Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)|
26 FEBRUARY 2004
Q340 Kevin Brennan: I read the article
that you wrote in The Independent on 1 December about the
honours system, Yasmin, which was, as always, a very interesting,
sensitively written piece. You said at one point that in Australia
and New Zealand citizens are honoured without inappropriate echoes
of a disputed past, and obviously your republicanism is something
that troubled you in accepting the honour in the first place.
Given that the abolition of the monarchy is not on our agenda
at the moment, would you have felt any more able to accept an
honour under a reformed honours system or have you come to the
conclusion now that you probably could never accept an honour
that had some sort of origin within the British governmental system?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, no. I think
I would be delighted; I think I would make a very good Dame actually.
When I returned my MBE, there was a particular moment in our history
when I felt I had to protest against the new Empire, so I shall
leave that on one side. My problems were with the disputed past.
Britain had an Empire; you cannot erase that, and the Empire made
a very deep relationship between us. Again, that is a fact and
I do not wish never to mention Empire, but it is the glorification
and only the glorification of that historical period that feels
very different if you were a subject of it, which I was when I
was growing up. At the bare minimum it seems to me we should re-think
what we call our honours. I just think it is completely unacceptable
that we glorify a period like that where so many of us are now
British in our hearts. That was an abject period for us.
Q341 Kevin Brennan: I think that is an
argument that probably quite a number of members of this committee
would have a lot of sympathy withI come from an Irish backgroundand
even empathy with. Having said that, you go on from that in your
argument to link that with concern about the particular political
leadership of the country at the moment.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes, at the
Q342 Kevin Brennan: I am not quite sure
how those two issues intertwine.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: You have to
take that as an acute wishing-to-embarrass-the-government moment,
no more, no less than that.
Q343 Kevin Brennan: We are interested
in the general principle of what your views are.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: If we had a
better system and a fairer system where, politicians were not
exerting undue influence, and it became a genuine honour from
the state and it was more transparent than either of the people
in the previous session seemed to think was necessary. I do think
it is necessary to have greater transparency. Obviously, there
are things that have to remain confidential. For example, maybe
people being offered honours may not wish people to know. I think
there are confidentiality arrangements you could make. We certainly
would need to know the list of people who were offered it and
who refused it and why, because that makes for a better understanding
of what is going on, and if we changed some basic things I would
of course accept it.
Q344 Kevin Brennan: How can an honours
system that emanates from the state not have any political or
politicians' input into it?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: In my head the
country is not the state.
Q345 Kevin Brennan: But somebody has
to appoint the quango that will choose.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: I think you
have to put together a very good independent panel.
Q346 Kevin Brennan: Who is going to pick
that independent panel?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: We have independent
panels all over the place, do we not?
Q347 Kevin Brennan: Yes, we do.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: The whole regulatory
system is working very well.
Q348 Kevin Brennan: We have just written
a report called Government by Appointment about how those
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Some of these
positions are advertised. There are absolutely gruelling systems
that people have to go through to join some of the very good regulatorymy
husband was Chairman of the FSA Consumer Panel. I watched his
work and it was admirable how his panel worked. There were independent,
absolutely unquestionably honourable people. It can be done. It
is being done all over the country with Ofcom and all sorts of
things. It is almost the same kind of thing we need to do, to
end a system where panels are formed solely by appointment or
as a gift that people can bestow on, often, the wives of very
useful people these days too.
Q349 Kevin Brennan: You mentioned your
friend who had a game plan to purchase an honour effectively.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: He would not
say that. That is how I tease him.
Chairman: He may no longer be your friend
after you have been here.
Q350 Kevin Brennan: I was going to ask
you who it was. Are you going to tell us?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, but he is
not the only one. It is the whole thing.
Q351 Kevin Brennan: I see: transparency
only goes so far.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Let me be very
transparent. If you go to events where a frightful number of rich
Asian businessmen are gathered, there is much talk about how A
got this and how C could learn from A and it is very open and
it is deeply depressing.
