Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 190 - 199)




  190. If I could call the Committee to order and welcome our witness this morning, Tony Benn. We could not do an inquiry of this kind into public appointments and patronage without taking evidence from you, I do not think. We miss you greatly in this place. It is lovely to have you back this morning and we look forward to what you have to say. I think you have something to say by way of introduction.

  (Mr Benn) Can I thank you, Chairman, very much for inviting me, and the Committee. It is a subject in which my family have taken a great interest for nearly a hundred years and it is an issue that shapes the nature of Government. If I may run through very quickly the points in my introduction and then take any questions. The main central point is that in a society with a monarchy or a dictatorship, power comes from the top and in a democracy power comes from the bottom, and there is a difference in that. I think that where you are considering appointments you have to balance those two interests. There is a serious danger in the exercise of unfettered powers of appointment, and I cited Lloyd George who sold peerages for his private political funds. I think patronage is inherently unhealthy for both the giver and the receiver. All Members of Parliament are here because you have been elected, even if you are in the Cabinet, the Prime Minister who appointed you is somebody you have elected and you are both accountable to the public. I do not think anyone should serve in Parliament by appointment. On the other hand, you cannot elect everybody because, and I cite an example, if you elect the Chairman of the BBC he would have more power than the House of Lords. So in the case of public appointments you have to have some other element. On the other hand, if the Church of England chose its own Archbishop that would be a genuine democratic move. On public honours, I have argued that these should be done by election, just as local councils may give somebody the title of Freedom of the City or a university will elect you as an honorary doctorate and so on. Then I have set out, I hope it is not impertinent, nine recommendations. Without arguing the case at length I have put out what my conclusion would be if I was a Member of this Committee and maybe you would like to look at those but I will not go into those. I greatly value the opportunity of trying to answer your questions.

  191. Thank you very much for that. Thank you for the very helpful paper you have done for us. As I understand it, you are not arguing for a wholesale transfer of the making of appointments to the elected process, are you, you are saying those people who make the appointments should be elected, is that right?
  (Mr Benn) If I may refer you to the first appendix, the Crown Prerogatives (Parliamentary Control) Bill which I introduced. I have introduced 40 or 50 Private Members Bill, none of which has ever been debated so for me this is an extraordinary opportunity. If you look at that appendix one, this transfers all Crown Prerogatives to the House of Commons, and it was supported by David Davis, Chairman of the Conservative Party, by Norman Baker, Liberal, by Ian Paisley. That is a very radical proposal set out in appendix one, I do not think that any honour should be by appointment and as far as individual appointments are concerned in my paper I have classified different types: the chairman of a corporation should be examined by a Select Committee before appointment and so on. I have also tried to make provision for some role for local government because I noticed five Members of your Committee have served on local authorities. I think local authorities ought to have a greater role than they do in keeping an eye on the people appointed by Government to exercise powers in the areas where the local authority is the elected body. That is referred to also in one of the appendices.

  192. At the moment we have got 30 odd thousand public appointments being made of different kinds. They are made by ministers, as you made them when you were a Minister.
  (Mr Benn) Yes.

  193. You are not attracted to the idea that somehow we can clean this up by having them made by people other than ministers fundamentally? You are not attracted to the idea of some sort of independent route of choosing these people? We do not elect civil servants and we do not allow ministers to choose who to appoint.
  (Mr Benn) Yes. I think civil servants need to be protected and I have put a point in one of my recommendations that advisers should have no executive authority whatsoever. What has happened now, of course, is that the Prime Minister's real Cabinet is at Number 10 and ministers are sort of civil servants in charge of departments and I do not think advisers should have that power. You must protect civil servants professionally and then, of course, this is much wider, the Cabinet should be the principal advisers to the Prime Minister but that system, of course, has now been replaced.

  194. If we have a system that it would be improper for ministers to appoint civil servants, why do we allow ministers at all to appoint members of public bodies, quangos?
  (Mr Benn) They do not appoint civil servants. The point I would make is that civil servants are a professional body of men and women selected by a process that is, of course, set out in an Act of Parliament I presume. They loyally serve all ministers and serve their political masters, apart from promotion within the Civil Service, for example, where a Prime Minister would choose who he wanted for Cabinet Secretary but that is not the same as appointing them.

  195. I am sorry, I am making heavy weather of this. I am not explaining the question very well. I am assenting to what you are saying which is that we do not have ministers appointing civil servants, except in the very particular case that you cite, but we do have ministers appointing members of other public bodies. I wondered why if one was inappropriate, why it was thought to be appropriate in the other case?
  (Mr Benn) Well, in the case of public corporations, I mention the BBC especially, I think the Chairman of the BBC is such an important position that he should be examined, the candidate should be examined by a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the way that members of the Supreme Court are examined by the Senate Committee. That provides some guarantee that other factors other than the Prime Minister's preference will come into play but once you have set up an independent body to make appointments then that is the quango of all quangos and who appoints that Committee? It is rather like the Prime Minister who set up a Committee to appoint People's Peers. He set up the Committee so there is no democratic ingredient in that whatsoever. I think you have to be careful. I have tried to classify the different recommendations that I make, different types of appointments. Peers, I do not think anyone appointed should make Lords, that is a principle I have held for a long time. I think that bishops should be chosen by the church. I did write to every bishop before Carey was appointed to ask them to put forward one name instead of two. I have got the most marvellous correspondence. Those bishops who thought they might be archbishops said the present system was marvellous; those who knew they had not got a cat in hell's chance said it was awful and the others said it was an interesting idea but this was not the time to raise it. The Archbishop of Wales is a candidate for Canterbury because the Welsh Church is disestablished but he was appointed or elected by whatever procedure they have in the Church in Wales. You have to take each case on its merits, that is why I have put in nine different recommendations covering different categories of persons.

