Examination of Witness (Questions 280-299)
MR MARK THOMAS
THURSDAY 18 APRIL 2002
280. You need a criminal record on the declaration of interest.
(Mr Thomas) In certain committees that would be an asset. The point of public involvement here is not just about reaffirming faith in the political process or involving people. The principle is very important because, when you look at the makeup of committees, you will see that they come from what was classed as the great and the good. They come from similar backgrounds; they have similar values. They will not share exactly the same points of view but they will have a similar value system. What you want on there are people who do not have those values, who ask the wrong questions, who have to have things explained and who have to start from scratch. That is the way that you really get proper read-out on committees, to go through the whole thing from scratch instead of working from this set of given assumptions that often might lead to the intellectually correct conclusion, but do not have the rigour of involvement.
281. If you assert that at least part of the bodies like this should be selected in a random way, as jury service is, if you serve on a jury, you can be compelled. It is a duty under the law as a citizen for you to participate. Would you be in favour of being able to compel people selected in this fashion to serve on public bodies?
(Mr Thomas) No. I think people should have the right to turn it down, frankly. What you want is people who will say, "This is interesting. This is something that I had not necessarily thought of but now I do think about it this is something I would like to do." The last thing you want to do is drag people along to committee meetings who will sit and sulk. You do not want people saying, "No, I do not want to be here. I am forced to be here." You want people who think, "This is really interesting. This is something which I could learn from and something that I can contribute to." If I could return to one of the points I made about that balance of expert opinion, if you look at the Property Advisory Group which is listed as number eight, it does not list it here but when we look through the Property Advisory Group there is one person on that public body who appears not to be connected with a property company or a financial interest with property. I would suggest that is an over-balance in favour of the expert. We can cull a few experts in this particular instance. We would not lose anything if we took some of these people out. You can look at the interests represented here, if you turn the page. You can quite clearly see that there are groups here that are not registered. There are companies which are not registered. They are property companies and it seems to me quite crazy that we are in a situation where property companies are not registered on the declaration of the Property Advisory Group. Without wishing to spin off in all directions, it does raise questions of not just who monitors this but what remedy there is, what sanctions there are, to stop this occurring.
282. Whilst it is quite right that the declaration should be accurate and there should be a system for checking and so on, do you think that, with the whole idea of public service and putting yourself forward in a non-remunerated body, as often some of these things are, there could be an increased reluctance to do so if the assumption is always made that somebody is on the make and on the take if they are involved in that, if they have an interest which they have perhaps built up some expertise on? It will just dilute the willingness of people to participate in public service.
(Mr Thomas) The person who put that forward to me the other day was Geoffrey Robinson, who is my boss at The New Statesman. Occasionally, he does speak to me, when I phone up. I said to him, "Could you tell me something about public appointments and how they work?" He said, "There are too many rules nowadays and people are being put off from doing it." I concluded that was good. I am glad that the great and the good are being put off. If they want to really serve the public and yet cannot be bothered to think that it is an important thing to be seen to have probity, to be seen to exercise scrutiny, they should not be on the bodies at all. I would like to draw attention to one of the cases that came up involving Geoffrey Robinson which is the case of a certain Mr Higgs who has recently been appointed by Patricia Hewitt to head up the inquiry into non-executive directors. There seem to be a few questions that should be asked here about this. Why is the person who was a non-executive director of the Allied Irish Bank, which went belly up owing hundreds of millions, a suitable person to investigate in an inquiry into non-executive directors?
283. Is it by virtue of your own?
(Mr Thomas) I think you will find that he has not broken the law. If you want to bring charges, I would be very pleased to see you do that.
284. Mendacity rather than incompetence is required.
(Mr Thomas) What we are looking at is competence and incompetence. People who know their way round a balance sheet well enough to hide a few bits and bobs have that competence. People whose job it is to spot it do not have incompetence.
285. Criminal competence rather than criminal incompetence?
(Mr Thomas) Criminal competence is a good way of describing it. I should pay you for that phrase.
