Public Administration Select Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 516-i

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Public Administration Committee

appointment OF THE Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Thursday 11 July 2013

Lord Bew

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 26

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.

This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.

The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Committee

on Thursday 11 July 2013

Members present:

Kelvin Hopkins (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Charlie Elphicke

Robert Halfon

Mr Steve Reed

In the absence of the Chair, Kelvin Hopkins was called to the Chair

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Lord Bew, Government’s preferred candidate, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good morning and welcome to this preappointment hearing. We hope the session will not last more than an hour. We have a number of members here; we will ask you a series of questions, and we are looking forward to hearing what you have to say. For the record, I wonder if you would identify yourself.

Lord Bew: I am Paul Bew. I am a crossbench peer, and I am here because I am a candidate for the CSPL Chairmanship.

Q2 Chair: Thank you very much. I will start off with one or two questions. As you know, the Chair of the Committee cannot be here because he was on the interviewing panel, and so I am deputising for him. First of all, how will you ensure that the convention that you consult the Prime Minister on the Committee’s proposed inquiry topics does not compromise the independence of the Committee?

Lord Bew: Of course, the requirement now is not just to consult the Prime Minister but also to consult this Committee and the relevant Lords Committee as well. I think that is what it means: it means one consults, but ultimately if the Committee decides an important area of work has to be carried out, the Committee must be free to do that. I do think consultation is a serious matter. I actually approve of the way that, for example, with respect to this Committee, the relationship in some ways has become closer, and there is an emphasis on dialogue with this Committee. I do not think that is a pro forma consultation, but nonetheless there is absolutely no point in there being a Committee on Standards in Public Life unless it has that degree of independence, and no point in the Chairman either.

Q3 Chair: Indeed. You will have seen the reports on the Triennial Review, and commenting on that, Professor Matthew Flinders said that it is a difficult matter balancing "the vaunted ‘independence’ of the CSPL with the need to consult with the Prime Minister", so it is a delicate balance not to become just a friend of the Prime Minister, so to speak, and at the same time to have a reasonable relationship.

Lord Bew: Yes, it is a difficult matter, because it is consultation not just with this Committee and the Prime Minister but also the Lords Constitution Committee, and were I to be a member of the Lords Constitution Committee-which thankfully I am not-I would obviously immediately have to withdraw from that Committee. Professor Flinders is quite right to identify a potential problem. The point is that in general, we have developed a culture, I think, where you can be independent and play a role but at the same time have proper and relevant discussions with Parliament, and in this particular case the pertinent Minister being the Prime Minister also. Obviously in the real world, the Cabinet Office is a factor in any such discussion as well.

I can give an example: when I worked in the Department for Education on the Key Stage 2 SATs review, again, the role was the same. It is to be independent. Obviously, the work is going on in the Department for Education. We carried out lots and lots of interviews with teachers about what they thought about that exam. Most of them occurred inside the Department for Education, physically, but nonetheless it was my duty to produce an independent report. It could not possibly have worked unless teachers were satisfied as an absolute minimum that some of their concerns about that exam and how it impacted on their careers were being attended to. So there is a way of doing these things, which is to reflect on to whom one is responsible. I suppose it comes back to the responsibility of the Committee generally: the responsibility of the Committee is to Parliament, but it also is to the wider society of stakeholders.

Q4 Chair: Indeed. A related question is that the Committee’s financial dependence on the Cabinet Office could lead to the Committee at least being perceived to be toeing the Government line. Is this financial dependence on the Cabinet Office a matter you would comment on?

Lord Bew: Regarding the Key Stage 2 SATs report, perhaps I should explain slightly: for example, I was unpaid as chairman of that report, and all the members, all the headmasters who sat on the Committee, and other educational experts, were also unpaid. In that sense, there was no financial dependence on or financial relationship of any sort with the Department for Education. Again, these are really matters that we have had to deal with all over Whitehall, and it is fundamentally a matter of the intention or the integrity of not just this Committee and CSPL but other Committees with similar types of dependencies that are related to particular Government Departments. It is a matter of the integrity of whoever is chairing them, and also the members of the Committee.

But it is possible, I do think, to produce something, and it is utterly valueless-if I could go back to the Department for Education-in a case of that sort, where a very large sector of the public are involved: many thousands of teachers, and hundreds of thousands of children taking the exam each year. One has to realise how absurd it would be to produce a report that was acceptable to a Minister in the Department for Education and perhaps four officials in the Department for Education. It is just really to miss the whole point of the exercise. In the case of the issues that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is concerned with, very large rafts of the public are concerned about these issues, and therefore anybody who is involved in chairing this Committee has to know that their responsibility is to present something that at least responds seriously to the way in which the public thinks about or has concerns about these particular matters. It cannot just be a question of playing some kind of internal Whitehall game.

