Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


16 JULY 2009

  Q1 Chairman: I am delighted to welcome our witness, Lord Jay, who chairs the House of Lords Appointments Commission, one of the bodies that we on the Committee like to keep an eye on. We saw you when you were just coming into this role nearly a year ago and we thought it was an opportune moment to have you back and to ask how things have been going over this period that you have been in charge. Would you like to say something by way of introduction?

Lord Jay of Ewelme: Perhaps I could say a couple of words. The first year has been more demanding than I expected, more interesting than I expected, and I think a bit more challenging than I expected in one or two respects. On the key things that we have achieved, getting the new Commission members to work together as a Commission was the first task that I saw myself having as Chairman. Our three new Commissioners, Jane Campbell, Joan Higgins and John Low, have melded very well with the three political appointees who were there already. We have reviewed every nomination that the Commission held and reduced the list to manageable proportions and we have reviewed and revised our criteria for appointments. We have announced two new appointments this week which I am very pleased about. We have vetted two party political appointees and the former Speaker. And as far as publicity is concerned, I have tried to be quite active in explaining the role of the Commission, both in Parliament, particularly in the House of Lords, and outside, because I think this is a task which needs to be done. The three things I would flag up as lessons learned from the first year are: first, that there is a public expectation now that membership of the House of Lords is increasingly a job and not an honour, and that has implications, I think, for us and also for others; secondly, that the vetting process is particularly complex when it is carried out in public, which it should not be; and, thirdly, that there is still a lack of understanding of the Appointments Commission, which we need to work on.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you for that. I am sure there is much there that we would like to ask you about. From what you said I have the impression that when you came in you did a sort of culling or sifting of the names on the books to get a more usable list. Is that right?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: Yes. When we looked at the list that we had inherited from the previous Commission there were some 200 names of people who were at various stages of processing and we thought the right thing to do was to reduce that to a list of manageable proportions. So we looked, through a series of sub-committees and then the full Commission, at every name that was on the list and reduced that number to a small number that we interviewed and two of which we have chosen. At the same time as we have been doing that we have of course been receiving new names coming in during the course of the year which we have also been looking at as they have come in. That is a continuing process. The present position is that there are something like 30 names, very high quality names, that we will be continuing to review as we work towards our next list of recommendations.

  Q3  Chairman: Would you hope to keep an active list of around 30? Is that a good number to work with?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: It is not an appointments process like another appointments process when you apply for a job and you get it or you do not. We do find sometimes that we get a name, somebody who we think is really a very, very strong candidate but maybe rather the same profile as a candidate who has just been appointed or there may be two people of rather the same sort of profile, and we think, "Let's keep one," as it were, "and appoint one." Yes, I think there will always be a small number of people from whom we will want to draw recommendations. I cannot say exactly how many it would be but I feel it is more manageable now.

  Q4  Chairman: The people who have fallen off the list, have they been told they have fallen off the list?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: Yes, as soon as the Commission decides that it is not going to continue with a nomination, then the person concerned is immediately told about that.

  Q5  Chairman: Although you are the House of Lords Appointments Commission, you have just told us that since you have been doing it you have only appointed two people—and that was last week, I think.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: The two announcements were made at the beginning of this week. Since the Appointments Commission came into being in 2000 there have been 51 appointments, one of whom has died. That is 51 in nine years, so it is about five or six a year, which is the basis on which the last Commission worked and the basis on which we are working. It is a comparatively small number of people each year.

  Q6  Chairman: I understand that the Prime Minister has to tell you that you may make these appointments. Is that right?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: We have an understanding with the Prime Minister that we will continue with roughly the same rhythm as the last few years. We have just announced two this week, and I would expect there to be a small list of perhaps two or three others probably before Christmas, but that will depend on the work of the Commission between now and then. That is agreed with the Prime Minister.

  Q7  Chairman: Does it not seem rather odd that the Government has to tell you whether you may appoint people to the House of Lords or not?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: That is the situation as it is now. There are various other possible models for doing this, but for the moment we work within the framework that we have been given and I think that that works reasonably well for the moment. There are of course some other routes into the House of Lords: the list of what are called the Prime Minister's exceptions (the convention that the Prime Minister can appoint ten distinguished public servants during the course of each parliament); and the party political appointees, of which I think I am right in saying there have been 11 during the course of the last year and that includes the ministerial appointees. So we are not the only route in, though we are the main route in to the cross-benches.

  Q8  Chairman: Does it seem odd to you that there are categories of people, not least people who are put into the House of Lords by the Prime Minister to be ministers, who do not have to be vetted at all?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: Yes, it does seem to us odd, but I think that is an anomaly and I think it should be corrected. We have been discussing that with the Cabinet Office. I think there is wide general agreement now that it is anomalous that there should be a category of people—and for the moment I am leaving aside the bishops—who are not vetted. The Commission would certainly like that anomaly to be ended and for us to be asked to vet the ministerial appointees as well. It seems to me that there are two sorts of categories. There are those who are appointed in the course of a reshuffle, which can sometimes mean there is a very short time available—and I can understand, I think, why a prime minister who really does want to make a particular appointment to complete a reshuffle would not be able to give us the amount of time we would need. Where I think there is a real anomaly which can be corrected, straight away are those ministerial appointments which take place outside reshuffles where there is no particular time pressure—and I cannot see any reason why the Commission should not be asked to vet those in the usual way.

