Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 330-339)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q330 Chairman: Welcome to our second set of witnesses for the morning. We are delighted to have Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, distinguished columnist/writer, commentator on all kinds of things, and John Lidstone, who has given a good deal of thought to the honours system, and we have read some of your stuff. We all thought that you might have something between you to contribute to our thinking on these matters. I wonder if either of you would like to say something to kick us off?

  Mr Lidstone: Shall I try and give you the background from which my whole thinking about the honours system derives? As a small child I found myself invited with a group of relations to Lloyd George's estate in Churt. When you are a small child everything is big so it did not register too much but I noticed that it was fairly lavish in every department and, of course, much later, when I was aware of Maundy Gregory's brokerage which led to Lloyd George pocketing £1,500,000 into his back pocket, quite apart from what went into the Liberal Party, I understood then how he could afford to live in such style. That was my first experience. My second was about my sister who was in Hut 13 at Bletchley Park during the war, a fairly intelligent young woman. She was involved very much in the Enigma plotting of the disposition of U-boats and things like, along with many others. Three weeks before one new year her boss came in and said, "I have seven OBEs to give to this department and all of you are equally worthy of that honour, so I am going to put your names in a hat". That only came out in some papers of my sister, who died last year. That intrigued me enormously, that honours could be so distributed. Thirdly, when I retired in 1989 from my full time work, I was on what was called a great and good list, and I was asked if I would take the position of chairman of a regional health authority in the southern part of England. I was told that it would be non-executive, which in my opinion meant one day a month, but it turned out to be three days a week with an honorarium of £10,000 a year and a chauffeur, and then, to cap it, the man talking to me in the honours unit said, "At the end of it you will get a CBE". I thought, "That is interesting. This is another little flavour of the way honours are disposed of". Then I come to the eighties when Margaret Thatcher was in power and I got to know a lot of businessmen at the top of the tree, and one of them suddenly appeared with a knighthood in the new year's honours list. I said, "What have you done to justify that?", and in a cynical way—and I knew him well enough that he could be honest with me—he said, "40,000 quid's worth of my company's money bought that, and I am not alone, of course", as many of the other businessmen who have done it have revealed. I think we almost need a business scrutiny committee, let alone a political honours scrutiny committee. Those are, if you like, the background factors that led me to be very curious about this whole honours system or, as I have put it in my paper, dishonourable system, because it never was honourable.

  Q331 Chairman: That is very useful. I will pause there because we will move on to what we are going to do about it, which you have got some thoughts about. Perhaps we could in similar vein move to Yasmin who can tell us her own thoughts on this from her own recent experience.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: A dishonourable record of a dishonourable system, I fear. When Benjamin Zephaniah kicked up the stink he did as a result of the Sunday Times revelations, I returned my MBE, which I should never have taken anyway. It was originally a huge act of personal cowardice really. Of course, the older generation of migrants, for whom life has been so tough, and we are now entering another phase where yet again as immigrants we have to justify our existence in this country, for them it is a mark of reassurance. For my mother it was that we would not be deported, because she was so worried that I am such a controversial figure that, having been thrown out of Uganda, we were going to be thrown out of here. This used to be her nightmare. There were odd reasons for taking it therefore. But when Benjamin Zephaniah did what he did, several things happened to quite a lot of us who were ex-members of the Empire, if you like, that in a sense we had colluded in something we did not agree with in spite of being unhappy for a number of reasons, not just because of the word "Empire", which I will come to in a minute. When you come to this country you realise that people never use the word "corrupt" and "lies" about anything that happens in Great Britain. That is only what natives in other parts of the world do, but really what has been described even as I have been listening is a level of corruption. I know someone who made a calculation six years ago that he would pay this amount of money and get his first honour, which he did, and then he would pay this amount of money and get something else, and he would finally be knighted. It was a game plan and it is a game plan he is pursuing extremely successfully, until he gets his final prize, as he does all his other business ventures. There is this whole problem of what is the meaning of an honour, how is it bestowed? And why? The other moment of grave embarrassment for me is that I am a passionate republican and it felt very odd indeed that there was no way of receiving this honour, even if I had finally persuaded myself that it was the right thing to do, without playing into the whole monarchist symbolism. It was very interesting that when I got my MBE there were three of us getting honours from so-called ethnic minority backgrounds. All three of us were in anguish about this. All three of us then made a decision collectively that we could not possibly curtsey. All three of us plotted in the loo that we would then do this, which was the Indian greeting, and get away with it, so it is a messy business.

