Examination of Witness (Questions 220
THURSDAY 11 APRIL 2002
220. That proposal applies, as you have said,
to the chairs of all state corporations including the BBC. Come
on to recommendation six, and I quote it: "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". Once you have got a Committee,
elected or appointed, it could very quickly become an oligarchy,
could it not? Do you see the minister as being the safety valve?
(Mr Benn) I think if every member of every public
body had to be vetted by a Select Committee it would not work.
This is a moderation because the responsibilities are less onerous
than being a chair. At the moment the departmental minister does
it. I listed all the appointments I made which were fairly significant
but they were numerous. All I am suggesting really is they would
be interviewed not by a Select Committee but by their colleagues
and then the recommendation would go to the minister who would,
in a formal way, approve it. I would not expect him to be interested
individually. I felt worried at the number of appointments I had
to make because I did not know any of them. My officials would
say "There is a very nice man in the South West who would
like to serve on the area electricity board" and I felt a
bit uneasy about that. Sometimes I would put up an alternative
name which had come to me from other sources and the civil servant
did not like it very much because, remember, when you get to lower
levels of patronage the civil servants are the ones who really
decide and that is not desirable either.
221. That is a point very well made. Certainly
in the old system it seemed to me that the senior civil servants,
particularly those advising the minister, had tremendous powers.
(Mr Benn) Enormous power. Without suggesting there
is corruption there is a little bit of "I will scratch your
back if you will scratch my back" because I can think of
one civil servant who recommended somebody for a knighthood and
when he retired he went on the board of the company of that person.
I am not suggesting there is anything improper about it. I will
give you an example that affected me, I did not realise it at
the time. I was given an honorary doctorate by a University in
Scotland and the head of that university was given a knighthood
at about the same time and I wondered whether there had been any
relationship between my doctorate and his knighthood but as both
came through the civil servants I never knew.
222. Just for the record I have never had a
(Mr Benn) Oh, well. It is the only doctorate that
is worth having.
223. Just to continue along the line of the
public body appointments. I would suggest, going back to what
Sir Sydney has just said about your recommendation number six,
that there may well have been more appointments during your time
than when you wrote in 1979: "The scale of it all is breathtaking
and no medieval monarch can compare either in numbers or in importance"
when you were talking about the appointments and patronage at
that time. We have now got 30,000 appointments, surely this would
tie the whole Government process up if we adopt five and six?
(Mr Benn) I think chairs of public bodies are very
important people. They do have executive authority and they control
budgets. I think to maintain any sort of financial control, it
is not unreasonable, you might not want to spend a lot of time
on it, to ask them about their background. As far as the other
members of the boards are concerned, I think it is not unreasonable
that a board should be invited, as they would if they were appointing
somebody to a job, to have a chance of seeing the person who had
been put forward. I do not think it would be too onerous but maybe
what we need now, as power becomes more centralised, is a much
more formidable elective supervision of the Executive. The Executive
has got so big. If you take peerage, I do not know if you are
interested in that, I looked that up, there is an article my father
wrote in 1922, Mr Gladstone made 30 peerages in five years, the
present Prime Minister has made 248 in five years. The escalation
of patronage now is on a scale which I think needs to be re-examined.
Lord Salisbury made 42 peers in six years and Lloyd George 87
peers in six years and the whole thing has got out of control.
That is why people feel, I think, that voting in an election does
not have as much influence on the nature of society as they believed
when they got the vote years ago.
224. Do you not think then, to take your recommendation
seven along to its extent, to suggest that perhaps local bodies
should be promoted by local organisations rather than bringing
it to Parliament?
(Mr Benn) No, I think that is very, very important.
I will tell you what triggered this in mind. I went once on a
delegation to the local hospital in Chesterfield and the manager
of the hospital when I arrived said "I will talk to the MP
but I will not talk to the leader of the local authority".
Actually this woman who was appointed by the trust said "I
am not prepared to meet you". It so happened the chairman
of the local authority had been campaigning for the hospital for
years and I thought the arrogance of an executive in treating
an elected councillor that way. I am a great believer in local
government. If you look at the nineteenth century, after the Municipal
Corporations Act of 1837, Birmingham had municipal housing, municipal
transport, municipal gas, municipal museums and so on and the
powers of local authorities have been greatly diminished. The
least you can do is to give them some control over people being
appointed in their areas. I have even gone further, if you look
at my Commonwealth of Britain Bill, saying local councils should
be in a position to demand the removal of a local official who
is doing things they believe to be contrary to their interest.
