Political and Constitutional Reform Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 600-II

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

on Thursday 18 July 2013

Members present:

Mr Graham Allen (Chair)

Mr Christopher Chope

Paul Flynn

Sheila Gilmore

Mr Andrew Turner

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Professor the Lord Kakkar gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Hello, Lord Kakkar, how are you? Please come and join us. You are very welcome.

Lord Kakkar: Thank you so much. Very kind of you.

Chair: And if you are more comfortable with your jacket off, please feel free. It’s a pretty warm day today.

Lord Kakkar: Thank you, Chair.

Q2 Chair: We are delighted to see you for lots of reasons. One of those is that it is the first time we have done a pre-appointment hearing, so it is new for us, and certainly new for you. We do not intend to detain you unnecessarily. Members have a few questions, unless you would like to kick off with a statement of your own.

Lord Kakkar: No, I would be delighted to answer your questions, Chairman. Thank you very much indeed.

Chair: Wonderful. It’s very good to see you. I start with Mr Turner, who I know has to leave, but he is keen to say a few things.

Q3 Mr Turner: Good morning. Why did you apply for the role of Chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission?

Lord Kakkar: I have considered it a very great pleasure to sit in the House of Lords. It is a huge privilege to be a Member of either Chamber in this Parliament and to have the opportunity to play an active role. That is what I have tried to do. I myself came through the process of the Appointments Commission, and I am very clear that for the House of Lords to retain its credibility and reputation, it needs Members who are active and who play a definite role in the work of the Chamber and in its Committees. For that to happen, certainly with regard to the Cross Benches, it needs an Appointments Commission that is fastidious in its work and that understands the importance of appointing Members who can play an active part in the work of the House of Lords. I felt that I would like to try and make a contribution to ensuring that the commission does that work.

Q4 Mr Turner: Presumably, you have taken part in various Committees of the House of Lords and in the House of Lords itself.

<?oasys [pc10p0] ?>Lord Kakkar: I am active in the House of Lords. I have been appointed for about three and a half years to sit on the Cross Benches and I have attended very regularly, and participated frequently in debates and questions and other work in the Chamber. I have participated in Grand Committee in the scrutiny of legislation that is coming before the House, and I am a member of European Union Sub-Committee B, which is responsible for scrutiny of material and potential legislation that comes from the European Union in the area of the internal market.

Q5 Mr Turner: One could believe there was a difference between your own position and that of partisan Members of the House of Lords. Would the role be impossible to fulfil if you were part of one of the party groups?

Lord Kakkar: Since I have never been a member of a political party, I am not a member of a party group, so that is slightly difficult for me to answer completely, but I have the highest regard and respect for Members who sit on the party Benches as well as on the Cross Benches. I have seen Members on the party Benches in the House of Lords make tremendous contributions to the scrutiny and revision of legislation, and to the work of the Committees that I have been a member of. I think that Members in all parts of the House are able to make a useful and important contribution to the House of Lords discharging its constitutional responsibility, which I see very much as the scrutiny and revision of legislation.

Q6 Mr Turner: Would you say that you were an expert or a generalist?

Lord Kakkar: I am an expert in certain areas, in that I understand health care well because I remain a practising surgeon and professor of surgery at University College and an active medical researcher, but I think it is important for Members of the House to try and understand more broadly the legislation coming through the Chamber. For instance, I have taken a particular interest in the internal market and the European Union, where I am not particularly an expert but I have tried to bring the analytical skills, and things that I learned from being an academic, to help to scrutinise legislation in that area.

Q7 Mr Turner: What would be your priorities as Chair of the Appointments Commission?

Lord Kakkar: First and foremost, to discharge the two clear responsibilities that Parliament has set for the commission, which are to ensure, first, that we make nominations of very high-quality individuals, who are capable of making an important and useful contribution to the work of the House of Lords as potential members of the Cross Benches-independent peers-and secondly, that the process used for vetting all nominations for political nominees is of the highest quality, discharged fastidiously, so that Parliament can be clear that the vetting process is delivering people who are fit and proper to sit in one of the Chambers of Parliament.

Q8 Mr Turner: On the latter point, are you saying that the House of Commons is less fastidious?