Q5 Charlie Elphicke: Professor, good morning. The Triennial Review of the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended the Committee should be bolder in picking topics. There is a sense that it has done a lot of micromanaging of other quangos, rather than being strategic and looking at big-picture principles as to how our public life may be corrupted and warped. Do you agree with that?

Lord Bew: It is really probably the most substantial, most important point. There are a number of important points in the Triennial Review, but it is probably the leading point. I do agree with it. There is a logic of this particular moment; one being, as you know, that the financial resources will be significantly reduced. Consequently, whoever chairs it really has to go on the basis that less might be better-that a tighter focus might be better. Some of the things that we used to do, rightly or wrongly, will not be done in the same way, and therefore one has to prioritise; one has to have a tighter focus. There is a programme for work laid out, 201314, for whoever might be the incoming Chair, and I have no actual problem with that. There are a number of topics that are laid out, four or five, essentially, which are all in principle issues that would concern anybody who is interested in standards in public life, but I do suspect that one is going to have to pick and choose, and make decisive decisions, and it would probably be good to be clear even quite early on in the autumn what these decisions were.

Now, I have given you that answer because I think it is important to give such an answer to this Committee, and Parliament is entitled to an answer of that sort. I just want to say one plus is that I have not met-quite rightly, because I am not in place-the members of the committee. I have had one very helpful conversation with the Acting Chairman-a very helpful conversation-yesterday, but there is a certain fundamental matter of courtesy and respect for the work that they have done. There is a point at which it would be entirely wrong, and indeed I might have to revise my opinions anyway, for me to say absolutely starkly what I think about the four or five items and what the balance and the hierarchy should be, because they are entitled to say to me, "We think this is very important, and it is perhaps a little bit more important than you realise because you do not know the full background to this question." I give you the answer that I think Parliament is entitled to, but there is also a responsibility to the Committee to take seriously the things that are in their mind.

Q6 Charlie Elphicke: Is it not also important to listen to the public? Quite spontaneously very recently a lot of my constituents said to me, "Look, we have a situation where, back in 200405, there was an agreement on party funding that £8 million was given to a party in return for £5 million costs on business," called the Warwick Agreement, and there is substantial public concern about whether a party is captured by vested interests once again. Do you not think that is a really important thing for the Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate, given the level of public concern?

Lord Bew: Yes, but I also think that the Committee has worked in this area a number of times. The 2005 Report is probably one of the most respected in the sense that the proposals there in the area of party financing are really quite widely accepted, and also it is a model about how the Committee’s best practice has been, and where it has been effective, because essentially you had significant research and a crossparty consensus forming around the buildup of research. That is what you are talking about: what have we got out of the Committee on Standards in Public Life? For example that particular Report, the fifth Report, might well be a good example. The Committee has then returned massively in recent years to the whole issue of party financing, and it has produced a report in recent times.

There are a number of things to be said in this respect. I have already said that some of the work the Committee has done has been very important, and actually the Northern Ireland Bill about to go through Parliament, or just going through your House, partly reflects evidence that Sir Christopher Kelly has been putting forward, or is certainly totally consonant with things that he was saying and is on record as saying about transparency of party funding. There is clear evidence of impact-pretty widely accepted across parties, again, I suspect-on that issue as it unfolds on parties in this House, but we have now reported. Big waves are now in play on this question. Many of the issues are now in play at the highest level in politics in the last few weeks.

It is actually now going to be Parliament’s job to come to decisions. That is my view. I have a sense that the Committee itself has put a lot of work into this. It was asked by the Prime Minister so to do, because there are some people who feel that perhaps too much time was diverted to it. We ought to remember that the Prime Minister of the day actually asked them to take it on, but my sense is now this is for Parliament, and Parliament is going to be in the parties, and the party leaderships are going to make decisions, and legislation is afoot, and so on.

Q7 Charlie Elphicke: Many people say, "Look: is the Committee still relevant today?" We have a situation where the dark hand of trade union power is casting a long shadow over our public life, and seems to have had an insidious influence. Many people are concerned about this. Surely the Committee should be investigating this corruption of our public life.

