HC Deb 04 August 1980 vol 990 cc310-23 5.55 am
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I apologise to the Minister of State for dragging him from his bed at six o'clock in the morning to reply to my debate on ministerial patronage. Witnessing the dawn appearing over the Thames is much less attractive than writers and artists sometimes portray it. The Minister, as he is a beneficiary of the political patronage of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as well as, no doubt, a dispenser of patronage, is uniquely qualified to respond to the debate and I eagerly await his reply.

I have the honour to represent one of the three Walsall constituencies. We do not often intrude into the national news, but when we do, unfortunately, it is seldom to our advantage. Recent events have certainly confirmed that assessment. The British press, which certainly knows a thing or two about nepotism and patronage, and the Conservative Party, which invented and subsequently perfected it, have expressed indignation at the remarks by a Walsall council chairman, and his thoughts on appointments. If the chairman had asked my advice, which he did not, I would certainly have cautioned him as to the likely response that his statement would receive. In some ways the admonitions of the press and the Conservative Party have been rather hypocritical.

Last Tuesday the Prime Minister, in response to a gentle question, said: I have consistently stood up for people on the basis of merit and merit alone."—[Official Report, 29 July 1980; Vol. 989, c. 1285.] I asked the Prime Minister whether she could put her hand on heart and admit that she had never advanced or retarded a career on the basis of politics.

What I want to do in this short debate is to explore more carefully the Prime Minister's assessment that merit is the sole criterion in public appointments. In his book, written 18 years ago, on patronage in British government, Peter Richards identified four basic methods of choosing people to occupy positions within the public domain. He talked of chance, heredity, competition and patronage. Patronage is a widespread feature of our society. Certainly it is no monopoly of this Government. It goes back many centuries in our history. One of the great criticisms one can make of appointments made by patronage is that those who are appointed are rarely accountable, and the posts filled by patronage are often invidious in that the people chosen, even if they are the best people for the jobs, are usually chosen as a result of some secretive process. If the best people are being chosen by the best method I believe that the process should be much more open to public scrutiny.

The patronage of the monarch has, thankfully, receded over the centuries. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, with the huge growth in the machinery of public administration, there has developed a new form of patronage, that of the Prime Minister and the departmental Ministers. The late Maurice Edelman called it "the patronage explosion". With the development of quangos there are now more and more appointments that are being made by Ministers. At a count in 1978 it was said that there were 5,000 positions on over 1,000 bodies involving ministerial patronage. If we include part-time posts, that figure could be as high as 20,000.

In his evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee Mr. Charkham, head of the Civil Service Department's public service appointments unit, confirmed that the figure was 20,000. That patronage is an incredible element in British government and an indication of the magnitude of the patronage available to a Prime Minister and individual Ministers.

The Prime Minister—not just the present one—is the fount, or trough, dependent on one's view, of patronage. I am not talking about ministerial patronage or parliamentary patronage. Prime Ministers for centuries have advanced their political cronies, and those who share their political ideologies. That is not the object of my criticism. But the present Prime Minister, despite the occasional rhetoric claiming to support merit, am not talking about ministerial patronage has extended it. The Prime Minister seems keen to extend patronage. By reintroducing political honours for party workers, and by not refusing to close the door permanently on the hereditary principle in the House of Lords she is taking a retrograde step.

I shall briefly examine some of the powers of the Prime Minister in the context of political appointments. Bearing in mind what the Prime Minister said at Question Time on the Walsall situation deploring political patronage I refer to an article in The Times of 17 June 1978 where the author, Peter Hennessy, writes: As part of the shadow cabinet's review of state intervention and patronage, Sir Anthony Royle Conservative MP for Richmond-upon-Thames, and a former junior minister … is drawing up a list of 'the good and the great'—individuals sympathetic to the Tory cause whom Mrs. Thatcher might appoint to royal commissions, committees of inquiry and the boards of nationalised industries on a Conservative return to power. The list is kept in Conservative Central Office … where Sir Anthony has a small staff to assist in its completion. The Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, began her search for suitable individuals in 1976. The article said that that was routine for Conservative parties when in opposition. That is a clear case of a list being kept of worthies sympathetic to the Conservative Party and ready to be placed in positions of influence upon the Conservatives coming into office. To argue, therefore, that merit is the sole criterion for appointments is somewhat dubious and to have a staff compiling the list is an indication and proof of how dubious that process is.

