Examination of Witness (Questions 190
THURSDAY 11 APRIL 2002
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
(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
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
(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
(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
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
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.