Lord Kakkar: No, not at all. The House of Commons is constituted in a different way. There can be, I think, no greater privilege than to come to this Parliament as one of the elected representatives of our fellow citizens. That is the route by which the House of Commons is constituted. The House of Lords is an appointed Chamber, and as part of the appointment process Parliament decided that there should be a vetting process, to ensure that those who are nominated for the peerage fulfil certain criteria in terms of being fit and proper, and it has left that responsibility to the House of Lords Appointments Commission to discharge.

Q9 Mr Turner: I think what you believe about the House of Commons may reveal too high a regard, but let us not worry about that. Why is it important to increase the diversity of the House of Lords?

Lord Kakkar: One of the strongest arguments that is made for an appointed Second Chamber is that you can achieve greater diversity than potentially would be achieved through election to the Chamber that has primacy in our Parliament-the House of Commons. The commission has always sought to achieve that diversity in a broader sense-through gender, through ethnicity, through geography, disability and other features; indeed it has been quite successful in doing that. Having diversity certainly brings a difference of opinion, and I have noticed in debates in the Chamber and in work in Committee that having people from a diverse background does bring different insights. One stops and thinks about the different perspective that those people bring, and their view of how potential legislation might affect different parts of society.

Q10 Mr Turner: You did not mention age.

Lord Kakkar: There is an important age diversity. Certainly the commission has tried to do that. I am one of the younger Members of the House of Lords and was appointed when I was 45 years old, so the commission has certainly been sensitive to the question of diversity in age as well. That is important, because one sees-certainly in some of the work of <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>the Lords-a difference between some of the more senior Members and some of the younger Members of the House.

Q11 Paul Flynn: How familiar are you with the internal workings of the House? People are often involved with the party groups, rather than with the Cross Benchers.

Lord Kakkar: I have developed good relationships with all the party Benches, and I think that is important as a Cross Bencher. As you rightly say, although the Cross Benchers are independent of party, the House of Lords is a political Chamber. I do not think it is possible to be an effective peer without understanding the dynamics of the politics of the Chamber and understanding how the party groups work.

Q12 Paul Flynn: It is claimed that the selection of Lords is London-centric in that people from other parts of the country would have difficulty getting in; they would have longer journeys and so on. Do you think that is true? There has been an inclination to over-represent London and under-represent other parts of the country.

Lord Kakkar: I think there is a risk of that. One has to be very careful about it. Once again, listening to some of the contributions made by Members in the Chamber or in Committees, one can see that the issues that come to the House of Lords affect different parts of the country in a very different way. In practical terms, it must always be easier for those who live in London or close to London to participate in the House, and the commission needs to be sensitive to its responsibility to have diversity in the question of geography to ensure that the House of Lords, certainly in terms of the Cross Benches, does not become a Chamber that represents only a very small geography of the country.

Q13 Paul Flynn: What was your own experience as a new Cross Bencher? What things surprised you when you came in that might help in your future work?

Lord Kakkar: Sitting in a Chamber of Parliament is a very different experience to anything I have ever previously experienced. Although I am quite good at presentation and speaking because of my work as an academic and as a researcher, it is very different to prepare yourself to stand up in the Chamber and contribute to a debate or contribute at questions, and to make an intervention that is meaningful, in the sense that everyone, or the vast majority of the people, in that Chamber are from a political background, rather than from a pure expertise or independent background. I think it would be sensible for new peers to be given some degree of mentorship to help them develop the skills to be a successful and useful contributor in what is effectively a political environment.

There is an awful lot that one needs to learn about the process of Parliament in terms of being able to make <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>amendments, to understand the way in which public Bills and private Members’ Bills are considered, and how the work of Committees is undertaken. There is a huge and very steep learning curve. I suspect that if people are not prepared in that fashion, it is more difficult for them to become active contributors to the work of the House.

Q14 Paul Flynn: One of the prime concerns of legislators in both Houses is the need to win back respect for people in public life. Your House has a series of rules that are far more permissive than exists even in the House of Commons. Do you see your role as elevating the rules under which a Lord works to make sure that there are not loopholes? We have heard that Lords are not paid and that they are entitled to do other jobs outside that may or may not conflict with their duties as Lords. Do you see yourself having a role in improving the standards of conduct of Members of the House of Lords?