I ask the Minister whether he has seen that list and how many individuals on it have been transferred to the list in his Department. How many people on that list have subsequently secured office in the Government or attached to the Government? The Minister's own Department, the Civil Service, has long cherished the principle of appointment by merit and we tend to despise the American spoils system.

Once again returning to The Time—not an unimpeachable source but a highly reputable one—we discover that here is a development that should cause anxiety to the Minister and to many people in the House. The view is expressed that, perhaps, the spoils system is slowly being introduced into this country. The Times states that the Prime Minister … is taking a much more serious interest in appointments at permanent secretary and deputy secretary level. The article says that there is no idea of a political witch hunt but that, nevertheless '… a senior official with 'notoriously Keynesian' views stands scant chance of promotion into the two highest grades in any of the economic ministries. That is a form of political patronage. It means placing people in political office, or not, because of their political views. If that were extended I would regard it as highly reprehensible.

The Prime Minister and Prime Ministers before her have had enormous powers of patronage in ecclesiastical affairs. I regard this form of patronage as the most repugnant that can be exercised by a politician. I agree that the worst excesses of the past have been removed, but the principle of politicians making religious appointments remains and is deeply repugnant.

In the Civil Service Yearbook is listed one Mr. Colin Peterson, secretary for ecclesiastical patronage. He has an assistant, a Brigadier G. C. Curtis OBE. The address of their office is No. 10 Downing Street. Many who have read Trollope's Barchester Towers will recall that as the Bishop of Barchester lay dying his son wanted to replace him and was desperately anxious for the Government to nominate him to the post. Unfortunately, the Government were dying, and it was a race as to who died first. The old man died, the Government died minutes later, and the poor son never secured his father's post.

That may have been fiction, but it is an indication of the depths to which political patronage has dropped. How many appointments are made by the Prime Minister? What part does the right hon. Lady play in that process? Is the role a burdensome one? It was certainly burdensome for Lord Melbourne who remarked Damn it, another bishop dead. and for Lord Salisbury who said I declare they die to spite me. I should like to see the Government getting completely out of the business of interfering in religious appointments. Dissatisfaction with the patronage exercised by the Prime Minister is longstanding in the Church of England. What moral right did Lloyd George have to make religious appointments? There could be a Prime Minister who was not Church of England and whose background hardly befitted him to interfere in ecclesiastical appointments.

My criticism, too, is more of the way in which interference is expressed than of the choices made. I feel that one day this whole business can blow up in somebody's face.

Few countries are as status and title conscious as the British, and the Prime Minister has ample opportunity to cater for such urges and aspirations.

I shall not dwell at length on the honours system. Society ought to honour those who perform meritorious service for the community, but the honours are often going to the wrong people. The system of automatic honours for certain categories of civil servants, military men and contributors to party funds or people who have served their political parties has, in my view, been discredited and should be reformed.

It may be a source of innocent merriment for some, but I should like there to be a whole revision of the honours system. The Prime Minister gets himself or her-self involved in areas which should remain sacrosanct to others. I see that the Prime Minister even has a hand in the appointment of regius professors of history at Oxford university. While Michael Howard is eminently qualified as an historian, I do not think that the Crown has any right to interfere in academic affairs.

We have heard so much in the past about the list of the "great and the good". Peter Hennessy, The Times Whitehall correspondent, has argued that as so many such people play such a prominent part in government we have in a way been ruled by the "great and the good" for decades. This is the list of worthies drawn up now by the public appointments unit of the Civil Service Department. Fortunately, it has tried to broaden the list, although I should like to see a breakdown of it in terms of age, sex, social class, ethnic background and region of origin.

