Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)|
26 FEBRUARY 2004
Q400 Mr Prentice: No, I do not want to
tempt you down that avenue. I am just interested generally in
how the corruption manifests itself. In John's paper he said,
"The Prime Minister has discovered that when in a tight corner
honours are a cheap way of keeping people quiet and on side for
a while". That could be termed as some kind of corruption.
Mr Lidstone: Well, yes.
Q401 Mr Prentice: I am just interested
in how this corruption that you both talk about manifests itself.
It is not a trick question. I just quote it back at you.
Mr Lidstone: Yes, indeed, and
I did say that.
Q402 Mr Prentice: If you do not want
to add to it that is fine.
Mr Lidstone: I said earlier that
in a sense that is an expression of government policy through
the operation of that honours system for those categories of government
departments. Could I just add on the word "corruption"
one other thing if I may? I am a member of BAFTA so I know a lot
of these people that are honoured with fairly high level knighthoods
in the theatre and television and so on. It is usually for charitable
works that they are given it. I then say to myself, "I wonder
if they started doing that charitable work when they were unknown,
ill paid and all the rest of it?", and the answer is, of
course, no, but only when they became famous, were earning a hell
of a lot of money and could set all the money they gave to charity
against tax did they start to do this charitable work, and that
puts it in context.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: I have said
it already, but it is not just the money or the £5,000 or
whatever, or organising parties or politicians or the kind of
thing Keith Vaz used to excel at, which was to deliver Asians
to occasions. It is also the influence at election time and around
election time in the votes. That is a very serious issue and I
think not enough attention is paid to it. This is just another
way into that debate. To what extent is it acceptable in a democracy
like this for there to be a trade of votes? I find that so alarming.
Q403 Mr Prentice: You are saying it is
systemic; it is in the system?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes, I am, and
not enough attention is being paid to it, I think.
Q404 Mr Prentice: Can I ask finally,
Yasmin: you told us that you should not have accepted the MBE
in 2000 but did because of your mother and she is still mortified
that you are all going to be deported. As a working journalist
did you not feel perhaps that your independence might be compromised
by accepting an MBE, because when Jon Snow came before us he saidand
I paraphrase itthat that was one of the things that motivated
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes, and it
was on his programme that I had my moment of conversion. It was
very dramatic for all concerned. I have often wondered why they
gave me an honour anyway, because I am such a troublemaker. Sometimes
you think, "Is it also worth co-opting troublemakers?".
Q405 Mr Prentice: Absolutely. Burrow
into the sand.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Nothing changed
after that. If anything, I have been much tougher with the war.
I also do not think that you become a member of the establishment
through having an honour. I really do not think it is as easy
as that. There are independent-minded people with honours. However,
there is of course the suspicion and so it was the wrong thing
to do. I would never justify it, but I do not think there is any
evidence that I lost my independence, but the perception isand
of course perception is very important
Q406 Mr Prentice: You are not going to
get the same chance, are you, having described the Royals as "second-rate"?
Ms Alibhai-Brown: No, not unless
we have a kind of town hall ceremony where I could go without
anybody from the Royal family being there. That is the other thing.
What do you do with republicans who have done fantastic things
who have a real moment of deep conscience about, "How can
I go and accept something from a member of the Royal family?".
Q407 Mr Prentice: We have already covered
that ground and you have told us that it should be a separate
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes.
Mr Lidstone: You have a problem
with your question to Yasmin about Simon Jenkins, for example,
who I think is going to appear before this committee, that he
has accepted a knighthood and wishes you not to call him "sir",
which is a total contradiction.
Q408 Chairman: We shall call him whatever
Mr Lidstone: I am sure you will!
Q409 Chairman: Yasmin, just tell us,
to complete the picture, the mechanics of returning this honour.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: It was great
fun. I wrote to Buckingham Palace, I wrote to 10 Downing Street
and I wrote to the Cabinet Office, and I got back a very nice
letter from 10 Downing Street, not from the others, saying, "The
Prime Minister is very disappointed", but that should I ever
want it back it would be kept for me. They obviously think I change
my mind all the time.
Chairman: Did you mention the idea of
being a Dame when you wrote in?
Q410 Mr Hopkins: I confess I agree broadly
with what you have been saying and I might go rather further,
as I have said in this committee before. We talk about money and
classand these things are significant, but it is really
the way power operates in Britain, the way the honours system
is used politically, which is much more significant. Would you
Mr Lidstone: Yes.
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes.
Q411 Mr Hopkins: Could I use an example?
