18 July 2012
One of the witnesses appearing before the Lords Constitution Committee on civil service accountability is Lord Hennessy. A history professor at Queen Mary, University College London, he was appointed as a cross bench member of the Lords in 2010. He is an authority on contemporary governance, and has written about Cabinet, Westminster, the Constitution and British governments in the 1950s.
When asked whether there were lessons that could be learned from other countries when considering how accountability measures should evolve, Lord Hennessy didn’t mince his words.
“Professor Lord Hennessy: I have to confess to being terribly narrowly nationalistic about this, partly because we did it first with Northcote–Trevelyan. The Commonwealth countries—the old dominions, you might call them—are very much modelled on us. However, we have re-imported certain very valuable things from them over the years.
The Indian civil service gave us Northcote–Trevelyan, so it was pioneered first in the ICS.
Freedom of information was pioneered across New Zealand, Canada and Australia in a way that helped. I am not sure about human rights or able to talk about that, because my mentor on that is a member of this Committee.
I do not want to be unkind about New Zealand, but it is the size of a local authority. It is the square root of bugger all, really, compared to what Ministers in this country have to deal with, so I do not think it is much of a model.
I have always thought—this is me in my psycho-dramatic mode, perhaps too much—that it is a sign of a loss of self-confidence if you have to keep looking abroad. Why can we not concentrate on our entrails? We have the resources to do so within this very room, and within this Parliament, in buckets. So,… I am not keen on overseas examples. Let us just stick to what we know and who we know. It is hard enough.”
Not surprisingly, Lord Hennessy is opposed to reform of the House of Lords. He advocates that its membership should remain appointed, hereditary and spiritual.