Lord Bew: I understand the point but I also understand that the Committee has produced a set of proposals that takes up and deals with that issue, and deals with other aspects of this issue from a different angle. It has laid its cards very plainly out on the table. It is actually, I think, no particular public secret to say the past Chairman at any rate is slightly disappointed by the response thus far. The Deputy Prime Minister has issued a statement on this. The former Chairman, Lord Tyler, made it clear in the Queen’s speech, and he will campaign on this matter, so the value of any research the Committee on Standards in Public Life has carried out will be out there, as it were, but my view is that I really do think that we all know in this room Parliament is going to make these decisions.

Chair: Can I say from the Chair that we are not here to ask you about particular issues, but to find out how you would deal in general with these highly charged political issues?

Q8 Mr Reed: I think Mr Elphicke is pursuing a highly partisan line of questioning, which I do not think is helpful, but it does flag up a more important issue, which I would be interested in having your view on. How would you as the Chairman of this Committee keep yourself out of the current continuing matters of political controversy, and focus instead on the longer term underlying principles that underpin high standards in public life?

Lord Bew: The Triennial Review makes the point that the Committee and the Chair should do that, and mostly it has done that. There is absolutely no point in being a kind of ambulance chaser, essentially. I understand there are bound to be circumstances when whoever has held this job in the past might have felt the urge to go before a microphone or whoever might hold it in the future might feel the urge to go before a microphone. I do not think that is the right approach. If there is a case for this Committee, it is, to go back to part of John Major’s original description, to be an ethical workshop, and it is to think ahead and to try to identify problems and to be more strategic. It is not to be an ambulance chaser as scandals unfold-or, as I personally hope, do not unfold-but, inevitably, there are going to be things that come up. Actually, the Triennial Review does make the point that certainly in recent times in the great majority of cases there has been a considerable amount of discipline on the part of the Committee.

Q9 Charlie Elphicke: Mr Reed is absolutely right. I am very much testing your independence and fearlessness in relation to issues that some would like to see swept under the carpet. That brings me to this question: what do you think high standards in public life look like in practice?

Lord Bew: We have the Nolan principles, and once I became interested in this I talked to a lot of people about what they thought of the standing of the Nolan principles. It is a matter of fine judgement, but at first I was persuaded by those often wise people who said to me, "Well, they may be a little tired now: selflessness, honesty, integrity, accountability, and so on." It is like the ten commandments: people have got some grasp of what they are. It is quite valuable to hang on to that, and not play around with them much. The Committee revisited this thing in the latest Standards Matter document and made minor changes. I have started to be persuaded of a slightly different approach, that of course the standards as defined and known as the Nolan principles are good and should be the basis. I think probably they are a little flabby. I think probably you do need diligence-the Triennial Review makes that point-and delivery. These are elements that might be included in a refinement and a sharpening of the principles. I think the public have a right to expect diligence of public officials, and therefore I think that there might be a case for sharpening them.

On the section on integrity, I want to be very careful, because this has been put into my mind by recent debates about allparty groups, APGs, which I am a member of, and I am sure everybody around the room is a member of several allparty groups. Obviously I have read, for example, Jack Straw’s crossparty report on this, which predated the current public interest in allparty groups and things in and around them, but I think because they have become a matter of controversy in the way they have, the emphasis in the passage on integrity is on actioned decision. In other words, very clearly, a Minister should not act in a way because of some private financial arrangement of some sort or another.

It is quite clear now that the debate is broader than that. There has to be something about advocacy generally, which may not be connected to real decisions, and the utilisation of Parliament, and the prestige of Parliament. In other words, quite rightly, if you read the section on integrity you know perfectly clearly how a Minister, for example, should act, but issues of integrity now are broader than that. It is in and around questions of advocacy and so on, and the issues about whether or not Parliament is always in a position where its standing, however indirectly, may or may not be exploited. I think it needs to be sharpened up in some sort of way to deal with that. That was a thought provoked by reading the Straw Report on APGs.

Q10 Robert Halfon: Given what you said about ambulance chasing, there is a predecessor of the Chairman of your Committee who is regarded by some as a rentaquote, because he comments on every individual scandal that is going. The problem with that is that it is difficult to disassociate him from the current Committee, because he is always described as the former Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Can you confirm that you believe that that is the wrong approach, and also if you were to be the Chairman, would you have a conversation with this individual and discuss these matters with him?