I believe that Mr. Clarkham promised the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service that they would publish some information. I should like to see whether the list is as I fear—much too middle aged or elderly, middle class, London oriented, virtually all white and too generalist in background. Samuel Johnson said of generalists: A man may be so much of everything he is nothing of anything". The list should be published. In his "Anatomy of Britain Today"—1971—Anthony Sampson says that the list is: a secret tome which is kept listing everyone who has the right qualifications of worthiness, soundness and discretion". The earlier reforms unfortunately came to nought. I want to see the unit's list widened to draw the maximum talent from all sections of the community into the public service. I want to get the names out of the secret filing cabinets at Old Admiralty building and into the public domain. What we want from these appointments is not conformity but originality and creativity. I do not believe that those who appear in "Who's Who" necessarily have a monopoly of such qualifications.

Bernard Donoghue, former head of the policy analysis unit attached to the Prime Minister, said that Ministers were usually given just three names for a job, two of whom were unsuitable, the other being the person the department wanted". He argues that these appointments should be advertised, open and clearly made on merit. I hope that we shall see that in the not too distant future.

Ministerial patronage is enormous. With the growth of quangos it has become even larger. Some of the criticisms of the hon. Member for Carlton (Mr. Holland) attack quangos per se. However, they perform a useful and in most cases an essential function, although I should like to see more concentration on the role of Ministers in filling such positions. Patronage;s not only positive in making appointments. It is also possible to dismiss people. In recent months there have been numerous instances of Ministers exercising almost reverse patronage, such as sweeping out members of the National Enterprise Board. The Sunday Telegraph said: The Cabinets strong man, namely, Mar garet Thatcher, has long been intent on taming the National Enterprise Board and tamed it has been. The NEB's views were not shared by the Secretary of State.

We have heard a great deal about the members of the Commission for Racial Equality who were booted out. Four of the five whose terms were not renewed were black. Many regard the incident as sordid and feel that the Government made major mistakes. It is clearly an indication of political patronage.

I shall not go into the details of appointments in the judicial sphere, but if ever there was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma it is the appointment of justices of the peace. Is the bench truly representative? Is it too dominated by political parties? Is it still essentially middle class, middle aged, white and Conservative? There have been attempts to advertise. I should like to know how successful reforms have been? It is important to diversify the bench and amend the way that it operates.

It is Utopian to hope that this or any Prime Minister will sweep the power of patronage away, even slowly. By definition, it confers enormous power on a Prime Minister. Patronage is an emotive word. It is associated in the minds of the public with a variety of abuses, which are not of the essence of patronage but merely its probably consequences unless measures are taken to avoid its sad and evil effects.

As for remedies, we need to reduce the areas of patronage. We need to increase the electoral element. I believe that Britain has a skin-deep democracy based on a thin veneer of elected representatives here and in town halls. Compared with many other democratic countries, we have the lowest number of electable individuals per hundred thousand population. This should be remedied. Far too many jobs now filled by patronage, by ministerial whim, could be filled by election with the people appointed being accountable. We need to open up to public scrutiny the list of the great and the good and to broaden its membership, making it less elitist.

One suggestion has been made by the national executive committee of the Labour Party. Not every piece of paper emanating from that source is regarded universally as having a great deal of sense, but I think such papers contain more sense than is normally attributed to it. In one of its recent statements on reforming the appointments system, the NEC suggested advertising posts. In its report it said that some jobs are clearly more important than others, but when appointments to key positions are made, it would like the Minister's nominee to be required to appear before the appropriate Select Committee of the House of Commons. This Committee would have the opportunity to cross-examine the proposed appointee and could repeat its opinion on his suitability to the House of Commons and the public. The considered opinion of a Select Committee could not be lightly ignored by the Minister. The late Maurice Edelman advocated something like this five years ago when he urged a public service commission to do the job of scrutinising, investigating and approving.

We are living in the patronage society. Senior politicians and those who have prospered within the system can see little reason to change it, but there are those who have been excluded from this system who are less than satisfied.

