with the abolition of the automatic right of the hereditary peerage to sit in the second chamber of Parliament, that there is an opportunity to tackle that question face-on. I personally would very much welcome if it were to be decided that the question of peerage as a pure honour. Let us take an individual example from the past: Yehudi Menhuin, the distinguished artist, was made a peer as a pure honour. He came and took his seat in the House of Lords but nobody expected him to be in any sense a working participant in the work of the House of Lords. I think most people would feel that some kind of recognition is very appropriate for somebody of his standing. Therefore, the hereditary peerages are taking their place in history. The House of Lords as a second chamber is a working chamber. It is a political question of a different kind as to exactly how the workers in that chamber should be selected and composed and so on but it is a working chamber. I would separate the peerage as an honour from the membership of the House of Lords as a part of the working of Parliament.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I would agree entirely with that. I was on the Wakeham Commission and that was one of the recommendations they put forward.

  Q301 Kevin Brennan: Sir Sydney earlier described very candidly, as he always does, and in a very disarming way, how he received his knighthood. It is the one case which perhaps we can discuss, since he gave it himself in the Committee. I am looking to see if he is nodding or not! Do you think some of these political honours—and again this is a personal view I am looking for—are sometimes—and I am sure it is not true in Sir Sydney's case—not so much for services rendered but for going quietly?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: First of all, a political honour for those serving in Parliament, for services rendered, for long service, in any society that values its parliament, I think is a very appropriate form of honour. When they come to the more naked cases that happen, as we all know, where somebody is given the honour, above-all the supreme honour in the past, of being moved out of the House of Commons into the House of Lords for the political convenience of the government of the day, I am afraid I take a rather unromantic and brutal view that governments of the day have terrible problems and if they wish to redistribute their members in a way that makes their government more successful I think it is unreasonable to stand in the way of that. But one must be very clearheaded as to which is which. I would not kill the knighthood for a working member of the House of Commons, someone who has done good service in the House of Commons and is getting it for the good service, for the sake of the kind of comment that inevitably is aroused by the political convenience appointment.

  Q302 Kevin Brennan: There is this phenomenon which you have perhaps obliquely referred to, which I sometimes call "", where somebody retires very late in the parliamentary cycle or announces their intention to stand down and then miraculously, after a period, a decent interval, reappears on the red benches at the other end of the building. Do you think there is any relationship between those two?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I think that falls into the second category I mentioned. I was the Member of Parliament—

  Q303 Kevin Brennan: But you approve of that, you said.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: As I said, I think governments have to govern and it is reasonable to expect them to be able to move people around. But I do not think it is an admirable thing at all. I was a Member of Parliament for Dundee for a long time. The only person who nearly served Dundee as long as me was Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill only became the MP for Dundee in extremely controversial circumstances because the liberal Member for Dundee was kicked upstairs into the House of Lords. It is part of the history of Dundee and I have made many a speech about it, so I am rather on your side in your emotions on it. But governments are governments, and I rather think governments are entitled to a bit of the benefit of the doubt in deploying their own people.

  Q304 Kevin Brennan: I just want to pin this down. There is nothing wrong, in your view, in the Prime Minister calling in someone a few years before a probable general election and quietly, privately and out of public view, saying to them, "Look, I need your seat. I have a young up-and-coming special advisor or somebody who is a prominent person within the party. We need them in the Commons rather than in the Lords. If you were to do the decent thing"—nod-nod, wink-wink—"you'll be comfortable. We'll make sure you're all right at public expense. You can claim your expenses and have membership of one of the nicest clubs in London for the rest of your days. Is that all right?"

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: You are asking me my personal view. My personal view is that governing is a rough trade and I think governments are entitled to some benefit of the doubt on that. It is not an admirable practice and of course they must face the flak of it and do face the flak of it, as they did in the case of Winston Churchill all those years ago.

  Q305 Kevin Brennan: Is the public not entitled to lift that particular slab and see what is crawling underneath it? Should this not be done in the open light of scrutiny rather than in that way?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: The kind of case you are describing is very much in the open. I do not mean the original private conversation to the unfortunate Member of the House of Commons who suggested that his time for going to seed has come, but the actual event is highly in the open, highly controversial, of great advantage to the opposition party.