Lord Bew: The first thing I want to say about that is I have already made it absolutely clear that I accept completely the burden of the point of the Triennial Review: there should be discipline, and it is not the job of the Chairman or indeed anybody else on the Committee to rush to give quotes on the latest atrocity. I also, by the way, very much want to talk to Sir Alistair more broadly-because there was the recent Times article, which has raised a number of issues that may come up-in part not just to say I believe that I personally will not be rushing into the studios all the time, but actually just to reassure him that the intention is that the Committee should continue to play a proper and focused role, and will not be toothless. I think he is entitled to that reassurance.

I mentioned already, for example, the first report on party finance-again, I think, on Sir Alistair’s watch, with again crossparty support. I respect that. It is now going to be a major area of public controversy-we have seen that already this morning-and it is now going to be in the papers every day for several months. We should remember that a certain baseline cleaning up of this issue has occurred, and that the Committee played a positive role in doing that. So, yes, I want to have a conversation with him, and I will make clear my commitment to the Triennial Review and what is suggested about the style of work, but it would be also a broader conversation, which I would use to try to say to him that we are not going to be toothless. I do not see myself as, you know, Chris Patten in Hong Kong, gently lowering the flag and fading away.

Q11 Robert Halfon: In a nutshell, if you were asked, how would you define your role in terms of success-the role of the Chair of the Committee?

Lord Bew: One of the reasons why I became interested in this particular post is that one job I have is that I am the Lords Chair, along with Tristram Hunt who is the Commons Chair, of the Speaker’s Advisory Group for the anniversaries that Parliament is planning for Magna Carta, Simon de Montfort, and the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill. I have been working in that area for some months now, and you cannot do this without acquiring a respect for the complexity and integrity of the parliamentary tradition of this country, which is far more significant and far greater than the sum of the individual parts of all the flawed individuals, now and in the past, who have sat and worked in this building.

I am genuinely interested in the whole question of the public perception of Parliament. It is very difficult, and the Committee’s survey work actually shows this: the waves of public opinion about Parliament and its integrity are something that no committee in Whitehall, even one with draconian powers and armed with machine guns, is going to actually affect. There is no magical thing that can be done here, but nonetheless I think it is a major matter of public concern, and working on the other Committee has really brought home to me how important this actually is.

I would just add one thing. While it would be ridiculous, and the Triennial Review makes this point, to somehow set an objective in this respect, if not impossible-almost absurd-it is the case, however, that from our polling the Committee does believe that when problems arise and Parliament or the affected body actually takes a reasonable action to clean it up somewhat, and of course I am well aware that it is public office holders in general that the Committee has a responsibility for, the public does on the whole say, "Well, they are trying." So in other words it is worth paying attention to this. It is not something where you just simply say, "Oh well, the waves of public opinion are uncontrollable, and who knows what silly person will say something silly next week which makes Parliament look bad," or whatever; it is something that actually you can work on, pay attention to, and I want to be able to try to do that.

Q12 Robert Halfon: So, would your Committee look at the reputation of Parliamentarians as part of its remit?

Lord Bew: There are difficult matters in this respect, and the Chairman of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin, has actually been engaged in a debate with the committee about our polling on this matter, how useful it is, and whether or not you actually end up with tired and predictable answers, or not particularly useful answers. That exchange of letters alone tells you how complicated this question actually is, but, if I could put it like this, I would not be entirely disappointed, if I were to be appointed, if five years from now the public felt able to have a perception of Parliament that was decent.

Q13 Alun Cairns: Lord Bew, I think the relationship with the press is very important. How do we avoid, or should the Chairman avoid, sensationalist media coverage? It has been a habit of newspapers of late to write sensationalist headlines. Where do you think the Chairman fits in to that shock horror headline, when maybe a little bit of digging might expose something that is not quite as bad as the headline might suggest?

Lord Bew: I tried to make the point earlier that I do not think the Chairman should be intervening in that way, in the sense of immediately responding to issues. I know what lies behind your question, and I absolutely understand what is on your mind, but I think that the role of this committee, the CSPL, is to try to look ahead, produce a measured report and to build up consensus, I hope, on a research basis, to deal with certain ethical questions. At that point, it becomes quite important how the media is handled. It really does become quite important. There is absolutely no point in delivering something like that and it not having serious attention in the media, but I do think to respond quite so quickly on a daytoday basis is, as we have been discussing, difficult.

