Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 820-826)

29 APRIL 2004


  Q820 Chairman: Everybody is determined to get you some kind of medal somehow.

  Tony Benn: I have the biggest honour. If I may remind the Committee, the Speaker gave me the Freedom of the House of Commons. I can use the gallery, the tea room, I can even sit in the peers' gallery. I have all the privileges of peerage without the humiliation of actually being a lord.

  Q821 Mr Heyes: If I may explore the Parliamentary Medal idea a bit more deeply. I personally am attracted to it, particularly in the way you replace the legitimising effect of the Crown with the legitimacy of Parliament. How would you envisage it working? Would it have very widespread distribution, large numbers of people who would qualify, let's say ordinary people?

  Tony Benn: Supposing the Parliamentary medal was given to everybody, it would be given to those nominated by cities and learned societies. Members of parliament would nominate one person. I do get letters quite often and often have had from people who say there is a school caretaker who has worked for a very long time and ought to be recognised, and I always send them straight off to Number 10 because I feel that if they want them they should be considered. If it were known that an MP could nominate one person a year, he or she would keep their eye out for somebody, put their name forward and then it would go on the list, and then you would have, I visualise, an annual motion of thanks: "This House wishes to record its thanks." Did you know that the House of Commons does itself make peers?

  Q822 Chairman: We do not but I am sure you are about to tell us how it happens.

  Tony Benn: I mention that, just for the parallel. Every speaker is made a peer on a humble address to Her Majesty, praying that "a signal mark of royal favour be conferred upon . . . " the person who has just retired as Speaker. That is the one occasion when we do actually secure a peerage—Betty Boothroyd has been honoured and Michael Martin will be similarly honoured—by a humble address. Even then Parliament gets on its knees to the Queen to get a title for the retiring speaker. It is not actually an innovation and sometimes if you have a precedent that helps.

  Q823 Mr Heyes: That is interesting. If the Parliamentary Medal was to be distributed on a fairly large scale to people involved in local and regional life in various ways, you would inevitably need a bureaucracy to help to make that work. The members, presumably because of the sheer volume of what was involved, would not be able to handle it all personally. In that scenario, how do you prevent the civil servants from doing what they do at present in effectively hijacking the system and bending it to their will?

  Tony Benn: I think the diversity of nomination would do it. A local authority would have to put down a motion at the Council: "We recommend So-and-so for a Parliamentary Medal" or whatever it is called, or a voluntary organisation, so there would be a sifting process by the peers. When the names came forward they would be accepted as genuinely representing the groups. As far as members of parliament are concerned, if their names are put forward the Committee might have to look, if it wanted to, to ensure there is no funny business, but if you have so many nominating bodies the sifting is done in a way better than the way I was just listening to about how the Committee works secretly in whatever it is, the Cabinet Office.

  Q824 Kevin Brennan: Reading through a lot of the correspondence we have had on this subject, most of the people who have written to us—and they are obviously a self-selected group—seem to suggest this is all rather harmless, it is a reminder of our history—and you are someone who does remind us of our history very much when we are talking about this subject. Most people are very pleased when they get an honour and so are their friends and families and communities and so on. Rather than some great radical overhaul, maybe it does need a little bit of tweaking around but generally speaking this is a system that works quite well and increases human pleasure without creating any great evils in society and perhaps also gently encourages public service without having to put in front of people the venal thing of waving more money at them to do their job. Is that not generally a reasonable summation? That is what people seem to think when they write in to us.

  Tony Benn: Forgive me, but, in listening to you, I say: "Women have never had the vote. They have never had the vote anyway, they are quite happy not to have the vote, the men are happy to have the vote, let's just leave it." I think the argument about women's suffrage would have followed that line. But the point is really the present system greatly benefits some people by giving them power. Does a democratic House of Commons representing people want to leave so much power in the hands of prime ministers, civil servants? Do not forget, prime ministers are not interested in anything but the top list, but down the line I did cite an example—and I hope you will not press me—of a permanent secretary of mine who recommended a very senior industrialist for an honour and when he retired he ended up on the board of the company. I was a bit uneasy about that at the time. When you say people like it, the people who really like it are the people who dispense it. That I think is undemocratic. That is what I feel in my heart. That is my objection to it. But if you wanted to call them knights and go to Buckingham Palace and do it by humble address to the Queen instead of a Parliamentary Medal, that would be accepting old traditions and then they would all go to the Palace instead of going to Westminster Hall and having tea and a bun and handshakes with the Speaker—which might be considered a bit infra dig, but not by me.

  Q825 Chairman: Before we end, could I press you on one area. I think this is what Kelvin was after initially. You are in favour of an honours system of a reformed kind. Eventually someone has to decide. We are playing around with ideas on whether we can have a better mechanism for who decides. We have been given various ideas: maybe it should be a separate independent Commission, the need to take it away from the politicians, to take it away from the prime minister. Are you able to help us more on this? Whatever the nomination route, what mechanism would be appropriate actually to decide between people?

  Tony Benn: I tried to make it clear that you should have a series of nominating bodies. I am totally opposed to a committee. There was a thing called the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee—I do not know if it still exists—set up after Lloyd George abused the system, but it seems to have let through a lot of funny people. Was there not a committee set up to appoint people's peers, and the guys who got it were all themselves knights? I cannot remember. This is why a spread is the best way of doing it. If you decide that local authorities and voluntary organisations can nominate, you know the process will have been done in a myriad of committees, where everybody knows everybody else, and then you do not need permanent officials to vet it.

  Q826 Chairman: I am grateful for that. I was not clear. I see now that you want the nominating bodies to have their nominations taken forward. Thank you so much for that and thank you for finding and providing us with the NEC paper.

  Tony Benn: It is more radical because it is 40 years ago.

  Chairman: By definition. Thank you so much for this morning.

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