286. I would have to declare it on the register of interest if you did.
(Mr Thomas) It would not come over 50 quid. We are talking pence. If you go back to Mr Higgs, you can see that his rise really starts with his relationship with Geoffrey Robinson. He is relied on as someone who does a public service. Robinson started his relationship with Higgs by being a Coventry City Football Club board director. Geoffrey Robinson decided he wanted to sell his shares which were held offshore and Higgs buys them offshore, thus ensuring that Geoffrey Robinson does not have to pay the tax onshore. Six months later, Higgs is appointed onto a task force that then becomes Partnership UK. Then, a year afterwards, this committee, which was set up to advise the Treasury on privatisation and PFI, to look at the transfer of technology as well in Geoffrey Robinson's own company, privatises itself. It is still working out of the Treasury. It is still listed on the Treasury website. It still meets inside the Treasury. I find those examples incredible. I find it incredible that that patronage really seems to start at that point. That is where he starts it. When people like Geoffrey Robinson say that people are put off, I would rather that people like Higgs were.
287. On the question of public appointments, I agree with a lot of what you are saying but the crux of the matter for me is how do we get ordinary people who earn the minimum wage to take an interest in serving a public body and who lose money for doing that? We need to make sure they are paid in some way or other.
(Mr Thomas) I would like to give two answers to this. Firstly, I think people have sometimes got this the wrong way round. How do we attract people and get them interested in what we are doing? I think Parliament should be thinking about how do we become interested in what these people are doing because people I work with, people I regard as my friends, are doing some of the most incredible things. They are taking action and responsibility into their own hands and they are taking the idea of citizenship very seriously. I know people who are setting up motor bike schemes, trial bike schemes for car offenders. That means if you join that scheme the basic rule is you pay 50p a week, but if you reoffend you cannot be part of that scheme. You do not get to ride around on the bikes; you do not get to learn about the maintenance of the engine. This stuff is voluntary. It has an incredible success rate. You might not agree with some of these examples, but there are people I know in Brighton who formed a squatters' estate agency. They spotted a shop in Brighton and they stuck pictures of available squats in the area in the front window. I think that is a fantastic thing. That is taking initiative, saying, "We have a problem with homelessness. We have a problem with people who cannot afford the high rents in the area. Here is part of the solution." You might not agree with them but they are people bringing imaginative solutions to some of their problems. I think Parliament has to ask itself now how are they going to engage with us but how are we going to engage with them.
288. If we want to engage with them, give them some financial encouragement not to have a loss by serving on a public body. If we are trying to move from the great and the good, we need to say to people, "If we want you to do this, there is no financial punishment."
(Mr Thomas) I think they should be paid. There should be remuneration. I see absolutely no reason why people who are unemployed should not have the option of serving on one of these committees. If you are really serious about getting the long term unemployed back to work, I cannot think of a better way to re-engage people, to get their minds working, to get them considering things, to get them taking responsibilities, than putting them on committees. Frankly, what damage are they going to do? They are going to do a lot less damage than some of the people on there. They have a lot to offer. They have a lot of experience to offer. People who are on the dole know what it is like to be excluded and to be at the bottom of the pile. That is an immense value to any committee because that experience is something that they will not have had.
289. Have you given any consideration to employers bearing that liability and saying that if there is a public appointment of some sort people are paid full time to do that job or should there just be a salary for sitting on a committee?
(Mr Thomas) I think there should be a salary. There should not be differences between pay here. If you serve on a committee, you are doing the work together. Why should there be any pay differentials? I do not see why employers should not contribute. Companies are often talking about the social responsibilities they have and the important roles they have within society. Great. Let us see some of that. They can contribute to some of the costs. I do not have a problem with that at all.
290. You said public bodies were rotten to the core. How do you class MPs?
(Mr Thomas) To be precise here, I said that when it comes to matters of accountability, scrutiny and transparency they appear to be rotten to the core. How would I class MPs? On a good day, I would class MPs as getting there one day at a time. There is a reluctance to come forward. I will give you an example. I know you do not necessarily like to mention other MPs but I made a programme about Michael Meacher's property ownership. Do people in Oldham have a right to know about Michael Meacher's property ownership? Yes, they fundamentally do. These are some of the poorest wards in the country. This is dirt poor. They have a right to know that their MP now has somewhere in the region of 14 to 15 properties, together with his wife. They have a right to know that, when their MP talks about second homes and home ownership and some of the evils that they might represent, their MP also is part of that. MPs I think occasionally have shown a reluctance to come forward for fear of political embarrassment.