Lord Kakkar: Parliament has decided what the role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be, and it has been very specific in defining that it should be the vetting for propriety of those nominated for the peerage, and in terms of nominating those to sit as independent Cross-Bench peers. Per se, there is not a defined role for the House of Lords Appointments Commission in setting standards of conduct for the House, but I think that every peer has a responsibility to ensure that the reputation of the House of Lords and this Parliament is upheld. As a Member of the House of Lords, I strongly see that each of us has a contribution to make in that regard, and I would certainly want to do that. I think also, from the commission’s point of view, it is about helping those who might be nominated for the peerage to understand those obligations and, as you rightly identify, the complexities of continuing to have a life outside Parliament, and acting in a way that is beyond reproach while being a Member of the House of Lords. Always being conscious that every action one takes must be seen in the context of being a Member of one of the two Chambers of Parliament is an important role for the commission, so that those who are eventually nominated to sit in the Chamber have no doubt at all before finally committing to that important responsibility that there are very serious obligations, and that a standard of conduct needs to be maintained that is much higher than might be written or asked for because there is that opportunity for conflict.

Q15 Paul Flynn: Do you think it would be legitimate for someone who has the title of Lord to act as an ambassador or lobbyist for an oppressive regime overseas or a tax haven, and claim that they are doing so in a private capacity, not as a Lord?

Lord Kakkar: Again, I am here to answer specifically with regard to the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

Q16 Paul Flynn: What if somebody was considered for appointment who regarded such behaviour to be legitimate? Would you regard that as an impediment to appointing them?

Lord Kakkar: I do not think it would be a sensible approach to undertake any kind of lobbying activity, because the current code of conduct for the House of Lords is very clear about the need to declare such an interest. One must be sensitive to the changing mood and perception with regard to the standards that are required for membership of either Chamber of our Parliament.

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Q17 Paul Flynn: Are you aware of the recent example in which a prima facie case was accepted by the authorities in the Lords? After considering the case, the authorities decided that the Lord had the right to act as a Lord one day and then metamorphose into a "Mr" the next day and lobby for a tax haven overseas. I do not think that would be permitted in the House of Commons.

Lord Kakkar: Those are the kinds of issues that, if I were to be appointed chairman of the commission, I would like to discuss more broadly with the commission. As we consider people who might be appointed to sit in the Chamber, those are the kinds of issues that one would like to bring to the attention of those who might consider themselves suitable to be nominated to the peerage.

Q18 Paul Flynn: One of your predecessors, when considering the appointment of people’s peers, said that it would not be sensible to appoint someone who was, say, a bus conductor or a waitress because they would not have the confidence to stand up and address the House of Lords. Speaking as someone who was a bus conductor for many, many years and who married a woman who was a waitress, I find that a bit offensive and inaccurate. Do you think it is reasonable to try to get a cross-section of people who do not come from privileged backgrounds or who have jobs that are not necessarily prestigious?

Lord Kakkar: Absolutely. That is exactly the purpose of the House of Lords Appointments Commission; there are many Members of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons from a diversity of backgrounds who are able to make a huge contribution to the work of Parliament.

Q19 Sheila Gilmore: What experience do you have of being in the media spotlight?

Lord Kakkar: My experience in the media spotlight has really been when I have had to speak about my research and explain it more broadly to the public. For all of us who do biomedical research there is a very important responsibility to engage the public more broadly on the content of that research and its outcome, so I have had that experience, but it is quite different from the media spotlight on the political arena. I have served as chair of the governing board of a school that was in the media spotlight because it had a major outbreak of swine flu and had to be closed; it was the first school in the country that had to do that. That required very careful supervision of interaction with the media to ensure that the public were properly and accurately informed, but that undue anxiety was not created in the local population or the school community.

While I have been in the House of Lords, some of the things that I have worked on and spoken about have been picked up by the media, so I have been to some extent in the spotlight under those circumstances. In general, however, I decided to go about my work in Parliament not particularly wishing to put myself in the media spotlight, but rather being very happy to answer any questions if the work I have done in the Chamber and in Parliament attracted interest.

Q20 Sheila Gilmore: Do you appreciate that, in certain circumstances, the post could be the subject of controversy if an appointment was made that was controversial or was subsequently deemed to be inappropriate? Do you have any concerns about that?

Lord Kakkar: I do not have concerns about being able to answer for the work of the commission-if I were appointed chairman-to the media, to the public or indeed to Parliament. That is part of the responsibility. In such matters, one would always want to go about consulting properly, in terms of being absolutely prepared and fastidious with regards to the facts and transparency, to be able to answer those questions appropriately and honestly.

