Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 608-619)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q608 Chairman: Could I call the Committee to order and welcome our witness this morning, Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary. It is very good of you to come along. We seem to see you when we have little difficulties!

  Sir Richard Mottram: I would be happy to come along in other circumstances, Chairman.

  Q609 Chairman: Of course. It is just that those difficulties seem to come along quite regularly. We are not going to revisit the old stuff, we are going to do the new stuff today. The reason why we particularly wanted to see you was that we are doing this inquiry, coming out of our Prerogative Inquiry, into the Honours System and we stumbled over this leak from the main Honours Committee that involved certain names, including Colin Blakemore, and we wanted see what was going on with all that. We took evidence—you will know all this—from Professor Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientific Officer, who helped us as much as he could but then directed us towards the Chairman of the Science Technology Committee—

  Sir Richard Mottram: At my suggestion, Chairman.

  Q610 Chairman: Excellent. —who turned out, of course, to be yourself. He thought you would be able to tell us exactly what went on with all this and how on earth these outrageous remarks about Colin Blakemore found their way into the record of the Scientific and Technology Committee and then the main Honours Committee. Can you tell us what happened?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Can I just say, would you mind, Chairman, if I made some introductory remarks?

  Q611 Chairman: No. Of course not.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Because it seemed to me, having read the evidence of both Professor Blakemore and of Sir David King, it might be helpful if I just explained how the system works in relation to Science and Technology honours and then I can also say a bit about how it works in relation to other committees, if you would find that helpful. If I can make I think six points? The first point is that the work of the Science and Technology Committee currently covers science, engineering, technology and the social sciences, so it is not simply science and engineering. Secondly, the nominations can be generated from a variety of sources. These include Research Councils, Learned Societies, individuals and from within Government departments. Each department has a sifting and evaluating process. I think this has been touched on before and I think Professor Sir David King touched on some of this. In the case of science and technology in the broader sense that I defined earlier, the main nominating department is the DTI, but it is quite usual to have nominations from other departments and the devolved administrations, and I was not sure that was clear from previous evidence. Some of these nominations will have been put forward in the first place by members of the public. By the time they show up at the Committee, obviously, they appear to be from departments. The nominations are brought together by the Honours Secretariat[1]which is a Cabinet Office body which I know your committee have been in touch with, and are then considered by the Science and Technology Committee, grouped by different proposed levels of award. For each nominee there will be a one-page citation describing: the case for recognition; a career history; wider contribution, for example in relation to Research Council Committees and other advisory work, or in supporting wider debate about science and its impact; the practical effect of the contribution, where this is appropriate, for example someone who has worked in this area of research and this has been applied in these industries or in relation to medicine, and so on; and the citation will sometimes touch on a wider contribution to the community. The Committee itself consists of me as the Chairman, and I do this as a permanent secretary but not as the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions—it is not obviously logical why I would do it as the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions, and I do not, and we can talk about how Chairmen are selected if you wanted to—me as the Chairman and six highly distinguished scientists and engineers—six highly distinguished scientists and engineers—a civil servant with a background in the application of science and technology and the Secretary, who is also a civil servant. This is not therefore a committee of civil servants, despite what was said in the media at the time. This is a Committee with six members who are scientists and engineers. The Committee evaluates each nomination and it reaches a consensus on the names to go forward; and it always works by consensus. The process is highly competitive. As each list shows, highly meritorious service is recognised at all levels. There is a sort of snobbery about honours which I find very distasteful. We have very, very good people who get OBEs, MBEs, etcetera. We should not just focus on the people at the top. Awards at Knight and Dame level are very limited in this area as in every other level. People take time to progress within the system, so it is not the case that you come up once, a decision is taken and that is it, either "Yes" or "No". It is often the case that people come forward, their qualities are recognised and they appear at successive meetings. The Committee's recommendations go forward to Main Committee, so-called, where they will be reviewed alongside those from other committees to test out consistency of approach and agree a final allocation at each level of award. The recommendations of the main committee are then put to the Prime Minister and then are taken over, obviously, by that part of the Government machine. That is all I wanted to say by way of introduction.

  Q612 Chairman: Yes. Thank you. I would like, if I can, to get the Blakemore stuff out of the way, and then we can ask you some more general questions. The reason for coming back to it is not just that you were fingered by another witness, as it were?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I do not think I was, Chair.

  Q613 Chairman: No, no.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Far be it for me to be defensive.

  Q614 Chairman: No, no, no, you were helpfully pointed in our direction.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Oh, I see.

  Q615 Chairman: The point is, we have to believe in the absolute probity of this system, so if seemingly gratuitous comments are made about certain people which people like the Chief Scientific Officer think are inexplicable, we need to try and find out what is going on. So let me just ask you again. What did go on in that case?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am in some difficulty here, Chairman, in the sense that there are at least two conventions that it is important that I try not to break. One of these conventions is in the Honours System—and I could add that I think this has caused some difficulty in this particular case for a reason I can explain—in the Honours System we are not supposed to talk about individual candidates. Secondly, the Government does not talk about leaked documents, or it tries not to, but, within that framework, perhaps I could make a number of points. I think it is actually quite a dangerous thing to make inferences about public policy on the basis of a leaked document that is a note for the record of a discussion. The Honours System has a very well-developed structure and a series of processes, and I think you have touched on some of those with other witnesses. What happened in the case of the leak was huge inferences were drawn from one document. What is also interesting about this document is that I think the version which was published in the Sunday Times consists of 1,300 words, or thereabouts, and it is a summary of a meeting, and I think it would not be a state secret to say that Main Committee meetings last, on average, about three hours. So this was a 1,300 word summary of a three-hour discussion. My view about the summary is that it is therefore a highly compressed version of a much longer discussion and in a number of cases the media discussion, not just in relation to Professor Blakemore, actually took individual sentences from this record, played them up, drew inferences from them which were to my knowledge, in a number of cases, misleading in relation to the discussion of the Committee. But it is quite difficult for me to prove that to you without revealing the discussion of the Committee. So all I can say in relation to the record is it is highly compressed and it does not bear the inferences that were placed upon it. So, perhaps to look at it from another direction, what I could say, which may be helpful to the Committee, is inferences were drawn that in the case of Professor Blakemore he had been, I think the word was used in a number of cases, "black-balled", if we put "black-balled" in inverted commas, "black-balled" for an honour; and the reasons why he had been blackballed were to do with either, or both, that he had been in his scientific work involved with animal experimentation and/or that he had contributed to the public debate about animal experimentation; and each of those propositions in relation to Professor Blakemore and an honour is untrue. He has not been "black-balled" and he has not been "black-balled" for those reasons.

  Q616 Chairman: I know that you are slightly coy about talking about the individual case and the minute and so on?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am slightly coy about it, yes, Chairman.

  Q617 Chairman: Are you therefore telling us that this minute, which says—

  Sir Richard Mottram: This leaked version of a minute, yes.

  Q618 Chairman: Yes. I want to know whether this is what we are talking about: "The Science and Technology Expert Committee were unlikely to recommend him for his scientific work, particularly in view of his controversial work on vivisection." Are you saying it did not say that?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Am I saying?

  Q619 Chairman: That it did not say that.

  Sir Richard Mottram: The Science and Technology Committee did not say that, no, Chairman.

1   Note by Witness: Strictly speaking the Ceremonial Secretariat. Back

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