291. I am not thinking about through the government but how do you look at the likes of the Cabinet Office, which is an incredibly powerful organisation, which epitomises the centre of power. We had Tony Benn here last week. Do you think that the centre of government is rotten to the core? I am going back now to pre-1997, into the mists of time, patronage and being sold by Prime Ministers etc. Is the centre too powerful?
(Mr Thomas) I think the centre is too powerful, without doubt, in my opinion. If we are looking at patronage, that is the source of all power. When it comes to appointments, you know how patronage works. It is you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. There are favours, putting things in the favour bank which come before the public good and objectivity on a committee. When it comes to these appointments of the chairmen and women who serve on these committees, there is a very real and important role for select committees here. You have a really important job here and frankly you have not got the ability to do it at the moment. You should have the ability to bring scrutiny to those people who are appointed. If you are appointed to a committee, there should be some kind of approval system like they have in America, where select committees will drag a person in front of them. Correct me if I am wrong but you do not have the right to call people from any of these public bodies. Is that correct?
292. We can invite them.
(Mr Thomas) Are they compelled to come?
293. Yes. If we can get you, we can get anybody.
(Mr Thomas) There is a case here where you can bring the chairman or chairwoman before the committee and they should be questioned about it. There should be some method of approval or veto in their appointment which would certainly help put a parliamentary brake on the powers of centralised government. There is a very important thing here that, if somebody is brought before a select committee and they have to answer questions about their expertise and the appropriateness of their appointment and scrutinise their past interests, you make them aware that the buck stops with them. It has to on these bodies. They have to be aware that if things go wrong they are the responsible people and they should go. Hopefully, if you drag people before committees like your own, you will add some form of public scrutiny and be able to veto appointments if they are inappropriate and look like they are being put forward as a form of patronage. Secondly, what needs to be addressed here is the attitude that exists that it is okay because we are all of the same group. We all understand each other. When we tried to talk to Ian Baird who is on the science and technology committeePatricia Hewitt againhe had not registered that he is a non-executive director of Scottish Power. To me, that would seem a fairly obvious, potential, perceived conflict of interest. When he was phoned by a colleague, he said, "It does not matter about that because everyone knows I am on Scottish Power." They do not. Go and ask the people outside: "Do you know who the directors are of Scottish Power?" The answer is, "No." It is that same political group again, that ruling elite, that keeps perpetuating itself.
294. The Permanent Secretaries are incredibly powerful people. Sir Richard Wilson is retired but he has been in front of us a few times. How do you see the role of patronage and the control of government from the very centre and Permanent Secretaries going on over the life of governments? We come and go but they are omnipresent almost permanently. They have enormous power which we have virtually no say over unless we call them in front of us and even then Richard Wilson sat there and said, "I would rather not answer that" on various occasions. Would you strengthen this type of committee to force people?
(Mr Thomas) The whole idea of Permanent Secretaries saying, "I would rather not answer that" is absolutely outrageous. If it was not for corporal punishment, they should be horse whipped.
295. What about the Prime Minister? Do you think he should be able to be called?
(Mr Thomas) Yes, of course. The Prime Minister is the person who holds the most power and is therefore the most important person to question and to bring scrutiny to. Why on earth not? I cannot think of any reason. Of all the people you would want to drag out and question, he is top of the list. He has to be, simply because the day to day running of the government is so important and has so many impacts on people's lives. Those decisions, those appointments, need to be scrutinised at every available opportunity. The idea that it is a ritual that you turn up at Prime Minister's Question Time, people lob a couple of questions and people say, "Hurrah" is really not doing you any favours.
296. We have written a report on a fundamental change in the House of Lords. It was unanimously agreed by this Committee that there has to be a fundamental overhaul of the House of Lords. How do you perceive the patronage of the House of Lords? Where do you see the House of Lords going because it is executive scrutiny in a different way to us. They are appointed by and large.
