Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 67)



  Q60  Chairman: We do not want to get into the House of Lords issue generally but of course, it is a paradox, is it not, that if we were one day to finish up with an elected House of Lords, we would have closed the back door that we are using at the moment to bring people into government and to answer some of these problems that we are dealing with? We would have to find another way of achieving what we are now achieving through the House of Lords.

  Mr Powell: You would have a different problem, would you not? You would have ministers who were responsible to two different majorities of different sorts. So you would have ministers in the House of Lords who were accountable to the majority, which might be a Conservative majority because of the electoral cycle, and to a Labour majority in the Commons, so you would find yourself with a completely different set of problems.

  Q61  Chairman: This is why I did not want to go down the House of Lords route but I just said that as a way of asking this question, which is, at the moment when a minister is appointed to the Lords, when a Lords minister is appointed, they do not have to go through the propriety checking process that everybody else who enters the Lords has to go through, through the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Is that not just an anomaly?

  Mr Powell: Yes, it is an anomaly but, as I say, I do not think they should be in the Lords anyway. Indeed, I do not think there should be a Lords so I would start from a slightly different position on this.

  Professor King: Can I just chip in that a lot of people who think there ought to be a predominantly elected House of Lords—of whom I am not one, by the way—but a lot of people who believe that nevertheless allow for the possibility of a, say, 80% or whatever elected House of Lords, but also I go back to the point that was made earlier, with which I concur: it seems to me that it would not be beyond the wit of man or woman to invent a number of slots, if you like, a number of opportunities, half a dozen or a dozen, for people to become ministers who are not members of either House of Parliament but who nevertheless are expected to be answerable to one or other House of Parliament.

  Q62  Chairman: That was my second question, which is ...

  Lord Turnbull: Can I just say on this question of who is responsible for appointment vetting, and by and large I think the Prime Minister should be responsible for the calibre of people and the background of people, so he should do these checks.

  Q63  Chairman: So they should be exempt from any further propriety check?

  Lord Turnbull: No, they should be done by the Prime Minister. I do not think you would have divided accountabilities, "Who on earth let this guy in?" If he is coming in as a prime ministerial appointment, the Prime Minister should take responsibility for all the background checks and so on.

  Q64  Chairman: Does that happen?

  Lord Turnbull: I think they check whether someone has a CRB record or something, yes, or if he is disqualified as a director. With all ministerial appointments you basically make sure that our friends in various places have no objections.

  Q65  Chairman: Is this true, Jonathan, that you vet people for decency?

  Mr Powell: There is a standard that has existed for decades, a standard process for vetting anyone who becomes a minister, which would apply to these people too, yes.

  Q66  Chairman: We could go there but we will not go there. Could I just pose this final question, which is, if we do go down the route of bringing people in, letting them be ministers, holding them to account in the normal way, which is the route we seem to be going down, would it make sense to add in the other bit from the more separated power system, which is to have these people submit to confirmation hearings in the Commons, if these are people who are not elected by anybody?

  Professor King: Could I just say about that that I am tempted by the idea but I think there is one very serious problem which has manifested itself in the United States, which is that very often in the US the quantum of clearance that takes place, to which is added confirmation hearings, simply puts an awful lot of people off. They are very reluctant to allow their names to be put forward, not because they are crooks or for any reason like that but simply the quantum of hassle is far too great. If you ask a very able person to do a job, he or she may think "Yes, I will do it if I am offered it," but if I have to spend a couple of months appearing before committees or whatever, I may not want to do that. That is a serious problem in the US.

  Mr Powell: I think if you had confirmation hearings, you would need to have them for all Ministers. I do not really recognise this concept of elected ministers because no-one is elected as a minister; they are elected as an MP. It is the Prime Minister of the day who chooses them as a minister, so all ministers should be on the same footing from that point of view.

  Q67  Chairman: You are quite in favour of confirmation hearings for all Ministers, are you?

  Mr Powell: I think the practical problems that Tony raises are pretty serious but in principle, if you are going to have this new role for the House of Commons where committees are playing a bigger role and there is a role for backbenchers, it seems to me a logical extension of that, yes.

  Lord Turnbull: I am rather against it. I think the Prime Minister should take responsibility for the appointments that he makes.

  Chairman: Fascinating stuff! The sense is that there is a direction of travel going on here in a rather disorganised way. I think what we are trying to do is to give some shape to it so that we can work out where we might want to go, so we do not see all these as problems with the system but are probably edging towards a rather different way of doing some of this. You have been immensely helpful. Is there anything else you think you would like to say before we end that we have not asked you? If not, let me just thank you all very much for coming along and for talking to us.

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