Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 760-779)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q760 Brian White: My last question is about timing. For me, somebody like Tim Berners-Lee should have been honoured a long time ago. He is on a par with Newton and Rutherford. How do you go about choosing the timing of giving an honour; that it is this year rather than next year or four or five years down the line?

  Sir Richard Mottram: That is quite a difficult thing to do. Two sets of issues arise here. One is that you can have lots of talented people queuing up, then new talented people are coming along. That is handling a queue really. It is a classic problem that is familiar to us all in other walks of life and you just have to make the best of managing that. Then people get overlooked—because in any system somebody is going to get overlooked—partly because what they discover or what they apply takes a while to figure it out. If you look at the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize is often given to people for things they did 20 years previously. In the honours system we sort of have a rule, but I think we should think about this, a slightly flexible rule—we sort of have a notion anyway—that we could not now give you something, an award, for something you did 20 years ago. At the time of the millennium, we actually did a bit of tidying up, because somebody had a very bright idea—I would like to say it was me, but it was not—Why do we not have some awards for people of iconic status who were not picked up at the time? I think there is an argument that says we should inject a bit more flexibility into this system and every few years or whatever you pick up on the people who either you have missed or you have misread their contribution. To give you another example: you honour somebody at a certain level at a time in relation to what they have done. We then have rules, which are perfectly sensible rules, which say: If you come back 10 years later and somebody says, "That was pretty good, wasn't it?" I will say, as the Chairman, "But, fine, they got an honour for that. I cannot honour them a second time for the same thing." There probably needs to be the flexibility to recognise sometimes that either you get things wrong or you cannot see the future but when you are in the future the past looks different. I think we should think about the system in that way.

  Q761 Chairman: You are getting a bit Delphic at this point.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Do you see what I mean?

  Q762 Chairman: I think I do, yes.

  Sir Richard Mottram: I think I am in my Rumsfeld moment there, Chairman.

  Chairman: I will read the record.

  Q763 Mr Prentice: We have covered a lot of ground. I want to ask you about honours for civil servants in a moment, but I am interested in the process matters. As far as the Blakemore case was concerned, you told us that you did not see the minute or the note that caused all the controversy and it did not go back to the meeting either.

  Sir Richard Mottram: No.

  Q764 Mr Prentice: How has the system changed?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I think, probably, in the light of this, the system will change.

  Q765 Mr Prentice: It has not changed yet?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I think it has changed, yes.

  Q766 Mr Prentice: Would you like to tell us how it has changed?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I think I would now see the record of these meetings, yes.

  Q767 Mr Prentice: Okay. Was it a considered minute or a rough note?

  Sir Richard Mottram: It was a note written for a purpose and I think the purpose was essentially as a useful reminder to the secretariat of issues that had arisen around individual names for future use. It was not meant to be a considered, detailed record which was agreed with members of the Committee. Therefore, in it being leaked . . . This is why, as I said earlier, it is very, very unfair to focus on the person who drafted the minute.

  Q768 Mr Prentice: I understand, and I do not want to go over old ground, ground that has been covered already this morning, but the note said—and the Chairman has referred to it already—"We"—the committee—"should look at him"—Blakemore—"again when he has had a little longer at the Medical Research Council." How often now are names revisited?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Every six months.

  Q769 Mr Prentice: So his name would be back in the mix in a few months time.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Correct.

  Q770 Mr Prentice: You also told us earlier that sometimes the committee would form a little sub-committee of members who would be sent away to find out more about a candidate.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Informally.

  Q771 Mr Prentice: How often does this happen?

  Sir Richard Mottram: Quite rarely.

  Q772 Mr Prentice: So the sifting process is a good one.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Yes. Usually the citation is fine and more than one member of the Committee knows the person. Therefore, if there is an issue—and there is always an issue, there is always a debate about the more senior honours—if by chance none of us knows the person, then we go back.

  Q773 Mr Prentice: I understand that. Could I turn to civil servants now. We have been told—the statistics will be familiar to you—that one in 123 diplomats gets an honour but only one in 20,000 nurses gets an honour.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Is that right?

  Q774 Mr Prentice: Well, indeed it is right. I am shocked that you do not know that.

  Sir Richard Mottram: Has this come from Wilson, or . . .

  Chairman: This came from the Wilson review—the Government's own review.

  Q775 Mr Prentice: I am genuinely shocked. Anyway, do you think that is a defensible position?

  Sir Richard Mottram: No.

  Q776 Mr Prentice: What are you going to do about it?

  Sir Richard Mottram: I am not going to do anything about it because I am not in charge of this system. I think that it is not defensible. I think it is an interesting issue . . . I did know it, actually. I am afraid I was being ironical—which is one of my greatest weaknesses.

  Q777 Mr Prentice: You were being economical with the truth.

  Sir Richard Mottram: No, no. Steady. I think it is an interesting issue, seriously—and I think this is a very important point—the extent to which the honours system seeks to recognise highly meritorious service in central government. There are debates around, for instance, why is it that more diplomats get honours, more military people get honours than home civil servants? We could spend many a happy hour—I suggest we do not—debating that. There could be an argument that said they have a big representational role—obviously the military also have the gallantry thing, which is entirely separate—and it makes sense for them to have all these honours. That is the argument which is usually used. I would not necessarily say you have to have a fixed quota. There is an interesting issue about the honours system, that it does recognise people more at the top than the bottom. That may also be bad. The diplomatic service is a very top-rich organisation, related to the work that it does. But I would not defend that, no. I think we need more consistency across public services and an understanding of what the rationale is for how different public servants are recognised. I could talk about other areas where I think we need to be more structured, and say: "Is this system producing a result which is representative across the whole country?" for instance—which was a point people raised earlier.

  Q778 Mr Prentice: Do you think it is defensible that honours go to a person just for doing their job? You are a knight, are you not? All permanent secretaries have been knighted. Is that not the case?

  Sir Richard Mottram: No.

  Q779 Mr Prentice: It is not.

  Sir Richard Mottram: No.

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