HL Deb 27 October 1994 vol 558 cc638-40

3.18 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were the circumstances which led to the summary dismissal of the chief executive of the Millennium Commission on 10th October 1994.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, the decision to terminate the contract of Mr. Hinton, nominated chief executive of the Millennium Commission, was taken by the commission, which is independent of government. The decision reflects a breakdown in relations between Mr. Hinton and the commissioners which I understand to have been irreparable.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. But I am bound to say that I find it inadequate. Will he agree that for any normal institution or company to recruit in July a chief executive of the calibre and reputation of Mr. Hinton and then in October to dismiss him summarily a day before he took up his post would at the very least raise questions about the clarity and competence of those who originally recruited him? In this instance it is bound to raise considerable fresh concerns about the whole modus operandi of the Millennium Commission which already worries many people.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it would be entirely wrong for me to comment in any detail on something which is entirely a matter for the commissioners themselves. The commission took that decision as a whole.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, could the noble Viscount tell the House the date on which the commission became aware that the gentleman concerned was a member of the Labour Party?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I said before, and I repeat, that it would be entirely wrong for me to make any comment in any detail. I believe that it would be wrong for any of your Lordships to make comments on something which is an entirely private and confidential matter between Mr. Hinton and the Millennium Commission.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, surely the Government have a responsibility and an interest in how that operation was carried out. It was carried out on a decision of this House together with another place. Does the Minister accept that for a man of Mr. Nicholas Hinton's standing, who would be very widely known by Members on all sides of this House, it is an appalling situation? Does he agree that it is irresponsible for the Government simply to say that it has nothing to do with them?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord makes some rather irresponsible allegations about the Government. What is important and what the Government are responsible for is the conduct of the Millennium Commission in general. The commission is making excellent progress. The commissioners were appointed only in February. They have set out a draft strategy which was published in June and that was followed by extensive consultation. Five hundred people and 80 organisations have been consulted. The commissioners are now considering the results of that consultation and will announce their strategy next month.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the question of summary dismissal is a matter for the courts and cannot be investigated fairly in your Lordships' House?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Whether or not it is a matter for the courts is a rather separate issue. But it is not a matter for a debate in your Lordships' House. It is a matter for the Millennium Commission and the person concerned.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, will the noble Viscount accept that this was an extraordinary episode? I believe that it is of concern to this House. It was an episode that is very damaging to the career of an experienced administrator and very worrying for those of us who are concerned that this huge area of patronage may not be conducted properly on clear, rational, independent and non-political principles. With regard to the specific episode, can he say why no attempt at all was made to mediate or reconcile the issues that had been raised by Mr. Hinton, which might have allowed him to stay in place? Why was it necessary for the Secretary of State so brutally to sack him at that curious meeting, not at the commission and not in the department but at a West End hotel?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, in an earlier answer I made perfectly clear that the commission as a whole took the decision. I point out to the noble Lord that the government appointees on the Millennium Commission are in a minority. Indeed, there is a member of the Millennium Commission appointed by the Opposition from another place.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I may be the only person in this House who has employed Mr. Hinton as a chief executive? Twenty years ago when I did so he was first class. He has got better ever since and done a wonderful job with the Save The Children Fund. Does that not make anybody in the Government wonder whether their appointments to the main committee were wise?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I do not believe that that is the case. The decision taken by the Millennium Commission was one which, as I said, was for it to take. I agree with the noble Lord that Mr. Hinton has had a distinguished career in his field. However, I do not believe that any of your Lordships necessarily should comment on what is a confidential matter between Mr. Hinton and the commission.