I believe that the last words should go to Professor Richards who, in his book "Patronage in Government", said: Unfettered patronage is a menace to democracy. Parliament should be working to ensure that those with powers of appointment do not have full licence to allocate jobs to their friends and supporters. Those are strong but true words.

6.17 am
The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Paul Channon)

I thank the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for his kind personal remarks at the beginning of his speech. It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Gentleman address the House, but it is perhaps less of a pleasure at 6 o'clock in the morning than at other times. Even so, the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting speech which I shall want to study, as will others.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not find it offensive if I say that the idea of the hon. Member for Walsall, South addressing the House on the abuses of patronage is a little surprising—some might say presumptuous—at the present time. I shall come back to that subject later in my remarks.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will find a great deal of what I have to say unsatisfactory, because he has raised a host of matters which are outside not only my ministerial responsibilities but the responsibility of any Minister.

Fond as I am of the novels of Trollope, I cannot stand at this Dispatch Box tonight and answer for the defects of nineteenth century ecclesiastical patronage which the hon. Gentleman raised. In the novel described by the hon. Gentleman, clearly the wrong choice was made. I think that the old bishop's son would have been the better choice. Be that as it may, I can have no responsibility for either ecclesiastical patronage or patronage over a wide area. In so far as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a general oversight of this area, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to take those matters up with her.

As to my own patronage, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is of the most minimal kind. The Government Hospitality Committee for the purchase of wine is perhaps the major one. There are also the Civil Service College Advisory Council, the Central Committee on Awards, the Civil Service Appeal Board and the Civil Service Medical Appeal Board. Therefore, my own personal patronage is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I should like to deal with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, in so far as they deal with my general responsibilities as a Minister in the Civil Service Department.

There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman said about the amount of patronage. Surely, therefore, he must agree with what the Government have been trying to do in the past year—for example, to reduce the number of quangos. The hon. Gentleman made some remarks about the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlton (Mr. Holland), who did a public service in drawing to the attention of the House the large numbers of quangos that existed. That showed just how wide was the area of advisory and executive bodies to which Ministers made appointments. My hon. Friend has shown what a wide area existed. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend announced earlier this year a wide-ranging review of all quangos and the abolition of a large number of quangos to which Ministers made appointments.

It is obviously right to have certain areas in which Ministers can make executive appointments or have advisory bodies to help them in the exercise of their duties, but I think that the matter had got completely out of hand. I believe that it was right to reduce the number of quangos. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that was an important point.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the list of public appointments. Perhaps I can make it clear that the responsibility for making appointments to public bodies rests with the Minister who is concerned with the power of appointment to the body in question. The responsibilities of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as Minister for the Civil Service, are confined to the small number of cases in which she makes appointments in that capacity. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman has any particular points about individual appointments, he should take them up with the Ministers responsible for the various public bodies, and he will know which Ministers are responsible for making appointments to those public bodies.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the public appointments unit in the Civil Service Department. Of course I am responsible to this House and to my right hon. Friend for the operation of that unit within the Department. That unit does not make any appointments whatsoever. All that it does is to produce a list. Appointments are, and remain, the responsibility of the Minister in charge of the relevant Department. All that the unit does is to provide a central service which departmental Ministers are free to use or not as they choose. If they use the unit and invite it to put forward names, they are not bound to follow its advice. Even if they appoint someone suggested by the public appointments unit, the decision is theirs.

The view has always been taken that it would not be right to publish the actual list of the so-called great and good because it would cause disappointment to many people who think that they are on the list but are not. It would probably cause astonishment to some people to find that they were on the list without having the faintest idea that they were on it.

All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that if he wants to suggest names for inclusion on that list, I shall be delighted to ensure that they are carefully considered. Evidence has been given to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee about the list. It has been suggested by some people that it is drawn from too narrow a section of the public. The list is always capable of improvement and expansion, and I would welcome suggestions from the hon. Gentleman of suitable people to be put on the list. Indeed, I would welcome that from any hon. Member or from any member of the public. If they want to suggest the names of people who would be valuable in the public interest, I shall ensure that they are carefully considered. I would welcome new names. I seek new names.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the unit takes no account whatever of political affiliation when adding names to the list. In most cases, it has not the faintest idea of the political affiliations of those concerned. But, however good the list may be, it will always be the responsibility of departmental Ministers to decide what use they make of the list and who should be appointed to the bodies for which they have responsibility.