(Mr Thomas) I would not want to see it continuing as it is at the moment. Lord Stevenson's quote was, "You have not got a hairdresser on this list but if you go back to our criteria one of them is that the human being will be comfortable operating in the House of Lords." That was in defence of the list that he put forward. I think what we should be looking at it how do we make those people who are currently in the House of Lords uncomfortable. We should be looking at how we change that balance of power so that the present balance not only ceases to continue but is reversed so that you have a democratic second chamber. I know there is a whole range of problems that arise from that. People will say, "Does that mean we have to have another election?", which will be treated like Council or European elections when you have a very small number of people coming to vote. Does that therefore affect its standing as a body and its relevance to challenge the House of Commons? I noticed that when had Billy Bragg here you talked about using the general election as the basis for how you form that second chamber. I thought what he had to say made a lot of sense. You should be looking at tightening up the votes and doing it proportionately. That is quite a sensible way of doing it. Democracy has to be the corner stone of political power.
297. You were a bit too gentle on Ian when he asked about MPs, looking at what you say in The New Statesman this week: "Though, when it comes to sucking up to royalty, no one does it quite so eagerly as MPs whose dribbling, corgi like eulogies make The Daily Mail look calm by comparison." Then you said, "Had the Queen's dead mother made a Lazarus like recovery, risen from the dead and stood in the way of MPs charging back to Parliament they would have knocked her to the ground and trampled her back to death in their rush to express the nation's gratitude for her life." Then you talk about the MPs' trail of slime as they inch their way forward to knighthoods. This does not suggest that we have much of a role in the scheme of things, does it?
(Mr Thomas) I do not want to be personally offensive but now you have mentioned it you will know probably from your own experiences that people do not hold MPs in the greatest of regard. When you see MPs towing the party line or rushing back in the particular instance of the Queen Mother and paying tribute to herI spent that day with two people called Ann and Chris Jones whose son Simon had been killed at Shoreham Docks. Euromin, the company, had to be forced into court. There was an Early Day Motion or adjournment debate on corporate killing, which was a law that has been promised and a law which would change the lives of hundreds of families each year who lose people through killings at work. When that debate took place, four MPs turned up. That is disgraceful. Four MPs turned up to discuss whether you could improve the law to save people's lives, whether you could get some kind of justice for families who have lost relatives to accidents and fatalities at work; and yet you can have a whole swathe of MPs come back to pay their respects to the Queen Mother. As Ann Jones said to me, no debate that happens in the House of Commons will improve the life expectancy of any 101 year old women and yet you have the opportunity to introduce laws that would provide redress. If you introduce laws, as you know, it is not just about providing some form of justice; it is about improvement, especially with health and safety. In that context, those comments are entirely right.
298. If that sort of thing was said by an MP, it would be called a debating point because MPs are doing a million and one things and there are a million and one important issues being discussed at any given point in Parliament. To say that only four MPs arrived to discuss this issue as if the rest of us are in some way indifferent to the issue is ludicrous. Can I ask you about the top man, Blair, and patronage? You mentioned the ruling elite. I am interested in the extent to which there is a new Labour establishment that has emerged since 1997. You have examined this exhaustively. To what extent is it true that there are new people at the top, placed there by this Labour Government?
(Mr Thomas) I have not done an exhaustive study on the people who are placed at the top. You can see quite quickly that you have a new commissioner. I hesitate to use the word "commissioner" but it is almost like you have this new tier of commissioner class that was introduced when New Labour came to power. Initially, when New Labour initially came to power, one of the first appointments was Lord Simon who was chair or chief executive of BP. That was seen as a very important recruitment from the business world that came into New Labour. To that extent, they might be new faces but they do represent old interests. They represent the interests of companies, of corporations, of power within Britain, so that they might be new people who come along; they might be New Labour friendly, but they still represent those old interests.
299. They come from the same mould?
(Mr Thomas) Yes. Going back to the report that we have provided, one of the really important aspects of this is how you break that mould.