I would like to expand slightly on that. If you look at the two recent Reports, for example, about the life of this Committee or what has been going on in Whitehall, neither of them have actually discussed the fact that what is going on in terms of resources, money, personnel, new focus and so on, is to a very significant degree a function of the Triennial Review. I am well aware of the fact that you can read things and think, "Well, that is only one side of what is going on here," and I am sure that everybody in this room has that particular frustration, but it is not possible for the Chairman of this Committee to be at every moment dealing with that sort of problem.

Q14 Robert Halfon: Just a final question: In terms of the funding of political parties, all parties have had huge controversies, without exception.

Lord Bew: Yes.

Robert Halfon: Is this something that you believe your committee should look at, and will you look at the issue of state funding? I would like to know whether you think state funding of political parties is a good idea or not.

Chair: Can I suggest that we do not actually deal in issues, because it is how you would deal with an issue, rather than your view on it?

Robert Halfon: Could I just come in? First of all, I genuinely want to know if the Committee is going to consider this as part of its remit, but it is so central to all political parties.

Lord Bew: I understand the sensitivity of this issue. We have, I have said before, in very recent times produced a very substantial report. The Chairman was initially disappointed by the reaction of Parliament in general, all parties, to that report. He will campaign on that. We have a body of knowledge in this area, and I am well aware of the difficulties. I have read all the criticisms, not just what the party leaders have said but a number of academic criticisms that have been made of our previous Report. This is an enormously difficult question, issues of thirdparty funding and so on, and at this point actually nobody-should I say this?-in the parties or anywhere has actually produced anything that looks to me like a resolution of these questions. Because I am aware, I do not want to say the Committee will never, ever touch this, given the fact it has worked on it, and so on, and there may be moments when knowledge that has been built up in the past may be relevant, but the truth of the matter is, I think, as far as this Committee is concerned, we have taken it as far as we reasonably can for the time being. I would need to discuss that with other members of the Committee, but I notice it is not in the 201314 programme of work as an issue that I have been shown, and it is not there for the type of question that they think they should be moving to now. It may be the case that we have taken it as far as we reasonably can, and it is now, frankly, back with you, gentlemen.

Q15 Robert Halfon: I should just like to get on the record, very briefly, that I know my constituents on very low wages would be pretty outraged if their taxes were being used to fund political parties.

Lord Bew: I think, by the way, in general, regarding the funding of this body, which like so many other bodies is now on a significantly reduced budget, I, of course, like everybody doing work, would like to have more money, but actually I recognise that your constituents on very low wages would also be pretty outraged if this body, like other bodies in Whitehall, was not actually trying to be more efficient and actually reduce its budget somewhat.

Chair: Just before we go to Mr Reed, we should remember this is a preappointment hearing and bear that in mind.

Q16 Mr Reed: I think that flagged up again, in a similar way to Mr Elphicke’s comments, the very fine line that you have to walk. Maybe it is worth just pressing a bit harder on that. How do you maintain the Committee’s ability to comment on issues of current controversy in the political arena without being dragged into the pit of party politics? Party funding is quite a good example there. You could just say, "We will withdraw and say nothing," but then are you fulfilling your duty as a committee focused on standards in public life if that itself is what is underlying the controversy?

Lord Bew: Okay, I understand what you are saying, and, by the way, I am grateful for the Chairman’s reminder that this is a hearing in which, when I talk about the future, it is "if I am the Chairman", and I am very sorry if I departed from that. I am grateful for that reminder. Could I just explain what I really think the answer to your question is? I think that the Committee is at its strongest when the Nolan principles are at the heart of what it does and people can see clearly they are the heart of what it does. I have suggested they might be in some way modernised in the light of things we now know as issues, and they might indeed be slightly flabby in a certain respect and need a little bit of strengthening, but I do think that the role of whoever is Chairman would be best done, as would the Committee’s, by keeping those principles close.

Now, one of the problems, and we have seen it this morning, with an issue such as party funding, is that two persons might be of equal and intense commitment to these principles of public life, and of integrity of public life, but actually disagree about aspects of that issue-the price level of the donor or whatever-with perfectly good faith. It seems to me there is a difficulty, and I think it was implicit in the work the Committee has been doing in the past few years in this area. There is a fundamental difficulty there, and it is not the Committee’s fault because the Prime Minister asked them to do it, but nonetheless I would prefer, as it were, if I were the Chairman, to keep the principles close to my chest, and in that way, if one is making an intervention or presenting a report, that is what the public, I think, reasonably expects from a body called the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It does not and should not expect it to solve problems that are more properly questions to be resolved on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Chair: I should say that my comment was directed at fellow members of the Committee, not at you, Lord Bew.