  Kevin Brennan: But any prime minister who admitted that that happened while they were in office would be in serious trouble—serious political trouble. They would be accused of corruption, would they not—

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: No, I do not think so.

  Q306 Kevin Brennan: —if they actually admitted that they had said to a Member of Parliament, "If you give up your seat I will put you in the Lords", do you not think?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I had not pursued it to that logical extent, but again I just stick to my view that in our electoral system the government of the day will do what it can to ensure that it gets the best possible team in Parliament and so on and it will have to face the flak on the ways in which it does it, but that is a public operation that you are talking about. They do not avoid criticism by doing it.

  Q307 Kevin Brennan: Can I ask, Baroness Dean, what your view is on that exchange?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I do not think it helps the reputation of politics to have what you are talking about, but I think the political reality is too [sic]. It is very difficult to define exactly. Whilst you have got the system that you have got at the moment, the second chamber, many Members from the House of Commons would and do make a valuable contribution to the work of the Lords, so an MP ceasing to be an MP, deciding to give up their seat, not standing next time round and then coming into the Lords I think is perfectly acceptable. I do not think it helps the reputation of politics when you get a bunching of what you call I think anyone who has got a conscience about politics feels somewhat embarrassed about that when it happens.

  Q308 Kevin Brennan: Can I ask one final question and that is on the matter of the secrecy of the membership of committees that make recommendations for honours, which is an issue which we have touched on with other witnesses, and again I understand it will be your personal view? Is it your view that in the modern era it is sensible, prudent or acceptable to have secret committees making recommendations for honours? Should we not open that up to greater transparency?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My own view is no. You started off with one question and asked a second one, a different one, at the end of what you just said, if you do not mind my saying. You started off by asking is it right that these committees on the names are in secret. When I went on the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in 1998 colleagues in the House said, "Oh, you do not discuss that. That committee does not really exist", and then we got summoned before the Neill Committee. I think it was the first time we have come out of cover. First of all, I think the civil servants doing the processing work and the background work is perfectly acceptable. You say it should be another independent group. I do not think that would necessarily achieve very much. I think the members of the committee in the departments should be known. I think the proceedings of the committees should not be in public and you should not have transparency there for a whole host of reasons. Their discussions should be in confidence and their recommendations should be as well. I think in today's age to have committees that you do not know the names of, outside of national security, obviously, really does not sit very well with how we are as a nation today.

  Q309 Kevin Brennan: Would Lord Thomson agree with that?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I totally agree with that. A separation between confidentiality for the proceedings of the committees—I thought the recent leaks of the proceedings of the Honours Committee was thoroughly damaging. They were good for circulation for newspapers; they were thoroughly bad for decent administration of a system but the membership of committees should be in the public arena.

  Q310 Mr Prentice: On Kevin's earlier point, do you think when Members of Parliament are coming up to retirement they should give their parties due notice to allow the parties to select their successor rather than the kind of deal for that that Kevin was talking about, and if a retiring Member of Parliament were to accept a peerage in those circumstances it should be regarded as dishonourable conduct?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I personally think no on both counts. I think the regulation of the political parties is something for the parties unless it is seen as in the public interest. For instance, the publishing of donations was an admirable and right thing to do, but as regards how political parties select their candidates, providing it is a transparent procedure it is acceptable to me and no, I do not think it is dishonourable for a Member of Parliament to accept a peerage as long as that system is in being. Why would you want to exclude people who have got an enormous amount of experience to bring to the second chamber?

  Q311 Mr Prentice: Because that retiring Member of Parliament has decided quite consciously to leave his announcement to the last moment to allow someone else to be shoehorned into that seat and for the members of the political party in that constituency to be completely cut out of the process. We are not talking about one or two people here; we are talking about fairly large numbers of retiring Members of the House of Commons going into the second chamber on the back of this procedure, and we all know that to be the case.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: So what is your question?

  Q312 Mr Prentice: My question is, should that be regarded as dishonourable conduct, to accept a peerage in those circumstances?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I would not be prepared to say that people are being dishonourable. I do not think it helps the standing of politics, as I said earlier. When you said "in large numbers", there have been a number, I agree, but I do not know what means "large numbers" to you. Certainly, we have seen an increase in the numbers; I would certainly accept that because it is a fact.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I have already expressed my views and they coincide with what Baroness Dean has just said.