In short, I am saying that local councillors should be the backbenchers
of the process, keeping an eye on executive power which spreads
from the top. I do not know if it is clear. I agree the proposals
are fairly radical but the idea that lies behind them is that
you have to restore local accountability and who knows better
the needs of a local community than people elected and they should
have that responsibility. I do not know if you would agree with
that but I feel that very, very strongly.
225. My personal opinion is that more accountability
to local people is to be welcomed.
(Mr Benn) That is right.
226. One of my questions was to suggest that
perhaps the local authority should have more power in selecting
people to sit on the local hospital board rather than bring them
through the parliamentary system.
(Mr Benn) As a matter of fact that does relate to
the appointments I made. If, for example, when there was somebody
to be appointed for the area electricity board for Merseyside,
it had been provided that I went to the Merseyside Council and
said "Look, I have got this appointment, who would you recommend?",
that would be much better than me doing it on the advice of a
civil servant who would have no knowledge of the area. If this
idea of local accountability could be included in your report
I think it would arouse a great deal of interest and a great deal
of support because people feel that they are being governed by
a colonial governor appointed from London without regard to local
227. Can I ask you about devolved government.
Scotland and Wales now have an Assembly and a Parliament. How
do you see that in the long term because patronage is different
now? Are you going to look at appointing people to the Upper House,
call it whatever we will because obviously we are awaiting a report
on that. How do you see that affecting the continuity of Great
Britain? I am not thinking in particular of Ireland, I am thinking
more for Scotland and Wales.
(Mr Benn) This is a very broad constitutional question.
My Commonwealth of Britain Bill, of which I include an extract
but that is available, was about the federal system. We really
need a federal system, English Parliament, Scottish Parliament,
Welsh Assembly or whatever you call it and a federal chamber.
In my major proposal, the Second Chamber, which would be elected,
would have a federal responsibility, rather like the Senate in
a very loose way. I do not think anyone could reverse devolution
now, the question is how far it goes and how the relationship
between the national assemblies or parliaments relate to one another
which is obviously a very, very big question.
228. Clearly Kevin over there represents a Cardiff
seat. Do you see his responsibility dovetailing in? If the Welsh
Assembly says they want to do something which is totally against
the elected government of the day, and I am taking Kevin as a
Member of the Labour Party, how do you see the tie-up between
the two because there is a fundamental constitutional problem
on this, is there not?
(Mr Benn) The argument needs to be looked at more
broadly because the nature of government is that you are reconciling
different interests. You might well ask the question how do you
reconcile what we do with what happens in Europe.
229. I was going to come on to Europe.
(Mr Benn) And the World Trade Organisation and so
on. I think it was Herbert Morrison who said if you cannot ride
two horses at once, you have no right to be in the circus.
230. Jimmy Maxton.
(Mr Benn) Which I thought was a very vivid way of
answering your question. I imagine if I was a Welsh Member or
Scottish Member this would be a real thing because the Scottish
Parliament would say one thing and your party and your own convictions
and the British Parliament might say something else and you have
got to think it out and reconcile it.
231. What is your feeling on regional assemblies?
(Mr Benn) If they are appointed, no. I think the real
danger is they will become colonial administrations. A fully elected
one may have merit but you cannot impose democracy if people do
not want it, democracy is a product of a demand for it. I never
detected much demand, certainly not for appointed regional assemblies.
232. Let us just say there is not a regional
assembly, you will have parish district, urban, metropolitan or
county, regional parliament, maybe a Welsh Assembly and obviously
a Scottish Parliament. Do you believe that we are being over-democratised?
(Mr Benn) I would not have said that many of them
are all that democratic. If you go up to the World Trade Organisation
and the IMF and Brussels and the Frankfurt Bank and the UN and
the Security Council, it is a very primitive system but I would
have thought the objective was to try to democratise every layer
from the parish council at the bottom. Are they still alive, the
product of the penny rate, is that what your thinking is?
233. Yes, but they are now being asked to declare
their interests, they are almost becoming quasi-district councillors.
Do you think that is right?
(Mr Benn) I think openness is probably the most important
element in democracy. If people know what is going on in every
sense then I think that you are less likely to be put upon or
abused by people who have power over you. That is my basic principle
and that is why I am against the 30 year rule and in favour of
open Government because if people know what is going on confidence
is restored in the system and also accountability is restored.
234. Can we move on. You were an MP for 50 years
and you have seen in your time the amount of people voting at
General Elections coming down and in district elections, county
elections, it is disgraceful. The European elections last timeI
will not put words in your mouthwere simply appalling,
the turnout was disgraceful. How do we, as a country, not reeducate
but realign ourselves with people so they feel they want to vote?
Is it because democracy is out of control? Is it because the Prime
Minister has too much power? Is it because we, as Members, are
notable to do our job in the right way as you would have been
able to do, say, 50 years ago?