Q17 Alun Cairns: Lord Bew, you would know better than anyone that the Bloody Sunday inquiry took 12 years. It cost £400 million. How do you strike the balance between targeting resources to make inquiries and appearing reasonable in terms of the cost?

Lord Bew: It is a very serious point. I should, by the way, declare an interest: I was an historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday inquiry, but I was not responsible for the cost; it was actually £200 million, and it is, I think, well known that lawyers are a lot more expensive than historians. Look, this is a very serious matter. I suppose it has become more formal since the general election, but I know that many Ministers in the last Government were alarmed by the mounting costs of these inquiries-the Northern Irish one that you have given-and felt just as concerned about it. I think there is a real issue. That world has just gone, and I hope never to return. We are going to have to operate now with a significantly reduced budget, which is why I think inevitably we are going to have to focus on a narrower range of topics and have a tighter hierarchy of what we might do, and if it is my responsibility, that is what I will be saying.

It is an extremely serious matter. I have spoken many times about the expenditures mounting up, and just think what you could do in Northern Ireland at the moment in terms of actual real public benefit for the £250 million to £350 million, however you calculate it, that disappeared-that is not the right word-or that was spent on these inquiries. I need to say this, or perhaps as a historical adviser, I do not need to say it, but it is not because I think that it is not necessary sometimes to do this sort of work. I am utterly convinced that it can be done cheaply, and I think there is a case for reviewing the inquiries. Every inquiry produces a total sum of conclusions; at what point, so, x sum spent, was it pretty clear that was going to be the conclusion? How much did we gain for the next £100 million tranche? It is a really interesting matter. I am not suggesting for the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but it is a really interesting question: to look at these really expensive inquiries and say, "Well, once somebody had been through all the historical documents and looked at everything that was available in print for the period, how much more did we really learn later beyond that fairly early bit of work?" It is quite interesting that is something that is not really done.

Q18 Alun Cairns: How do you maintain public interest in the work of the Committee? I see that there are two approaches. One is the firefighting, in terms of providing that regular commentary, which you said you would probably refrain from, or there is that strategic overview, or that planning, which is calmer and seeking to influence, which is the impression I got from your responses earlier-that should you be successful, that would be the approach you pursued. How do you maintain public interest in that calmer, more objective approach?

Lord Bew: There is a question that is raised in the Triennial Review about the way, for example, that we gather evidence, and it may be that our format in the past has been a little too traditional. Although I also would like to say that you cannot claim to be the Committee on Standards in Public Life and then say-and I do not think anybody would suggest this; I do not think the Triennial Review is suggesting this-that we are never going to have public hearings again, because in fact often they have not been that well attended, and so on, and not actually magnetised even the kind of, if you like, the segments of the chattering classes you think might possibly have had an interest in a particular thing. I think we are going to have to modernise it in certain respects and use the new forms of technology, so that is part of the answer to your question. The Triennial Review is actually quite helpful in terms of specific suggestions.

Q19 Alun Cairns: Finally from me at this stage, do you see a tension between parliamentary privilege and the Nolan principles?

Lord Bew: That is a very serious question. I just want to think. Having just been on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and having the Nolan principles in my mind over the last few weeks as the Joint Committee was coming to an end, I have never really thought that there was a tension there. I really cannot see why MPs, like other public office holders, should not be expected to accept the broad framework of the Nolan principles, and I really cannot see why it would conflict with parliamentary privilege. I think there were fears, a year or so ago, perhaps further back in time, that privilege may be exploitable in a way that raised doubts about that. I do not think in fact, as it has evolved, those fears were justified.

Q20 Alun Cairns: So do you not think that privilege could be used to exploit or to get around the principles of Nolan?

Lord Bew: I think we are all aware that there were quite considerable fears about this a little time back. I would say that the sense is, for one reason or another, it has turned out that is not the case-that the courts, for example, would not be impressed with such arguments. I certainly think, by the way, that if the Members of Parliament who are on the Parliamentary Privilege Committee are anything to go by, all those Members of Parliament would absolutely firmly take the view that Members of Parliament should be able to work comfortably with the Nolan principles. While privilege is extraordinary and important in certain respects, its function is to defend the free speech of the nation in critical situations-at times when it might be absolutely critical to do that. Its function is to do that, and it is very, very important that it is done. Its function is not to actually create circumstances where people can evade their normal moral responsibilities.