Q352 Kevin Brennan: I think before you
were in the room we were discussing with the panel who were here
before the fact that their job is to scrutinise anybody who has
made a political donation of over £5,000 in one year and
that now under the system, unlike in the time of David Lloyd George
and more recent examples as well, there is a much greater transparency
than previously in that if anyone has made a donation (and it
sounds like a large sum of money to me but presumably it is not
to some of these people) of £5,000 or more to a political
party that is published and they are automatically looked at by
an independent panel of people such as the one we just heard from
earlier on. Does that not meet some of the concerns that you have?
Mr Lidstone: From my discussions
with cross-sections of the public and people who have responded
to broadcasts I have taken part in that have discussed the honours
system, if you were to take the whole I think you would find that
large sections of the general public believe that honours are
still being bought. If you see the juxtaposition of money given
to partiesI will not distinguish one from the otherand
honours, it is too close for comfort, so I do not think there
is transparency now.
Q353 Kevin Brennan: Let me put this to
you. In most international audits, and I cannot quote the exact
one, of probity in public life and so on and the influence of
money in politics, Britain tends to come out near the top of the
Mr Lidstone: We use thinner brown
Q354 Kevin Brennan: Just listen to the
point I am making for a moment. If you look at the amount of money
that is involved in our politics compared with what we are witnessing
currently on the other side of the Atlantic in the great republic
there, it does not compare. If I were a congressman in the House
of Representatives in America, from the day I was elected I would
have to raise $10,000 a week in order to have a chance of being
re-elected because someone could challenge me at the next primary
even if I was in a safe seat. There is a completely different
atmosphere in this country and is it not the case that our system
relatively speaking is pretty clean, or is your contention that
it is more corrupt than most other similar democracies?
Mr Lidstone: I understand where
you are coming from about America. In a bizarre way the American
system of bribery and donorship and God knows what is very transparent.
If you go to see any politician, if you see any big businessman
president, his wall is festooned with certificates of what he
has given. That is very transparent, the way that system operates.
Q355 Kevin Brennan: That is preferable?
Mr Lidstone: I am not saying it
is preferable but you were mentioning the United States and I
am just making it clear that that is part of their culture in
the same way that brown envelopes, as I said earlier, are part
of the Middle Eastern culture. In fact the Chairman of BP has
recently made it clear to all his chief executives that that kind
of thing must not happen in BP.
Q356 Kevin Brennan: But you have got
a big bee in your bonnet and what I am saying to you is that that
is fair enough, but are you saying that things are worse in this
country than they are in comparable western democracies? I am
not trying to make a comparison with a country that might be run
by a dictatorship.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Why does that
matter? We can do better. We should do better. We are in the 21st
century. It does not matter if Italian politicians are more corrupt
than ours in a different way from ours. I think the level of unwholesome
influence is greater than perhaps people realise and it is not
just money. There are, for example, votes. If you go to certain
localities in our country where there is supposed to be a proper
democracy where people make individual choices about where they
want to vote, henchmen deliver votes en masse and often
they find themselves honoured or given all sorts of very privileged
Q357 Kevin Brennan: Could you give me
an example of that?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: In the last
election I went to all of our northern towns during the whole
ten days of the election and followed the candidates. It was a
very interesting experience because of the kinds of deals that
were being done, and because I speak a number of Asian languages
they could talk to me in those languages while they were saying
something else publicly. All the public meetings were entirely
male. Deals were being done as you watched, that "We will
deliver all these votes to this particular party". I asked
some of the women whose homes I went into, "Who do you want
to vote for? Who would you like to vote for in this?" "Oh,
it is not up to us". It is up to not the husband but, if
you like, the henchmen who are constantly being named. Some of
those henchmen have done very important deals one way or another.
I think it should disturb us that we are not as good as we could
Q358 Kevin Brennan: But could you give
us the name of a henchman who has received an honour after corruptly
delivering votes to the Asian community?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: I cannot do
that but you can look at some of the people who have done well
since the election. I cannot do that, obviously: put a name down.
There is confidentiality.
Q359 Kevin Brennan: Why not?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, but it seems
very clear to me that lots of politiciansand they know
who they arein certain localities are privileging