Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

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 with—I come from an Irish background—and 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 moment.

  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 panels are—

  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 regulatory—my 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 parties—I will not distinguish one from the other—and 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 league.

  Mr Lidstone: We use thinner brown envelopes.

  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 positions.

  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 be.

  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 politicians—and they know who they are—in certain localities are privileging—

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