Q21 Mr Reed: Lord Bew, you said earlier on, "We are not going to be toothless," but the Committee is going to be losing a fifth of its funding and a quarter of its staff. How are you going to make sure that it remains optimally effective, given that reduction in resources?

Lord Bew: If I may say so, it is even wider than this problem you have absolutely correctly located about resources. The problem is that when the Committee was established, Sir Robin Butler-now Baron Butler of Brockwell-as the Cabinet Secretary had a kind of formula or phrase that it should be a sleeping beauty. I quoted John Major earlier, and a phrase I absolutely agree with, "ethical workshop", which I still think holds, but I think that John Major’s definition moves on to the Committee doing running repairs, so in other words that was the concept. Now, here is where we are 19 years later. The argument of the Triennial Review is that the Committee should be more strategic, and whoever is the new Chairman has to accept that that is what the Cabinet Office also wants, the Government also wants; there is a consensus in this respect. I think probably all the parties want it.

However, originally it was not like that. Something else has happened: in this particular area there are now 12 bodies of one sort or another, two in my own House alone, which deal with these matters of ethics, parliamentary ethics, a number in your House and so on, the Electoral Commission, and actually 12 bodies in the space where only the Nolan Committee was in 1994. What you have is reduced budget, expanded mission statement, in a way, or a more proactive mission statement in a way, and you have a rather messy combination of impulses. Our context coming in here is not just reduction of money.

The first thing to say is, as I have already indicated, I just believe that realistically at this moment in our public affairs it would be inconceivable if this Committee was to actually not have to come to terms with the new budgetary conditions, and I think a number of other important bodies have faced similar problems. All the new Chairs have this problem. I think that means the new Chair has to say, "Well, there are now 12 bodies in this area." I know the Committee tried to do it, but there were clear instances where the Committee was holding one view on a public issue and another one of these bodies was saying, "We think that is the correct course of action." I think we have really got, however, to pull back from anything like that, and to avoid overlap as much as possible, to really pick one’s own areas, and to really focus in on those areas, and at least avoid reproducing work that is done somewhere else. In a context where you have got less resource, it seems to me that is obviously something you are going to have to do.

Q22 Mr Reed: How do you select which areas to focus in on, in a way that maintains your impartiality, given that you have to consult with the Prime Minister, and the balance on your board is going to be tilted more heavily towards elected politicians because of the reduction in the numbers of other members on it?

Lord Bew: Yes, by the way, that is going to take a little time, the balance of the board, to work its way through natural wastage and so on, but I understand it has created public controversy. However, I do accept the point that first of all there will not be, even under the new board, and even when the process has worked its way through, which will take a bit of time, a majority of party-political members on the board, so it will always be fourthree in favour of people who are not party representatives. In that sense, the fundamental concept remains intact. I think it is worth remembering that.

There is no point in having anybody in this job, or indeed any of the Committee jobs, who is not going to be fiercely independent, but I do return to my original point: I think you have to avoid, as it were, running across the whole terrain of public issues and focus fundamentally on what the public is concerned about, which is standards in public life, as defined by the Nolan principles, and that, I think, can give you some guidance. I have said this earlier, and I do not want to say too much, but I am entirely happy with the broad programme of work laid out by the Committee: the seminars, discussions and topics they have listed. However, we are going to have to refine these, and I hope that we will be able to reach an agreement in such a way that the public says, "Yes, I see exactly why that is the one they are really going to home in on."

Q23 Mr Reed: My final question, if I may, Chair: to what extent do you believe the Committee is being sidelined by politicians in favour of alternative inquiries such as those conducted by the Cabinet Secretary?

Lord Bew: Yes, I read that report, and this comes back to my earlier comment about this: the two reports-that one and the other report-that there have been about these matters in the last two or three weeks actually omit any reference to the Triennial Review. Now, what the Government has done here is ask Peter Riddell to produce this extended analytical review of how we might best proceed. It is a very wide range of evidence he has taken. I have myself, in the last few days and weeks, slightly tracked after him and talked to some of the academics he talked to and said, "You are quoted as saying this in the report. Do you really feel quite that? Could it be slightly different?" and so on. However, there is no question that this process of review has gone on, and therefore I cannot answer questions about, "Oh there may be something else going on in Whitehall," and so on.