  Q313 Mr Liddell-Grainger: You were a Member of Parliament a long time, were you not?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Twenty years.

  Q314 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Can I take you back to Mr Gregory who was fined £50—

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: It does not quite go back as far back as that.

  Q315 Mr Liddell-Grainger: It was 1933. He served two months' imprisonment and was fined £50 for—I am not sure whether he broked, pedalled or purchased an honour. He obviously did one of the three. We have had Professor Blakemore in front of us who was very aggrieved at the way things had happened. As far as I can see, and I am talking as a layman now, somebody tried to broker an honour. He could not take the honour because he did not have a chance to take the honour, but that was broked, that honour. A ping-pong went on in this place in Monck Street or wherever. That is an abuse, is it not, under the terms of the 1925 Honours Act?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: That was a gross abuse.

  Q316 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Are you talking about Blakemore or Gregory?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Gregory you were talking about.

  Q317 Mr Liddell-Grainger: And Blakemore. Are they not gross abuses, both of them?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: I am sorry; I cannot comment on the Blakemore thing in any detail. I gave my own view about what would have been better to have happened in Blakemore's case a little earlier. What happened in the detail, I simply have no idea. In the case of the Gregory affair, he was the man involved in the original Lloyd George business, and it finally came out in the open, if I remember rightly, in the thirties.

  Q318 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Let us wind Mr Gregory forward now to 2004, shall we? There have been over the last few years people who have been denied honours for various reasons. Do you think that the 1925 Act should be brought up to date so that there is a safeguard that people who may or may not be pedalled honours for political (and I am just pointing at Sydney because he has got—whatever) or other reasons—should we not be more careful, that there is a fail-safe for people like Colin Blakemore who have been denied it for, as far as I can see, no reason other than what he did. Is that not pedalling and broking?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: As I understand it, it was not remotely connected with pedalling or broking. It was concerned with a matter of judgment by the committee of civil servants who dealt with the matter at that level, and I have expressed my view about that. I think if it had been referred to ministers they would have been more courageous about it probably than civil servants feel they can be, but that is totally unconnected with what you are talking about in terms of corrupt broking and I stick by my view that, in examining the honours system and looking for modernisation and improvements in it, which I very much support, one should not do it on the basis that the present system is in any way corrupt. I think what is striking about it is that, certainly at the Civil Service level, if I may say so, in terms of our small bit of the Civil Service, they are meticulous in their integrity in dealing with these matters and it would do great damage to the public interest generally if there was any sort of feeling that there is an element of corruption and broking within the present system, and I do think, as I said earlier, that it is to the Prime Minister's credit that he has taken various steps that have improved the transparency of the system and the openness of the system. From my point of view at the end of my life in these matters that is to be quite clear about where the balance lies.

  Q319 Mr Liddell-Grainger: We had an interesting leak in The Sunday Times, did we not, about what went on within the scrutiny of honours, and this is how the Blakemore thing came out and all the rest of it. You say they are completely honest, etc, but we do not know; we do not know. How can we say that when we cannot get the people that we need to be sitting where you are to question? Mrs Catto very kindly came in, you have come and obviously Lord Hurd would like to have come, and others, but we are not able to get to the bottom of all of this. To me, I am afraid when this situation with Colin Blakemore was leaked on 28 December in The Sunday Times, it shows that there is an entire raft where we do not know what is going on, and for you to say, Lord Thomson, "I am quite happy that the Prime Minister has opened it up", yes, we do not disagree with that; I think we would all agree with that, but we do not know—you do not know either—exactly what is going on. How do we know there is not something wrong?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: An element of confidentiality I think is both inevitable and essential in terms of making appointments generally, whether they are honours appointments or whether they are appointments to jobs and so on. If everything is totally out in the public arena and the pollsters are in whenever any selection committee of any kind is sitting, it is, I think, both impracticable and counter-productive. Because a thing takes place in confidence it does not mean to say that it is taking place in a state of corruption. That is what I am arguing really very vehemently against. I do think it is not helpful to put it in that way.

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