(Mr Benn) The European election was a fraud because
I have not got a Euro MP I voted for, I was only allowed to vote
for a party. I cannot write to any European Member of Parliament
and say "You are my MP" because they will say "No,
I am not, I was on a party list and you voted or did not vote
for me". I think that was utterly destructive of the accountability
of European MPs. I in the past, and you now, have the experience
of being employed by your constituents. In Chesterfield every
bus driver, street sweeper, home help, policeman, employed me.
I had the right to say what I believed and they had the right
to get rid of me. I think that the democratic discipline, which
is a very severe one, is the only way of restoring confidence.
If you ask why people do not vote now, I think it is because they
are not fools and they know that power does not rest in the House
of Commons any more. In a way I think we are almost back to 1832
before the Reform Bill. The world is run by a handful of very
powerful people, just as in 1832 the only people on the electoral
register were two per cent and they were all rich, white men.
I think we need a new Chartist movement, I hope I am not being
too political, to restore the idea of being represented.
235. That is what we want you to be. I have
just looked at your EC Commissioner's oath and this is basically
you will act to the best of your ability in the general interests
of the Community, the Community as in the wider community.
(Mr Benn) The European Commissioner, now you have
mentioned it, is an interesting one because when I became a Privy
Councillor, and it has not met for 38 years which is why I suggested
it could be modernised out of existence, they read me this oath
which I quoted in there, if you have had the chance to look at
it. It is a very amusing oath because it pledged me to protect
the Queen from all foreign prelates, potentates and powers.
236. And you did very well.
(Mr Benn) All I can say is when they read the oath
to me I said I did not agree and they said "you do not have
to agree". I said "what do you mean" and they said
"we have administered the oath" and at that moment I
knew the meaning of the phrase "I have had an injection".
If, however, I am then so good that I am appointed to Brussels
I take another oath that I will take no notice of any nation state,
so Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten have taken one oath as Privy
Councillor to pledge to protect the Queen from foreign prelates,
potentates, and then another oath saying they will not take notice
of the Queen or anybody else. I do think the oaths are much more
important. Nobody ever takes an interest in oaths but I will tell
the Committee, and I hope it does not offend you, I have had to
tell 17 lies to sit in Parliament because my allegiance was to
my constituents and my conscience and not to the Queen. Douglas
Hogg said this the other day in the House, he said "what
has our allegiance to the Queen got to do with our work as MPs?"
I was very struck by that and I congratulated him on it. It is
offensive. I think if we are the high court of Parliament we should
have another oath "to tell the truth, the whole truth and
nothing but the truth". I did suggest that once but it was
not very popular. It would be a very interesting oath for MPs
to have to take, would it not, when they took their seats?
237. There might not be many MPs. Can I follow
on the European line. Reading your diaries over the yearsAre
you going to bring them up to date, by the way?
(Mr Benn) The next volume called Free at Last
is coming out at the end of the year.
238. Excellent. That is another plug. You changed
your views on Europe.
(Mr Benn) Twice, yes.
239. You changed them dramatically. I am interested
about the European situation because I personally see it as a
fundamental way of undermining democracy in nation states, so
we become a federalist collective and therefore there is nobody
who has any say in anything and the power is vested in 13 or 14
very powerful people. Do you see this as the beginning of the
end of the state?
(Mr Benn) I have changed my view twice. First I was
against it and then in nineteen whatever it was the Cabinet discussed
it and I said we should apply, then I served for four years on
the Council of Ministers, I was President of the Council of Ministers
for Energy, and it was an extraordinary experience. It was the
only committee I have ever sat on, or chaired, that I was not
allowed to put a paper in, only Commissioners can put in papers.
You cannot put in a paper if you are a Council Minister, so all
initiatives lie with bureaucrats. Then the laws you agree there,
using the crown prerogatives, as far as Britain is concerned,
repeal existing statutes here and introduce new laws. Then, of
course, the bankers now under the Maastricht Treaty are the people
controlling the Chancellor's capacity to spend and borrow which
is why privatisation is going on. At the end I came away feeling
from experience that this needed to be transformed into another
proposal. I did not bring one of my other Bills today, a Commonwealth
of Europe Bill, which would cover the whole of the continent but
harmonisation would be by the consent of individual parliaments.
It would be slower but at least you would never go beyond the
consent of the parliaments of the countries involved. My fear
at the moment is if this centralisation goes on the whole thing
will bust up like Yugoslavia and it will create the very nationalism
which I hate, because I am not a nationalist, I am a European
and an internationalist. That is a summary of my arguments. I
think it is a threat to Parliament and public.