Board meetings in public make for greater transparency?

Baroness Murphy 14/12/2011 – 11:47 am

We had a brief discussion during the Health and Social Care Bill committee last night about whether the new healthcare economic regulator, Monitor, will meet in public. It will apparently. I have always supported having meetings in public and chosen to have them in public whenever there was a choice. But I have realised over the years that public meetings tend only to make decisions that have been previously debated in private. If a public body has public board meetings it will have ‘briefing meetings’ or ‘seminars’ in private where the main business is thrashed out and deals are done. Health Boards are not local authorities with ‘representatives’ shouting for their corner; they are corporate bodies making joint corporate decisions that everyone has to sign up to and be accountable for. Private dissent is too often buried in the urge to be seen to have a united front in public.

Transparency and full public accountability appear to be strengthened by public meetings but are often not. Board behaviour is affected by the presence of the public; the level of challenge and scrutiny is diminished and behaviour tends to be more compliant than in private. There are also major anxieties about raising patient safety issues and discussing serious untoward incidents, for fear of producing public alarm. Decisions that should be taken by the board have a tendency to get sorted out in private sub-committee meetings when it would have been better to have full discussion with the main board.

On the other hand public meetings increase public trust and understanding of the issues and there’s no doubt that the quality of reports are improved when they are going into the public domain. Business sensitive and patient confidential matters can be reserved to private parts of a meeting from which the public is excluded. As so often a fudged position is probably the best…the Chair has a responsibility to ensure that dissenting views are expressed to a wider audience and worked through in the public arena but should make sure they know the outcome of a decision long in advance!



An early election?

Lord Norton 13/12/2011 – 10:12 pm

I have been somewhat surprised to see media speculation that, in the light of tensions within the coalition, we could see the end of the coalition and ‘an early election’.   Comparative experience suggests coalitions can survive internal tensions – as I pointed in a chapter on the subject, disharmony should not be confused with instability – but, that aside, the suggestion of a possible early election ignores a rather fundamental chage in our constitutional arrangements.  That is, that we now have fixed-term Parliaments.  Section 7 (2) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 provides that ‘This Act comes into force on the day it is passed.’  It received Royal Assent on 15 September. 

The Act provides that the next general election will take place on 7 May 2015.  The only circumstances in which there could be an early election are (a) if the House of Commons carries a vote of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government (and no new government can be formed within 14 days) or (b) the House votes by a two-thirds majority for an early election.   Given that there are strong political and financial reasons why none of the three main parties would favour an early election, there is no obvious incentive to trigger either option.

Nano technology and the economy

Lord Soley 11/12/2011 – 11:21 am

Lord Haskel who oftens puts posts on here talking of the importance of manufacturing led a useful debate last Thursday. I spoke of the importance of science and technology in the 6 minutes allocated to me. I wanted to draw attention to the rapidly expanding influence of nano technology and did so in the following paragraph:

Nanotechnology is of immense importance. This is something that this country is doing an awful lot on but an awful lot of people will not know what it is. It is the manipulation of matter at a sub-atomic level, and enables us to develop new products which are self-generated by the nanotechnology that underpins it. We are very good at that in biology, chemistry and so on. We have a lead on that very largely because of the National Health Service, which provides an enormous market for drugs and many other matters related to the advanced technologies. It is time we not only used that in our exports around the world-which we do-but recognised that many people look to the health service; which, for reasons that escape me, we keep reorganising, with some bizarre idea that yet another reorganisation will somehow answer these problems. Many people overseas look to not only the science-the biology and chemistry-underpinning what the National Health Services does for us but to its organisation. We could actually sell that service overseas.

The full debate and the rest of my contribution can be read here:

Brussels sprouts an idea

Baroness Murphy 10/12/2011 – 11:26 am

Like many British, I am deeply ambivalent about the long term ‘European Project.’ My difficulty is that I see the value, indeed the imperative, of Britain being part of a United Europe in perhaps 30, 40, 50 years. I believe a politically united Europe is the only way our distinct culture will survive and thrive economically to counterbalance the growth of the great Asian powers, the resurgence of Russia and the cultural infiltration of the United States.  Chris Patten argues the case in clear laymen’s terms in his book ‘Not Quite the Diplomat; Home Truths about World Affairs’ 2006.  But how do we get there? In principle we will need to move towards fiscal and political coherence sooner rather than later but the difficulty is we are so fundamentally different in our outlook on the way we conduct affairs in society at present that one can see the impossibility of signing up to a new treaty which drags us into fiscal alliance. We have clearly benefitted from not being part of the Eurozone in the current crisis, even though our economy is so closely tied to Europe’s.

Before the Eurozone was established the constituent nations created rules about the way they would behave. There were rules on deficits, borrowing, criteria for joining and so on which were then ignored, treated with contempt by Greece, Italy, Portugal and other countries and tolerated by France and Germany for the sake of the ‘bigger picture’. What confidence do we have that a new accord will be able to take account of the disparities in economic productivity of the constituent countries or be able to impose a sense of political responsibility in the Greeks and other southern European states? I cannot see how a new treaty will change much.

This is not to say that David Cameron’s stance was anything to celebrate; it seems to me that it was inevitable and possibly sad that we could not be part of something that moved us farther forward rather towards a democratic union rather than back. But I cannot see he had any other choice. We are not ready to cede democratic control to leadership outside these islands; mutual trust and understanding are absent.






A very great Aussie

Baroness Deech 10/12/2011 – 12:08 am

 The death has just been announced of Sir Zelman Cowen, former Governor General of Australia, former Vice-Chancellor, former Provost of Oriel College Oxford, great constitutional lawyer and historian; widely regarded as a man of the utmost integrity, intellect and kindliness, no one had a bad word to say about him.  I met him when he was a fellow head of an Oxford college and regard my acquaintance with him as one of the most impressive and fortunate I have ever had. 

I mention him because in the midst of the concentration on our links with Europe, it is easy to overlook that much older association, the Commonwealth.  Sir Zelman embodied the links this country forged with others that shared the same legal system, the common law, respect for the rule of law and democracy, and who joined with  the Allies in declaring war on Germany at the start of the second world war.  Sir Zelman came to Oxford from his native Melbourne by way of a Rhodes Scholarship after the war.  The latest list of Rhodes Scholars has just been announced, and it is worth remembering how much good they have done by giving young people from around the world, but in particular from the US and the Commonwealth, the very best education we can offer before they return home usually to achieve great things in their own countries.  He wrote books about constitutional law, taught law here and in Australia, advised the British Colonial Service, and as Governor General successfully healed the wounds after the controversial dismissal in 1975 of the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by an earlier Governor General, John Kerr. This raised questions about whether the Governor General, the representative of the Queen in Australia, had the power to do this.  In later life it seemed that Sir Zelman favoured Australia becoming a republic.  Yet he treasured, and embodied close links with the UK through shared legal concepts.  A very great man.