Examination of Witness (Questions 340-359)
MR MARK THOMAS
THURSDAY 18 APRIL 2002
340. They did not think it was an excellent idea.
(Mr Thomas) I am not surprised. I do think it is an excellent idea. There are many examples which you can look to where this has been the case. If you look at the ITC when they effectively banned Medya TV which was the Kurdish satellite station, I have forgotten the name of the chap, you might be able to remind me, the chap who was the Chairman at the time, if my memory serves me correctly he was the director also on BAe Systems now BAe Systems sells and does quite a lot of work with the Turkish Government, it is entirely within their interests that a Kurdish satellite station should be shut down. These conflicts of interest happen all the time. It would be great if they were forced to be printed and to be reported. I see absolutely no problem with that at all. That is a suggestion which I hope I shall work towards.
Sir Sydney Chapman
341. Mr Thomas, first of all, can I just echo something which Mr Prentice said earlier on in defence of beleaguered MPs. We could have chopped you off half an hour ago and gone and asked our question about GM crops to the Secretary of State answering questions.
(Mr Thomas) Right.
342. We have to be selective in what we can do, we cannot be everywhere at the same time. Anyway that is just a small point, it shows how sensitive I am. First of all, I am very grateful, speaking for myself, for your paper. I do not disagree, I do not think, with any of your 11 recommendations. I think all the case studies you gave us will make it easier to focus on particular points so I am personally very grateful. What I would like to do is try and tease out of you just in more detail, without nitpicking, some of the recommendations. Now one or two of them have been dealt with quite exhaustively. "No one may serve on more than one public body at any one time", yes I personally would agree with that in general but I can see cases where it would be very proper if one person was serving on two different public bodies. I cannot give an absolute easy example but for example I can see great advantage in a member of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission also being on the GM Crops Advisory Board if such a thing exists, I do not know whether it does. You see the point I am making. I think in generality you are right but there has to be a flexibility for perhaps exceptional circumstances. Would you like to comment on that?
(Mr Thomas) I think really there are enough people to go around, that would be my point. There are enough people. There are 30,000 people on the list.
343. And 60 million population so you have a point to make.
(Mr Thomas) If we cannot muster up enough people to serve without restriction of serving on one committee we are doomed.
344. Okay. That is your view, thank you. "We should not rely on people coming forward . . ." I still do not get what you are about. If you say "We invite anybody who wants to, to be considered" I am with you on that, even if that includes a proportion of people who are very unsuitable to be on a public body, I understand that. Are you saying, for example, that it should be almost a requirement of local councils or MPs to draw up names of constituents who we feel might be appropriate to be on these councils because you are then into the syndrom, I think it is called the male, pale and stale syndrom of all the same sorts of people. Have you any further ideas? You did mention, just before you answer, I do not know whether you were being serious, selecting people by lot.
(Mr Thomas) Yes, I am entirely serious about that.
345. You are serious about that.
(Mr Thomas) Absolutely serious. You will have read I am sure, your people who know far more than I do about the history of democracy will go back and look at I think it is Solon, the Greek legend, not literally, amongst his peers for trying to sort out the mess that was there about nepotism and about patronage. I do not see that there is any problem with drawing people from lots, I think that is an excellent idea because you completely cut out patronage from that and you start to draw in people who might not normally be drawn in and get people involved who would normally walk away from it. If you said "We should only have people on jury service who put themselves forward to be on jury service", we would be up in arms about it, certainly I would. I think the method of choosing people through lottery by drawing their names out of the hat is fine. I think that is a good way. I think it avoids conflict of interest and it avoids perceptions of conflicts of interest, it avoids patronage, it avoids being manipulated.
346. "There should be an agreed percentage of seats held open to lay members". Again, in generality, I think that is a splendid idea but, for example, you mentioned earlier on, in a different context, the Property Advisory Group. Now the terms of the Property Advisory GroupI will not read it allit is to keep under review changes in the land and property market. Whilst of course anybody on that Group should declare all their interests, absolutely with you on that, it seems to me a good idea to have men of property serving on the Property Advisory Group because it is a somewhat specialised Group.
(Mr Thomas) Does it not, by the same token, appear to be a good idea to have people who are not of property on that Group? Nearly all of them are involved in the property business. We have the expertise crammed into that committee, why not have people who do not have that expertise, who are not men or women of property, who are coming in there and representing the ordinary voice of working people in this country, I do not see any problem with that. Even if you slashed it and said "Right 50:50, we will have 50 per cent experts and 50 per cent lay people" you would still have enough information and expertise within that committee to make sure that it functioned effectively.
347. Okay. Thank you. The next one, I am going to invite you to put an amendment to this, "All interest should be registered within one month of taking up office" in a public body. I absolutely agree with you.
(Mr Thomas) Yes.
348. Could I suggest that actually the interest should be registered even before the person takes up the post on a public body. I think you were saying earlier on their interests should be a consideration of whether they are appointed.
(Mr Thomas) I am happy to change that.