  Q332 Chairman: Wonderful, but, notwithstanding all of that, my understanding is that both of you think an honours system in principle is not a bad idea.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: No.

  Mr Lidstone: If you look at every form of country and tribe there is evidence that people want to honour their own who have done deeds of valour and other things that have contributed to society, and that seems to me wholly admirable to do that. If you get rid of that you then have a plethora of all the rather second-rate gong award systems that are growing up in this country anyway. Yes, I agree that there is a place for honouring the great who have done great deeds of valour and great deeds in civil life, but they need to be seen to be great as well as being great. Look at yesterday's George Cross—the Queen's Admiral who read out the citation. We all knew about it. We do not see any citations about half the honours that are given and the public says yes to that.

  Q333 Chairman: I was thinking, listening to Yasmin just now, that a lot of the evidence that we have had from people writing in to us is that they rather like the royal bit of it.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes. It is like a marriage, is it not? Some of us want to get married with religious ceremony; some of us do not. People should be given that choice and we could have a secular ceremony, if you like. I passionately feel that if we are changing from a class-ridden country to a true meritocracy it is very important to have your country recognise you. I feel that is a deeply important thing, but we do have to change the way we do it and what we call it.

  Q334 Chairman: But even your friend, if indeed he is a friend, who goes out and plans to receive honours periodically, you may say that that is one of the functions of the honours system, to get people to do good civic deeds that they might not otherwise do with the prospect of some honorific reward. If that is an effective instrument of social engineering why do we not use it?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I do not think he is giving his money to charity. I think he is giving his money to a political party. That is another very important issue: are we rewarding people for being nice to particular political parties or should we now move to honour people who are doing something for our nation? The two are not one, obviously. There is again a very big confusion about that.

  Q335 Chairman: Just to get us going, John, would you tell us in a nutshell what you think is the key approach to reform in this area?

  Mr Lidstone: First of all, it seemed to me when I looked into the bowels of this problem, which derived, as you know, from a letter I wrote to The Times (and I had an enormous response from it) that it has to be removed totally—and this is where I disagree with Lord Thomson's view earlier—from the hands of politicians. There must never be a political influence. The Prime Minister's list is venal and it has to be taken away from there. If we continue to have a monarchy, although it be in the form it is, at least let that honours system that we have, which is passed off as being from her "fount of honour" and which it is not mostly, start to come from that monarchy and then set up people of independent judgment, again, the Civil Service, people from medicine and so on. All these different departments could have their own methodologies of putting forward people to a committee of independent people who would then advise the Queen on a list, which incidentally would become by the recommendation I have in mind a much smaller one. That would be the start of it. You would argue how you go about the task of picking the sort of people who would have the sort of independent judgment that you would need to remove from it the bias that seems to me to exist at the present time. That is not difficult, but that would be my starting point.

  Q336 Chairman: All the evidence that we have taken, and indeed you heard it from Lord Thomson this morning, from those who have had close contact with this system tells us how meticulous and fair, notwithstanding the Blakemore case, the people engaged in this at the moment are, the extraordinary lengths they go to in order to make these very fine and difficult subjective judgments. Why would getting a committee of the great and good do this any better?

  Mr Lidstone: You say that the Civil Service is meticulous in its approach to this matter and Lord Thomson referred to it as well. They are meticulous in applying the template. They have a template for most of the things they do, as was mentioned by Mr Liddell-Grainger.

  Q337 Chairman: In terms of distribution and so on?

  Mr Lidstone: There is a whole distribution system, a quota system. You also have—and this has come out quite recently and it disturbs me not a little—the fact that the honours system has now become an instrument of political policy. The Prime Minister wants to push education, he wants to push the National Health Service, he wants to push this, that and t'other, and so the honours system flows behind that, and that is another very disgraceful development of this system which has been manipulated.

  Q338 Brian White: It has always been done.

  Mr Lidstone: I know it has always been done but I do not think it is to be applauded for that. Do you?

  Q339 Chairman: I am not sure quite what you mean.

  Mr Lidstone: In a sense we are corralling the Civil Service into being an instrument of that policy if we are not careful. You say that the Civil Service is meticulous. Yes, it is, but it is meticulous in applying what is almost an idiot's guide to the system.

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