Q21 Sheila Gilmore: Your CV shows a lot of activities: you are a practising surgeon, a professor of surgery, a Member of the House of Lords-dealing with, as you say, not just your issues of particular interest-and you have other public appointments. Do you feel that you have sufficient time to give this role?

Lord Kakkar: If my appointment were confirmed, I would consider it a vitally important and priority role, and I would definitely do that; I gave that undertaking to the panel that appointed me. Whenever I have taken on a new responsibility, I have always shed other responsibilities to ensure that I manage my time appropriately. That is exactly what I would do under these circumstances.

Q22 Mr Chope: Given the crisis in the health service at the moment, it is a pity that you feel the need to extend your activities into this area rather than concentrating on surgery, but you have obviously made that decision.

Lord Kakkar: No, I still play an active role in my institution, and an active leadership role, and I will continue to discharge that. I feel that it is a real privilege to be here in the House of Lords, and I think that it is important, having taken on the responsibility of sitting in the Lords, that I try to play an active role and make an active contribution here as well.

Q23 Mr Chope: One of your responsibilities will be to vet all nominations, not just the independents. There are apparently about 40 waiting in the wings; I do not know whether that is correct. There seems to be a lot of concern that people are being appointed by political parties because they have made significant donations to those political parties. Do you see that as an issue or not?

Lord Kakkar: Parliament has asked the commission to vet those appointees, as you rightly say, and there is a vetting process to go through; it deals with issues around national security, police records, their general standing with regard to public policy and the area of Government that they are active in, their tax affairs and so on. It is vital that the commission has that process absolutely set and applies it fastidiously for every individual it is considering.

The question of political donations is an important one, and it has caused substantial contribution in the past. All those matters must be absolutely transparent. I have not been a member of the commission to date, but I understand that the commission will have that information and will look at it. It will have to draw a conclusion, looking at the totality of the information available, and advise the party leader in question whether it considers the individual to be a fit and proper person who could be appointed to the House of Lords and to this Parliament without in any way damaging the reputation of the House of Lords.

In general, all I can say is that the process has to be transparent; it has to be fastidious and it has to be applied uniformly to every candidate being considered. The commission has to have the courage to say to the political leader in question or the Prime Minister, "I’m sorry, but this may not be the right person in terms of that very strict test of being fit and proper and the reputational impact on this Parliament."

Q24 Mr Chope: What do you think of the idea of having a statutory appointments commission?

Lord Kakkar: When Parliament considered the establishment of the commission, it decided to go for an advisory appointments commission and left an awful lot of the responsibility for matters of appointments in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day. I was interested to read the then Government’s response to the Wakeham commission in 2001. Their White Paper broadly supported a statutory appointments commission with broader responsibilities. If Parliament were to take the view that the time had now come for a statutory appointments commission, the commission would have to reorganise itself to reflect the will of Parliament and the fact that it had changed, but at the moment, the function of the commission is very clear. It needs to discharge that to the highest possible standard, and then we need to await the view of Parliament on whether the time has come to move to a statutory commission.

Q25 Mr Chope: The Government commissioned a triennial review. It was due to report in May, but it has not yet done so. Have you been given any insight into why there is a delay, and what may happen down the line?

Lord Kakkar: No. I have been given no insight whatsoever. I was hopeful that I might have been able to read the triennial review before our meeting today, but it has not been published, so I have not been able to read it. I cannot help you there.

Q26 Mr Chope: And you do not even know why it has been delayed?

Lord Kakkar: No.

Q27 Chair: Thank you, Lord Kakkar. It has been a really good session. Thank you for answering our questions so fully. I understand that we now have a private meeting to consider a few things. We hope to issue a report tomorrow. We are doing this as swiftly as we can. I hope that the fact that you have come before us and the other House will add greater strength and legitimacy to the very important role that you will be carrying out.

Lord Kakkar: I am very grateful to the Committee and to you for having taken the time. As you say, it was vitally important for me to come before the Committee. I hope it will give greater legitimacy to the role. Ultimately, I hope that in the years to come, if you decide to confirm my appointment, we might meet again.

Chair: Thank you for your time, Lord Kakkar.

Prepared 22nd August 2013