It seems to me so obvious that this is the thrust-that the Cabinet Office made a decision that this is the way to do it, to have this review. The whole debate now about the future of this body is determined by, as far as I am concerned, the terms of reference and the points that are made in that review, which I largely accept. I have one issue with it-not actually an issue, but I think it needs to be slightly fleshed out-about the devolved Assemblies issues. I am in substance in agreement with what is said there; I just think something more needs to be said about that. All I can say is, when I read in the papers that what is really going on is the Prime Minister is sorting this out with the Cabinet Secretary, I do not quite see how that fits with my experience and the brutal, large fact of the Triennial Review apparently setting the terms of debate.

Q24 Chair: Thank you very much. One or two questions, as we come towards the conclusion, about time commitment and salary. How often in practice, Lord Bew, do you think you will have to dedicate more than the proposed two to three days per month to the job?

Lord Bew: It depends on the intensity of the inquiry. In the early phase, by the way, I think it is almost inevitably bound to be quite a lot more than that, simply because you have to acquaint yourself with so many elements of the situation. I only know one member of the current Committee-well, actually, two, now that I have talked to the Acting Chairman in the last day-so in the early period I think there is just inevitably going to be very basic work like that going on. Later on it depends quite simply on the intensity of an inquiry, but there is a remit there, there is a budget, and it is quite clearly acknowledged in the Triennial Review that if one did more than the timespan that you mentioned, that might happen in the context of an inquiry, but one has to be realistic. There is a budget. I accept the logic of that budget. You know, you have really got to think about this. The consequence of that may be that I have to just spend a lot more time on it at my own expense, but the point is I have accepted this. I have thought about it, and I also know, by the way, and everybody in the room knows, it would be utterly ludicrous to go back and say, "Oh, by the way, you have agreed these sums; can we have another tranche of money from somewhere because of this, that and the other?" Except in very highly specialised circumstances that might arise from a legitimate inquiry, I think that just cannot be done. It cannot be done.

Q25 Chair: Thank you. You are a member of the House of Lords and you are also a distinguished academic. How will you accommodate the time commitment required by your role as Chair alongside these other duties?

Lord Bew: I also have a number of other commitments in terms of things that I chair in unpaid capacities, one of which, the BritishIrish Association, I will have to give up, so I do have to remodel and restructure these things. The accidents of my academic life are for the first phase of this I will be living in London, and in my personal case the great problem is not so much time as such but the time lost half a day a week travelling, half a day a week back, and quality time in Heathrow. It is basically five hours door to door, but in the early phase of this, which may be the most intense, I will be here because of what I am currently doing academically, and that, I hope, is going to make it, and in terms of the people I am working with, an awful lot easier. However, again, you do not approach something like this without being aware that it is going to be tricky. Once you make a commitment to take something like this on, it really does become the first priority, and some things, anyway, such as the BritishIrish Association, will go, and other things may have to go.

Q26 Chair: Just one final question from me: your two predecessors, Sir Alistair Graham and Sir Christopher Kelly, were very different personalities and brought different things to the Chairmanship. You, again, have a different background. What would your differences be from those predecessors?

Lord Bew: Well, I certainly have a different background. As you know, I am an Irish historian. I very much appreciate the fact that we have a meeting today in Committee Room 15, which is, in terms of Irish political history, the most famous room in the entire Palace of Westminster, because it is the room in which the Irish Parliamentary Party destroyed Parnell following the revelation of his relationship with Katharine O’Shea, in this very room, so there is a particular resonance for me as a Parnell biographer to be here. So yes, I am different in background and approach.

In the sense that a lot of things I have done before have been related to Irish history, Irish politics and the Good Friday Agreement, and that is an obvious fact, the one qualification, and I have mentioned it earlier, that is of some comfort, I hope, to you is the inquiry into Key Stage 2 SATs, which was also intensive, with lots of meetings and so on over an eight or ninemonth period. I do have at least the experience of having to chair an independent review like that, of having to work with officials and to produce and build up an evidencebased approach. We produced not one report but two, and the first report was very much based on the evidence that had been gathered in terms of surveys and our meetings with teachers and so on.

What I would like to say is that, yes, I am from this particular academic and political background, unmistakeably so, but I also have a degree of experience in this world. I would also say that the work of the previous chairmen, and they were, as everyone knows, very different personalities, shows the important thing to do-and I think they respected this-is to try to build a consensus on the basis of developing an evidencebased approach.

Chair: Well, many thanks indeed, and thank you for attending this hearing. I hope it has not been too difficult for you. We have enjoyed hearing what you have had to say. We are now going to meet in private, and we will be in contact with you before too long, I expect.

Lord Bew: Thank you very much.

Prepared 29th July 2013