Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-329)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q320 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Maybe not, but I am still not convinced that there is stuff going on that we should not know about. We have a situation where there was a very serious leak in a national newspaper on a situation which quite obviously has caused a lot of concern, and the gentleman involved came before us to put his point of view. He was obviously not happy. We do not know what is going on. You do not know what is going on.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: None of us can know everything that is going on everywhere but that is just life.

  Q321 Mr Liddell-Grainger: We are talking about honours.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: It is where you draw the line.

  Q322 Mr Liddell-Grainger: If you are a nurse the chance of getting an honour is one in 20,000. If you are a civil servant it is one in 123.

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: That is something that can be examined from the statistics. I am not sure about your statistics but that can be examined. That is why I very much welcome the inquiry that your committee is taking on at the moment. It is precisely that kind of area, the distribution of various categories of honours and so on in a changing society, that it would be very helpful to have a series of positive recommendations on.

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: If you are accepting that there is a degree of confidentiality I would say to you that if this committee knew everything that is going on that does not mean to say that the whole of Parliament knows everything that is going on. There are boundaries beyond which not everybody knows what is going on, and I think also to predicate law on one clearly unsettling and unhappy case would be quite wrong. Also, the premise of where you are coming from is that there are guaranteed honours for certain people. That is something that I do not think would be a route that most people would want to go down.

  Q323 Mr Liddell-Grainger: There are guaranteed honours, are there not? Come on. Let us go through the Cabinet Secretaries. How many have not received a major honour?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: But that is known and it is transparent, so what do you do? Do you start to have a list of people in public life? What happens with the ordinary man and woman who are not known?

  Q324 Mr Liddell-Grainger: On that same review should it not be public? If we are getting leaks in national newspapers on what is happening, we do not know what is happening. There are 30,000 people apparently awaiting honours. Were you aware of that?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: No, I do not know that.

  Q325 Mr Liddell-Grainger: There apparently are, we have been told, of which about 7,000 a year get a gong of various types. I do not include military medals. Why should that not be more open? If we recommend somebody for a gong as a Member of Parliament or a Lord Lieutenant, whoever, we do not actually know what happens. It goes into the black hole in Monck Street. Why should we not be in a position or you not be in a position in your present positions as Baroness Dean, Lord Thomson and Lord Hurd to know more of what is going on when we have to have leaks in newspapers as to the situation with people like Colin Blakemore, and—I cannot remember who it was—to spice up the thing. Who was that? It was a sportsman, was it not? Henman. Henman was stuck in to spice it up a bit. Well, crikey! That is not good, is it?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: No, it is not, and I certainly would not want to condone that, but I do not think the corollary to that is that you need to know the 30,000 people that are on the list and how that list was whittled down and who was selected.

  Q326 Mr Liddell-Grainger: We do not even know how it is done. We know that people are stuck on to spice it up. We know people are chucked off because they are a bit controversial, but we do not know how it is done. Do you know how it is done?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I know how we do our job.

  Q327 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you know how it is done?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: I do not know how everybody else does their job.

  Q328 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Do you know how it is done at Monck Street?

  Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: No. I do not work in Monck Street and that is not my responsibility.

  Chairman: I will have to haul you in slightly, because it is going beyond our remit.

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: Fair enough, Tony.

  Q329 Chairman: All very good stuff, but asking witnesses questions they have not got a chance of answering is not going to get us very far. Can I just round it off by coming back to the central territory? You have said very disarmingly that you think the time has come for your bit of the operation perhaps to be amalgamated with somebody else and we will reflect on that. Your operation was set out all those years ago because of the worries about the read-across basically from political donations into the honours system. The question really is how effective you think it has been because you said at the beginning that it is all about perception. If you look at honours lists in the last 30 years, both parties, the read-across, all the evidence is there. It is striking, pages and pages of these donors who finish up with senior honours. We do not need to go through the names. Harold Wilson's Lavender list; this is all notorious, and yet here we have this mechanism that was supposed to be the regulator or the public reassurer, but it turns out that life has gone on just the same, has it not?

  Lord Thomson of Monifieth: Inevitably in the evidence I gave in my opening statement I deliberately tried to help the committee to be aware of the very narrow bit of the landscape we deal with, and that is all we can talk about in any sort of collective capacity. I think I speak for Baroness Dean and Lord Hurd and myself when I say that as far as we are concerned we very much welcome the inquiry you are making on these general questions. I can only say in terms of my chairmanship of the little bit that I am responsible for that there have not been any Lavender lists in my time, I am very happy to say. The fact that they could be possible puts a real question mark over the system and, if I may round up on a much wider landscape, I do not think there is a case for transferring all the responsibilities of modernising the scrutiny of the present system on to a tiny committee of three senior retired or semi-retired Privy Councillors, but I do think there is a case for having a much wider machinery of scrutiny. I think that, as so often happens when you start modernising, as the present government has sought to do, you end up with more fragmentation rather than less and you have got the Appointments Commission doing one particular job that we used to do, and I cannot speak about how adequately it can do the actual scrutiny of the honours bit of the Appointments Commission; I simply do not know. It is doing its little bit. We have had our original job greatly narrowed down and [been] given this rather larger job in an area where our experience over the last three years has been that there is no real problem of corruption, buying honours or anything like that, it is well run by the Civil Service, for all the questions that have been raised that it may be run more privately than is necessary, but it is extremely well run in my experience, and I can speak with some experience of that. There is something to be said for a different sort of machinery and I therefore personally await with great interest the final recommendations that your committee makes when you have had your general survey of the roll of an honours system in modern times.

  Chairman: I think that is the note to end on. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence which has been extremely interesting. We are grateful to you for coming along and sharing your thoughts with us. It is quite a novelty to have witnesses come along who say that they think their organisation ought to be wound up.

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