I urge the hon. Member to give us some more names. He says that there are not enough young people or people from outside London and not enough people from the ethnic minorities. All that may be true, and we would welcome the names of good people who can serve the public interest in the future. I urge the hon. Gentleman and others to provide us with new names. They will be most carefully considered.

If I understand aright the main thrust of the hon. Member's interesting speech—to which it is difficult at this hour to give the full study that it deserves—he is making some defence of the practice in his own town, on the ground that it may be bad enough, but others are equally bad. I utterly refute that defence. I utterly deplore—as, I feel sure, would most hon. Members—the action reported to have been taken by the Walsall borough council to make jobs in the public service dependent upon the political leanings of individuals. I think that most hon. Members, even those who are in general sympathy with the national executive committee of the Labour Party, would agree that such action represents a gross abuse of power and is one which should be widely condemned.

The hon. Member will agree that our public services are built upon a tradition of strict political impartiality. That tradition is the great strength of those services. The first loyalty of those who work within the public services is to the elected representatives who direct them, irrespective of political persuasion. The permanent servants of the Government set service to the public above service to a party. I believe that to be a fundamental principle of British public life. Were it to be broken in central Government, that would be a disaster. It is also a considerable disaster when it is broken in local government.

The principles of public service have been built upon centuries of experience. They are the envy of most countries in the world. Under those principles, an elected representative can look to a body of experience in the public service on coming into power and know that those who are his officials, whether in local or central Government, will serve him impartially and energetically. That is fundamental to our democratic system. Any hint of political patronage in this area runs the risk of undermining those principles in a very dangerous way. The work of our public servants must stand or fall on its merits. The quality of their work, their dedication and their efforts must be the determinant of their success, whether that success is to get a job, keep a job or advance within a job. If political allegiance should gain ascendancy over allegiance to the elected Government in Westminster, or if political allegiance should gain ascendancy over allegiance to the impartial views of those working in local government, our public services would rapidly become degraded.

The hon. Member referred in his opening remarks to Trollope. Let me take him back to the time of Trollope and the terrible position that existed in the public services before the Northcote Trevelyan report in 1853, when patronage really was rife. I am sure that no one in the House wants to go back to a situation where the political views of those who serve us as officials, whether in local or central Government, should be the deter- mining factor of their promotion or their appointment.

I think that the House must say that, unless there has been a very great misreporting—and I do not think there has been—the actions of Walsall borough council are, frankly, a first step in that direction. They not only bring that council into disrepute but run the risk of bringing our public servants into disrepute. Gross political patronage of that sort does a disservice to the public, who have a right to the best and most impartial treatment from those who serve them.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a host of important issues about patronage. I shall want to read them and draw them to the attention of my colleagues when we have time to study them at a more reasonable hour of the day.

I passionately believe in both central and local government. We are fortunate to have inherited a system of impartiality. The fact that none of us knows in our Departments whether an individual civil servant is a supporter or opponent of the Government of the day in his private vote in the ballot box is of great public importance and of great strength to our country. The same should be true of local government.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to Walsall and make the speech that he has delivered to the House to the borough council. I hope that he will tell it that it should adopt the same high standards that he is urging upon the House. If he does that, he will have done a service to those who have sent him to this place as their elected representative and he will stop the borough council from committing what I believe would be a grave error and something that if repeated would have disastrous effects on the system of local government. It would be a return to the worst elements of patronage of the nineteenth century.

I urge the hon. Gentleman not only to make speeches in this Chamber but to return to Walsall after 8 August and make a few speeches there. Let him tell the council to carry out the excellent practices that he is recommending to us. One day I shall go to Walsall and make a speech to him along the lines of the one that he made to me. When that is done, we shall get along even better than at present and those in Walsall and in the House of Commons—

Mr. George


Mr. Channon

—will have benefited from his remarks.