Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)

MR JOHN LIDSTONE AND MS YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN

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 said—and I paraphrase it—that that was one of the things that motivated him?

  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 is—and 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 secular ceremony.

  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 we like.

  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 class—and 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 not agree?

  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 this serious?

  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 further—the 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 it not?

  Mr Lidstone: I do not know. You say so. I do not.


 
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