  Q9  Chairman: Could you not just announce that this is what you are going to do?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: We report to the Prime Minister, as things are at the moment, and if we are not asked to vet then clearly we cannot vet, so we have to have the Prime Minister's agreement that appointments will be put to us for vetting.

  Q10  Chairman: Yes, but you or your predecessor have changed other quite fundamental aspects of how you work; for example, in terms of the tax status of people.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: Yes.

  Q11  Chairman: You can make this up for yourself, can you not?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: We can do what we have done, which is to change our criteria. We have told the Prime Minister that we have changed our criteria. But that is something which is, in a sense, within our gift because it is up to us to decide what the basis is on which we judge people and the questions we ask them. It is rather harder for us to say we are now going to vet ministerial nominees if we are then not asked to do so.

  Q12  Chairman: I think your predecessor and your predecessor committee, as it were, did rather well in the so-called cash for peerages issue, as we have pointed out in our own reports on that, because they were pretty robust in scrutinising these names that were being put up to them and objecting to them. I want to know how robust you are being. There are stories that there are vast quantities of Members of Parliament queuing up to get into the Lords, many of whom carry rather unhealthy baggage in terms of what happened to their expenses. I would like to know whether you are going to be pretty robust in looking at any such names which come to you.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: We discussed this last year. We have to distinguish between our obligation to look at political appointees that are put to us on the basis of propriety, which means that we carry out the various checks with the regulatory agencies, and suitability, which is not at the moment part of our remit. Our job when we get a political appointee is not to say, "Is this person suitable?" but "Does this person pass the test of propriety?"

  Q13  Chairman: I am asking you about propriety.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: I think we certainly would want to look closely at the issue of propriety, yes, but that means we would check with the various agencies that we check with at the moment, those are Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, the police, the Security Service, Government departments who may have some knowledge of the person, the Electoral Commission's register of donations, the Honours and Appointments secretariat, to check whether or not there are areas in their past life which would, in our view, cause us to judge that we would advise that there were areas of concern or controversy there.

  Q14  Chairman: Let me be blunter: if a former MP who has abused the expenses system is a name that is put before you, does such a person get past you or not?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: I cannot answer that question because—

  Q15  Chairman: It is a matter of principle; it is not a question of the individual.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: It is a hypothetical issue.

  Q16  Chairman: I am afraid it is not a hypothetical issue. It is a pretty pressing actual issue.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: I cannot give you an answer to a question "What would we do if ... " I think the present Commission would be very unhappy about receiving nominations of people who were rightly—and I say rightly because, of course, there is a huge amount of controversy about some of the claims—thought to have abused the system. I also think—and I have said this to all three party leaders in the Lords and also to Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg—that it is hugely important that the party leaders themselves are conscious of the need to put forward people to the House of Lords who do meet the criteria by which we ourselves judge people when we are appointing them; that is, people who have a significant level of achievement, who have a strong sense of integrity and propriety, and, crucially, who are going to make a real contribution to the work of the House of Lords. I would hope that that set of criteria would itself act as a kind of sift for people coming forward. We will of course have to look very hard at people who come forward ourselves.

  Chairman: Okay. I am sure colleagues may want to pursue this with you.

  Q17  Julie Morgan: Did you vet the former Speaker Michael Martin?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: We did vet the former Speaker, yes.

  Q18  Julie Morgan: And you passed him.

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: Yes. Perhaps I should explain—because I know there has been some interest in this—the process by which that vetting process, and indeed others, took place. The process is that we receive a letter from the Prime Minister following the consent given by the individual concerned that he or she can be vetted, and then we carry out the checks with the agencies that I have just described. The results of those checks are considered by the Commission collectively, and we then write a letter to the Prime Minister with our advice, based on those checks and based on the Commission's consideration, and in the normal case it would then be the Prime Minister who would decide whether or not to put a nomination forward to the Queen. That is the normal process. In the question of the Speaker, it was a different process because, of course, the ultimate decision is one for Parliament and not for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister's role is to put the name forward, put forward, as I understand it, by the Leader of the House on his behalf, to Parliament, proposing a humble address to the Queen. We were clear on this occasion, since this was a unique process, that we should carry out our checks as required to by the Prime Minister and we should write to the Prime Minister, and that we should do that before the Prime Minister laid the motion before the House of Commons so that he was able to take that into account before Parliament made its own decision on whether or not the Speaker should be recommended to the Queen.

  Q19  Julie Morgan: In the letter that you wrote to the Prime Minister—some of which was leaked to the press: there were reports in the press—were you trying to imply that there were reasons why Michael Martin should not be recommended?

  Lord Jay of Ewelme: No. And let me say, first of all, that I do not think the letter was leaked to the press. In every case when we make a nomination there are press inquiries, almost entirely about the process. On this occasion we explained to the press what the process was, that the process was that we had been asked to vet, that we had vetted, that we had written, that these were the criteria against which we made judgments, and I think a creative journalist then put into quotation marks bits from our website which state what our criteria were. We have no evidence that a letter was leaked and we would never talk about an individual case. We would talk about the process and explain the process, but not talk about an individual case.

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