Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-430)


26 FEBRUARY 2004

  Q420 Chairman: The government's Chief Scientific Adviser was here giving evidence a week or two ago, making a strong case for this. He was saying, "At the height of the foot and mouth crisis I needed scientists to be at the end of the phone all through the night, working round the clock, and the fact that there might be the prospect of some state honorific reward for going beyond the job was extremely useful in getting these people to do things that society needed to be done".

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: There is nothing wrong with that. I think that is fine, but if it was to try and push the case, to help push a certain line,—

  Q421 Chairman: No, it is not.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: That is fair enough. There is nothing wrong with that.

  Q422 Chairman: It is the idea that there is nothing ignoble about someone doing vast amounts of good voluntary work, going beyond the job with a dark thought at the back of their mind that possibly there might be some reward of an honorific kind attached to this at some point. Surely that, from society's point of view, is a pretty good deal. It comes extremely cheap.

  Mr Lidstone: I misunderstood your earlier comment. I have got these two categories, and we all know that there are those who do things beyond their job and there are those who do acts of outstanding heroism. I was not thinking that, added to that, it would be used as an instrument of going beyond your job and duty, if you see what I mean. There is a difference.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: People cannot make those sorts of promises. You can say that you can put your name forward but ultimately it has to be a committee which independently decides on the merit of it. In a way it sometimes still is what happens, that people are recommended. There is nothing wrong with that but it is a very fine line and with this whole debate about MMR at the moment it is a hugely politicised debate already, and then it becomes very difficult to know what scientist is being rewarded. Is it for doing fantastic work beyond the call of his job or is it because it feeds into a political position the government is taking, it is very difficult. I have a lot of sympathy with people who have to make that distinction because I could not do it easily.

  Q423 Chairman: Just to finish this, John, when you made the jibe about these theatre luvvies who, having become famous, go off and do charity work and set it against tax and so on, the fact is that they either do it or they do not. If they do it society benefits, and they also benefit.

  Mr Lidstone: Yes, I suppose at one level you could look at it and say, "Okay; that is fine".

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: And, of course, charities do not want you any more unless you are a celebrity.

  Mr Lidstone: It just slightly worries me when I see this happening, that all these people in the theatre, who are very highly paid,—and I am talking about the people who really get the big gongs; they are so rich—then get honours as well for the manipulation of their riches to do charitable works. It just slightly sticks in my gullet.

  Q424 Chairman: You cannot imagine Dame Judi Dench not being a Dame, can you?

  Mr Lidstone: Judi is all right in her own right.

  Q425 Mr Liddell-Grainger: On 28 December we had a major leak about how this thing works. Do you think we have now got to the farcical situation where the only way we can find out what goes on in this is journalists and other people being leaked to? Is that where we have got to?

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes.

  Mr Lidstone: I would argue slightly differently. A lot of criticism is made of the media and the media is going to hunt down and find any stories that will embarrass the government, the opposition, whoever, any sort of invested parties in anything. I think the greater the transparency with which the honours in future is handled the less the danger of these leaks blowing the whole system up as it did on 28 December.

  Q426 Mr Liddell-Grainger: But when you were sitting behind Lord Thomson—I do not know if you were here, Yasmin—that was the establishment closing ranks.

  Mr Lidstone: Of course it was.

  Q427 Mr Liddell-Grainger: They were being asked, "Look: is not the whole thing corrupt?". That is what it boils down to. They are not prepared to tell us what the reality of the situation is, not because they are going to get anything personally but because they have had something in the past.

  Ms Alibhai-Brown: Yes. I found that quite disturbing, actually, the closing of ranks. I think that particular Sunday Times story was not necessarily by a rottweiler journalist. It was somebody on the inside, as it so often is these days. It comes to your plate really.

  Q428 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Did you find it slightly strange that Henman had been put in to spice it up and Professor Blakemore, who had dedicated his life to science, had been told he could not have one because he was too controversial? Does this not sum this whole thing up, that it is a shambolic system that does not work, it is totally corrupt and that Mr Gregory of 1933 is still alive and well but he is called something else?

  Mr Lidstone: He quite bluntly had a menu, of course. To come back to your point, I sat through the whole of the evidence given by Lord Thomson and Baroness Dean. I was thinking to myself, "Here is the establishment talking throughout, and also they are closing ranks and also they are a part of the honours system from which they have had their due rewards for their duties". I think that is a part of the problem of the Honours Scrutiny Committee.

  Q429 Mr Liddell-Grainger: Corruption?

  Mr Lidstone: Not necessarily corruption. I would not suggest for a moment that they are corrupt but they are going to have remitted to them things which it will be easy for them to make decisions on.

  Q430 Mr Liddell-Grainger: How do you know it is not corrupt?

  Mr Lidstone: I do not know. You made the point earlier. I do not know that it is not corrupt. I know when Francis Pym was involved with it some of the things he said when he appeared before the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life made my hair stand on end a bit.

  Chairman: Do not look at me!

  Mr Liddell-Grainger: I am saying nothing, Lord Wright. You saw the quote.

  Chairman: I have seen the quote. We shall have to draw our session to an end. We have had a fascinating session with you. It has really been invigorating, so thank you very much, both of you, for giving us evidence in the open way that you have. We shall benefit greatly from it. Thank you very much indeed.

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