  196. Let me just ask you about the Prime Minister, a post in which you have taken a great deal of interest over the years.
  (Mr Benn) Yes?

  197. Your argument is that the prerogative powers which use to belong to the Crown have been transferred wholesale to the Prime Minister and this means the Prime Minister can do things under the prerogative, including to appoint, in ways which nobody has any say in whatsoever. Could you develop that argument a little?
  (Mr Benn) I have listed in the Bill that I referred to a moment ago, appendix one, all the powers of the Prime Minister. They are "to dissolve Parliament . . ." why should Parliament be dissolved at the wish of a Prime Minister? Supposing a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence that his party or the House could produce an acceptable Prime Minister, why should Parliament be dissolved because a Prime Minister wants to do it, why should not the House decide within the five year limit whether they want to dissolve or put somebody else at Number 10? "To invite a person to form an administration", now that is a very important power. In 1974 Ted Heath tried to get Jeremy Thorpe to join a coalition to keep Labour out and if Jeremy Thorpe had not refused he would have continued as Prime Minister but the initiative was an initiative that the Crown takes but, of course, exercised in that way to form an administration. "To declare war or commit United Kingdom forces to armed conflict . . .", a war in Afghanistan or Iraq can be decided by the Prime Minister without consulting Parliament. "To sign or ratify treaties", now this is immensely important because as you know, and I was on the Council of Ministers for four years, when you go there you go armed with the prerogative powers of treaty making. A minister using the prerogative powers could change the laws of this country, either by repealing them or introducing new laws without consulting Parliament. For the first time since 1649, when Charles I was executed, the laws of Britain are made by the Royal Prerogative through the Council of Ministers. "To recognise foreign governments; to assent to any European Community legislation; to appoint bishops . . . to establish Royal Commissions; to make Orders in Council . . . to exercise executive powers not conferred by statute; to declare a state of emergency". Now all of these seem to me to be what I would call the unfinished business of 1688 when they left the Crown powers but now progressively exercised by the Prime Minister who is accountable to nobody. Of course the House of Commons can get rid of the Prime Minister, but that is like defending your house with an atom bomb, you blow yourself up as well. I think this is the argument which needs at any rate to be publicly discussed.

  198. Thank you for that. Just trying one more, you have mentioned the BBC once or twice already. I thought you were going to develop an argument about new ways of finding the governors. You mention a chair of governors having to run the gauntlet of a parliamentary committee, which is something that we will explore. Would it not be a good idea if the licence payers had some role in choosing at least a governor or two?
  (Mr Benn) I had thought about that but the trouble is if you elect the Board of Governors, as I mentioned, the BBC has more power than the House of Lords or the House of Commons because they have the power to explain to society on a daily basis from the Today programme to Newsnight. Then if the BBC was biased in some way for one or other party you would go to the Chairman and he might say "I have been elected, it does not bother me. I have been elected. I have the authority to do what I like". I think the power of communication is a very strong one. That is why Henry VIII nationalised the Church of England, our oldest nationalised industry, because there was a priest at every pulpit working for the Pope and the King would not have that so he nationalised the Church of England which is why the Prime Minister appoints the Archbishop now. I think the power of the media today is comparable to the power of the medieval church and therefore there has to be some accountability somewhere there but not in the way in which it is now exercised which is the Prime Minister who can appoint, without consulting anybody. Now I will give you one example which may horrify you or amuse you. When Derek Ezra was Chairman of the Coal Board and he came up for reappointment I said "Do you want to be reappointed?" He said "Yes" so I said "Well, leave it to me". I went to the National Union of Mineworkers and I said "Who do you want as the Chairman of the Coal Board?" and they went away and they said "We quite like Derek Ezra." Meanwhile Derek Ezra came to me and said "Why has my appointment not been announced?" I said "I am asking the NUM" and they wanted him and I did reappoint him. I said "You are a very lucky man to be Chairman of the Coal Board when the trade unions you are looking after want you there." You can have an element of democratic control but you cannot set up new bodies with enormous powers which are entirely separate from the electorate.

  199. And if the NUM had said "We do not want Derek Ezra"?
  (Mr Benn) Well, that is what the Speaker would call a hypothetical question. If they had said that I think I might have looked for somebody else, but he was a very good Chairman. I should not have had that power actually, it should have been done by a Select Committee deciding who the Chairman should be.

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