Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Rt Hon Tony Benn (PAP 11)



  Patronage in the award of honours and the making of public appointments is about the handing down of power and responsibility from the top to those below, who are expected to understand and accept their inferior relationship with those in power, as when a nation is ruled by Kings or Dictators.

  However in a Democracy power is conferred upwards from the people to those elected to govern and who are then employed to do a job and may be removed if those who supported them wish to do so.

  The guiding principles for appointments in a democratic state must bear these considerations in mind and balance the advantages of appointment against the need for accountability.

  There are serious dangers in the exercise of unfettered powers of appointment as when Lloyd George sold honours in return for contributions to his private political funds, but even if no political corruption takes place patronage is inherently unhealthy for both the giver and the receiver.

  Certainly no-one should be appointed to serve in parliament because laws passed by the votes of such persons would have no legitimacy nor command any moral obligations on those expected to obey them.

  On the other hand to opt for election for all positions would involve a major constitutional change, as for example if the BBC Governors were elected by a vote of the licence holders they would be more powerful than the government of the day and both Houses of Parliament and could argue that they had a mandate to do whatever they wished.

  By contrast if the synod of the Church of England were, by some method agreed by it, to elect all Bishops and Archbishops this would liberate the Church from patronage and mark a major shift to democratic control.

  Similarly if all public Honours were awarded by the House of Commons by a simple Motion—as with the Speaker's Peerage—this would end the dangers of the present system and anyone could nominate the candidates, each of whom might receive a parliamentary medal, just as Councils elect those they make freemen, universities elect those who receive honorary degrees or organisations choose persons for honorary membership.

  In making its recommendations the Committee might think it right to identify the various categories of honours and appointments and suggest criteria for handling them.

  To provide a framework for the consideration of appropriate criteria I have drawn up a list of draft recommendations the Committee might like to consider.

  I also attach some appendices that may assist this process.[1]


  1.  All Crown prerogative powers of appointment and patronage should be transferred to parliament and all honours, including membership of the Privy Council, should be conferred by a Commons resolution without a requirement to take the present oath.

  2.  All laws, all political decisions, and the guidelines which flow them from, should be made by persons who have been elected, directly or indirectly, and can be removed by those over whom they have power.

  This rule would apply, amongst others, to the following:

        All members of the House of Lords, including Bishops.

        All British members of the European Commission.

        All British representatives on International bodies.

  3.  All civil and public servants should be recruited and appointed on a professional basis, free from political influence to serve those to whom they are responsible impartially.

  This rule is designed to safeguard the Civil Service.

  4.  Persons appointed to advise elected ministers or councillors, under rules laid down by Parliament, may be chosen by those whom they have to advise, but such advisers should have no executive authority devolved to them, should be answerable to those who appointed them, and their work should be subject to public scrutiny as a part of the accountability owed to Parliament, councils and the public by those for whom they work.

  This would protect civil servants, parliament and public.

  5.  All chairs of public authorities, or any body, including public private partnerships, vested with the advertisement which describes the work they would be required to do, be appointed by a procedure that is open and all candidates should be interviewed and the appointment made by a select committee, after a public hearing.

  This rule would cover the following:

        Chairs of all State Corporations, including the BBC.

  6.  All other persons who are candidates for membership of public bodies should be interviewed by those who already serve on those bodies and the names of those recommended should be put to the responsible departmental minister, who would have to approve.

  7.  All local authorities should have the power to scrutinize the work of public bodies working in their area, interview those who serve on them and make recommendations for changes in policy or personnel which shall be made public, the decision to be made by the responsible minister and reported to parliament.

  8.  The responsibility for implementing these recommendations should be vested in a minster, subject to a Select Committee, which should report annually to parliament.


    1.  Crown Prerogatives (Parliamentary Control) Bill 1999.
    2.  Honours Lists 1922.
    3.  Case for a Constitutional Premiership.
    4.  Appointments by Secretary of State for Energy 1977.
    5.  Commonwealth of Britain Bill 1996.
    6.  Privy Councillors' Oath.
    7.  Parliamentary Declaration Bill 1998.
    8.  Parliamentary Reform Bill 1998.
    9.  Bishop's Oath.
    10.  Coronation Oath.

1   Ev. not printed. Available for inspection in the House of Lords Record Office. Back

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