Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q380 Brian White: I was going to ask that question. One of the suggestions we have had is that the reference to empire in the OBE, CBE, etc, is an issue and there have been various suggestions, such as the Order of British Excellence or whatever. If there were still an OBE and it was just an OBE, would the kind of comments you have made abut the Empire heritage still apply?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: An Order of the British Order of Merit (BOM).

  Q381 Brian White: An Order of British Excellence as opposed to any reference to the Empire.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I think it would be much better. It would be much more comfortable, I think. Yes; it would make quite a big difference. It is a symbolic thing but it would make a big difference.

  Q382 Brian White: Both of you have suggested there ought to be some kind of independence element. I would like you to define what you mean by "independent person" because I know people have different political prejudices from me but I do not know anybody who is independent.

  Mr Lidstone: Yes, you are right. Independence is a very judgmental label to put on anyone, whether it is a politician or somebody in another walk of life. I suppose the problem I have at the moment is that there ain't much independence, if you like, about the way it operates at the present time. If I put it negatively, the problem that I have is to try and believe in the independence of the people who have a political axe to grind and, to take the Prime Minister's list and all the names that flow from that, there does not seem to me to be too much evidence transparently that we can see that suggests it is independent.

  Q383 Brian White: I can understand that you do not like the current list, but what is going to be independent about a different list?

  Mr Lidstone: For starters, if you lance the Prime Minister's list it would be a great help because you would remove at one stroke the prejudice, the disbelief, the cynicism that most people bring to observing what is on that list.

  Q384 Brian White: So somebody who is independent, in your words, in other words, somebody who is not accountable—

  Mr Lidstone: Who has no axe to grind.

  Q385 Brian White: — is preferable to somebody who is accountable at an election? That is what you are saying, is it not? There is an appointed person—appointed by whom we come back to in a moment—who is not accountable to anybody who makes a judgment that is somehow better than a politician's judgment who is accountable to the people. That is what you are saying, is it not?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, no. They could be accountable to Parliament. There is no reason why elected MPs cannot be on a panel, but that is completely different from the political parties rewarding people for progressing their political ambitions. That is the difference, I think.

  Q386 Brian White: I am trying to get out what you are suggesting is changed. Are you suggesting that the civil servants who currently put the list together, because although it is called the Prime Minister's list it is primarily a Civil Service list, and we had Gay Catto here, Secretary to the Committees, are the wrong people to be putting the list together?

  Mr Lidstone: Not necessarily, but the terms of reference upon which they operate I think need looking at because, as was said by one or two members of this committee earlier, there are so many that go to the Diplomatic Service; there are so many that go to the armed forces; there are so many that go to politicians; there are so many that go to senior civil servants. The Secretary to the Cabinet gets a KCB, gets whatever else, he ends up with a peerage. Why?

  Q387 Brian White: So your problem is not the job title getting the reward. Your problem is the categorisation of award rather than the fact that it is a Prime Minister's list?

  Mr Lidstone: No; it is more than that. I do not have any reason for myself to question the independence and judgment of the Civil Service when they are given a remit to carry out a non-political policy like the honours. It is the way in which they are required to operate it and to allocate honours that go with jobs, as does the Prime Minister's list, that disturbs me.

  Q388 Brian White: I am slightly confused and I am trying to get to the bottom of exactly what you are saying. You are saying that a different set of criteria could adequately be done with appropriate transparency?

  Mr Lidstone: Yes, I am.

  Q389 Brian White: And it is the transparency that you have the problem with rather than necessarily the fact that template A or template B is used. Is that right?

  Mr Lidstone: Your use of the word "transparency" is apt because if you breathe transparency into the system it then has to be accountable to the public that will be able to look at it and you will not be able to get away with the things which I believe are now being got away with in the honours list.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: If you advertised for members of this committee you would get a huge raft of people who outside these small circles are constantly being offered things and so on. There is no reason to exclude civil servants. People need to apply to be members of this committee and that committee should be accountable to Parliament.

  Q390 Brian White: And presumably looked over by the office for the Commissioner of Public Appointments, who herself was hand picked into that job?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes; it is not difficult to do, I do not think.

  Q391 Brian White: There is a scrutiny process for local appointments at the moment, which is through Lord Lieutenants. Would you see that system continuing or do you think there should be a different way of looking at local candidates?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I do not know anything about that, so I could not comment.

  Mr Lidstone: I cannot comment on that except that as far as I can see quite a lot of the Lord Lieutenants come out of a very restricted background.

  Q392 Mr Prentice: Did I hear you correctly, Yasmin, in saying that you would accept a damehood? Was I imagining that?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I think the British Order of Merit, a BOM, would be nice.[2]

  Mr Lidstone: I think the problem with the damehoods, particularly those that are given to people in the theatre, is that it is too near to pantomime to be even amusing.

  Q393 Mr Prentice: You would like to get rid of Knights and Dames, those handles, as part of your simplification of the system?

  Mr Lidstone: I think so.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes.

  Mr Lidstone: It is a divisive, segregating way of looking after society. We are all the same and what we do through our own efforts distinguishes us.

  Q394 Mr Prentice: And you think the awards are class-ridden?

  Mr Lidstone: Yes.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: They certainly go back to a time when class was a defining feature of our society. We are now genuinely becoming a meritocracy (though not fast enough) so it seems anachronistic at best.

  Q395 Mr Prentice: And you would deal with the class bias by drastically reducing the number of awards? Is that right?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I want to keep it wider.

  Q396 Mr Prentice: How do you prevent the dinner ladies—

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: I would not. I think they have to be included with the respect they deserve.

  Q397 Mr Prentice: We always refer to dinner ladies, for God's sake, clustered round the MBEs.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, we do not want the MBEs. We are going to have the BOM for everybody, so there will not be that problem. I think that would be a very good equalising thing to do.

  Mr Lidstone: If I can just quote one interesting codicil to Charles Dickens' will, he was offered a baronetcy, I seem to remember from my research, and he turned it down. He said, "I let rest my claims to the remembrance of my friends and upon my published works", and I think that summarises his place in history very well without any gong.

  Q398 Mr Prentice: Just two other points. You have both said in your own ways that the honours system is corrupt. You mentioned this on the Today programme. You told us about the named individual from Blackburn.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, I did not say he was corrupt. I just said we should be told why he was awarded a place in the Lords.

  Q399 Mr Prentice: You were talking about henchmen and rewarding influence.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, no. I said it very clearly: maybe you should find out what were the reasons for Lord Patel, for example, ending up in the House of Lords. I have not given you any of the names I could have of henchmen.

2   Note by witness: I don't imagine that happening, so don't worryBack

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