I spent most of my life before here working in the trades union
movement, including five years at the TUC, and I can imagine a
situation where, for example, we have Sir Alfred Jones CBE, General
Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Candlemakers, worthy citizen,
always on side with the government, always on side with the leadership,
and Bert Smith, militant leader of the National Union of Street
Cleaners. We are coming up to a very difficult vote at the Labour
Party Conference, and Bert Smith is coming towards the end of
his professional life; he has been a militant, but he is really
looking forward to retirement soon. Somebody comes along and says,
"Well, of course, you do appreciate you are on the Prime
Minister's list for the Lords and your union's votes are crucial
in getting the vote through in support of a war", for example.
Bert Smith thinks, "I am 50-50 about the war but I will get
my lads to go and support the war". The Prime Minister then
wins his vote by a narrow margin and he is in the clear. Bert
Smith, two years later maybe, is suddenly in the House of Lords.
I am not saying it has happened but this could be used. Is it
Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes. For years
when Keith Vaz was fairly influential in government, every time
we met he would say to me, "Of course, I am very happy to
put your name up for the Lords, but you give us such a hard time".
It happened so often it became a joke, but there was something
behind that. There was something going on, obviously, and you
do find yourself getting tempted.
Q412 Mr Hopkins: Does it not go furtherthe
whole Civil Service? We talked about automaticity earlier on.
In fact, there is a sort of ranking; you look forward to a knighthood.
If at a point a senior civil servant decides that he wants to
say to the Prime Minister, "I think your scheme for student
finance is appalling and we should do it a different way and I
am prepared to argue the case within our counsels", the Prime
Minister then says, "He is the awkward squad. We do not want
him", or somebody in the senior Civil Service says, "He
is rocking the boat. We do not want him on our list". Is
there not the possibility that senior civil servants who should
be giving good advice might hold back from giving that good advice
because they could upset their possibility of getting a gong?
Mr Lidstone: In a sense yes, I
would not disagree with the thrust of your argument, but I think
there is another element to it and that is that you could almost
say that the political system of honours, awards, sometimes operates
to keep people in thrall and voting the right way or obeying a
certain sort of policy or making sure that a certain government
policy in a particular area of public life is adhered to and corralling
colleagues to follow the same line.
Q413 Mr Hopkins: A third example: you
were chair at one time of a health authority, I understand.
Mr Lidstone: No, I was not. I
was offered it.
Q414 Mr Hopkins: Imagine you are chair
of a health authority, and a big one.
Mr Lidstone: It was a big one.
Q415 Mr Hopkins: You are rising up the
ladder and you are thinking, "It is just possible I might
get a CBE, even a knighthood, out of this", and you suddenly
are presented with the possibility of all the hospitals in your
area becoming independent or whatever, privatisation in some form.
You think this is terribly wrong and you want to say this is wrong
and make a fuss about it but you think, "Hang on. This is
going to be a problem. I might not get my gong". At that
point people make decisions and this is how politics operates.
The honours system is undoubtedly used in that way, is it not?
Mr Lidstone: Yes, it is. I hope
that I could respond the right way but you are using the honours
system at the point of highest vulnerability sometimes.
Q416 Mr Hopkins: I have made this point
a number of times. Would you not agree that the honours system
should be reserved for someone who has spent 50 years working
voluntarily for St John's Ambulance, who has no political influence,
no power, but it is just a nice way of rewarding someone for voluntary
service? Would that not be a better form of honours?
Mr Lidstone: In the papers that
you have had distributed I have given an example of Hugh Hamersley,
and you have, I think, all seen that, a man who raised hundreds
of thousands of pounds for BLESMA, having had two legs blown off
in the St David's Hotel in 1947. The firm he worked for, Emmanuel
Kaye's Lansing Bagnall, was festooned with honours year in, year
out. He was director of their conference centre but doing all
these wonderful things, like jumping out of aircraft, going into
the Admiral's Cup, rowing, all these sorts of things, and he was
never honoured. That is the tragedy, that these kinds of people
who should be, like pearls in oysters, plucked out and told, "That
is what we honour", have not been.
Q417 Chairman: If someone does good things
with the prospect of honour at the back of their mind
Mr Lidstone: They should not do.
Q418 Chairman: We get the good things;
they get the honour. Is that not a deal?
Mr Lidstone: What? Are you saying
honour instead of money or something like that?
Q419 Chairman: It is a lubricant, is
Mr Lidstone: I do not know. You
say so. I do not.