349. I agree within one month.
(Mr Thomas) If anything happens subsequently to that I think the one month rule should apply, yes.
350. The only criticism I have of Members of Parliament having a Register of Members' Interests is that I have the embarrassing public declaration that I have no areas of financial interest but I will put that aside.
(Mr Thomas) I could always employ you.
351. There was an invitation there. Again, I do not want to nitpick, "Shareholdings should be properly listed". You mentioned you have a few dozen here and few dozen there, four to get on to the Annual General Meeting of a company. I think I am right in sayingI do not know exactly what the qualification isMembers of Parliament do not have to list their shareholding interest unless there is a certain proportion or a certain amount. You would accept that, of course, that only serious shareholding interests should be declared.
(Mr Thomas) Yes. If you have a few hundred shares, I would not say that was a serious shareholding.
352. A sensible proportion.
(Mr Thomas) Yes.
353. In fact they make a copy of the qualification in the Register of Members' Interests.
(Mr Thomas) I think the shareholding is a very important part of this, I should say, although it is not an area that we looked at. You should be registering partner's interests as well which seems to have just escaped them all, that seems to be something which people have not bothered to do. I think that potential conflict there is something which is very serious and should be addressed.
354. Just one final point, again I think it has been touched on, of those 30,000 appointments to public bodies, do you think actually all of them, all the people ought to receive remuneration or just a relatively few of them?
(Mr Thomas) I tend to think if you are going to do it for one you should do it for all of them and there should be a standard rate. If people want to genuinely commit to public service then they should be fine doing it for that standard rate. You should bring it all up.
355. Why stop at partner's interest? What about famous politicians and their children doing all sorts of things.
(Mr Thomas) You have got a very good point there. There are politicians whose son's interests have certainly drawn attention. I am thinking of John Prescott whose son's activities in the property market were of interest to the press and could have been involved, yes.
Brian White: Can I just come in on that. We had a Member of this Committee, Ronnie Campbell, whose wife wanted to be a magistrate, I think it was a magistrate, but to be a public appointment anyway but because her partner was an MP she was actually debarred from that.
Chairman: Member of a health authority.
356. She in her own right would be able to do it. Why are you debarring individuals? I think there is a real danger there. It is guilt by association.
(Mr Thomas) I am not disbarring here. What I am after is that people see that sometimes partner's interests could run counter to the work that they do on public bodies. I think that is a relevant area to be concerned with. I am not quite as Robesperian as perhaps you think. I am not demanding that people get in the stocks or anything like that.
357. For my sins, before I came into this place I spent 14 years as a councillor on my local authority and the one thing which used to get up our nose was the fact that a number of the quangos that were put in place during the 1980s and 1990s, they were spending billions of pounds of public money without being elected. Would you add those to the election of public bodies?
(Mr Thomas) There is a problem with election on to public bodies which is if you stand for a public body would it therefore become an extension of the political parties like you have if you go and stand for the European Parliament or you stand for a council, the party politics just extends outwards towards it. If you then get that situation where you are saying "Right I want to come forward and stand as a person to be elected on to a public body" is it going to be the case that the political parties suddenly go "Excellent, this is our guy, he is going to come forward and stand here". That would be the area that I would have concern with. I think also you have an area that at present I do not think you would get a huge interest in people coming out to vote for it and that undermines the authority. To my mind, very seriously, the method of selection by lottery seems to be the most appropriate.
358. I can remember one instance for a trust that had just been set up in the late 1980s and early 1990s and they asked our Labour group for somebody to go along to their group and we did not agree with the person they wanted to go on there so we suggested another name through a democratic ballot within our group and they turned that one down. Surely the whole thing comes around, it is people's perception of what is a democratic system and not what they actually do within that system. Surely whether it is 20 per cent turn out in an election or 50 per cent turn out in an election, it is more to do with the fact that people have that opportunity to select an individual of their choice rather than the fact that they are put there by virtue of the fact that a board of members may select the person.
(Mr Thomas) Certainly I would agree with you if you are going to say "You have a choice between election and appointment" I would go for election, that is what I would go for. I would not say "Okay we are going to get the great and the good to pick and choose, no". If those are the only choices that we have then election is the preferable method. As I have mentioned a couple of times, that is, and I am sure you will all agree, the corner stone of political power, it has to be, democratic participation has to be there. The reality is though that if you have that small turn out, it is not just the opportunity, it is the power that represents, it is the fact that it is easy to dismiss those results by ministers and the press and the public, it is easy to dismiss. That is something which should be considered. At this stage I think the fairest way of doing it is to pick a lottery because if you say "We are going to elect people", you have the problem that it is the same type of people who will be coming forward and nominating themselves for election. Part of the thing that we have discussed here is how do you get people who would not be involved to be involved?
359. Why not select the MP on the basis of a lottery then?
(Mr Thomas) Well, that could be an idea. I think because actually with an MP, you have to have a vote, if you are going to represent people in Parliament then it is obvious you have to have a vote. They are two different things.