By Matt.Ross

20 Apr 2011

Alan Beith, the Lib Dems' longest-serving MP, scrutinises government as chair of the justice and liaison committees. Matt Ross tries to improve his view of Whitehall still further by dangling him out of the office window.

In conversation, Sir Alan Beith (picture above) smiles a lot. This isn’t a big, toothy, winning smile – a classic politician’s grin; but Beith’s undemonstrative, rather kindly smile hovers ever close to the surface of his earnest demeanour. A quietly-spoken, gentle man, he still carries the air of the university don that, had it not been for the transgressions of a Tory viscount, he might have remained to this day.

In 1973, Beith recalls, he was teaching politics at the University of Newcastle. Three years previously, he had stood for the Liberal Party in Berwick upon Tweed, but lost to Antony Lambton – the Tory incumbent of 20 years, and the son of an earl. With no general election on the horizon, Beith was about to move to Norway. “I was planning to do a sabbatical there to study Norwegian politics and government,” he says. Why Norway? “It had a boat service from Newcastle,” he remembers. “And it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I used to go walking there.”

Then the News of the World revealed that Lambton, a junior defence minister, had been visiting prostitutes. His house was searched – the Profumo affair was fresh in Tory memories – and the police found a small amount of cannabis. Lambton resigned in disgrace, and Beith took the seat with a majority of just 57; a year later, he held it through both 1974 general elections with fractionally bigger majorities. And nearly 40 years on, he’s still there – the longest-serving Liberal Democrat in Westminster, and a former party chief whip and deputy leader.

So Beith has a lot to smile about; and he bears with good humour the attempts by Civil Service World to get him out of the office environment for a photo. There’s no time to leave the building – but he’s based in 1 Whitehall, the elegant Victorian pile by Parliament Square, and there’s a full-length window giving onto what is clearly a purely decorative stone balcony. Soon the 67-year-old MP is balancing precariously on the windowsill, peering down with some trepidation at the teeming crowds of tourists five stories below. At this point, Beith stops smiling – but he’s not getting irritated: it’s just that his dust-dry sense of humour works best when delivered deadpan. “Just prior to my suicide attempt,” he says solemnly. The photographer cackles, and keeps on snapping: “That would be a shot and a half for me!” he replies.

Manual labour

When Beith steps carefully back into the room and begins talking about his job as chair of the justice select committee, his smile returns; this is a serious topic. He has a longstanding interest in constitutional and parliamentary issues, and speaks with evident pride of the committee’s pre-election role in producing sections of the draft Cabinet Manual: the MPs produced a report on the constitutional processes that would follow a general election, and worked with the Cabinet Office to ensure that the plans for an inconclusive result were clear and fair.

“We very much welcomed the fact that [cabinet secretary] Sir Gus O’Donnell engaged with us very fully over that,” says Beith. “I think he was looking for ideas and reflections from the political side of the fence.” Publication of the relevant draft chapter before the election, he believes, “helped to change expectations, so that although people wanted a government formed fairly quickly [after the poll], there was no panic around the fact that it was going to take a few days.

“The markets understood in advance that this was going to be the situation and discounted it beforehand, so there was no sudden slump in sterling or panic on the markets – which, given the fact that we were in a financial crisis, was quite an achievement,” Beith continues. “It’s to Gus O’Donnell’s credit that he recognised that there was a danger and therefore that it was important, in various ways, to provide reassurance in advance that the system would cope.”

The Cabinet Office did a good job of managing the transition, Beith believes, and made clear what is expected of an outgoing prime minister: “It’s the PM’s job to keep the show on the road until the queen can send for and recognise an alternative government,” he says; if Gordon Brown “had gone early, that would have presented the Queen with a difficulty”. This principle did not, of course, protect Brown from attacks at the time – but Beith makes clear that “The criticism of him for ‘hanging on’ was totally unfair, and certainly didn’t come from us.” The brief furore was, he says, “a media thing”; though he adds that Brown’s critics at the time included a range of people “who didn’t want a coalition to emerge in which he was involved – including some of the Labour Party, who thought: ‘We’ve lost. It’s time to go away and consolidate.’ They probably thought it might look as though he was overstaying his welcome.”

A new consensus

After the election, when Nick Clegg’s office took the constitutional reform brief from the Ministry of Justice, Beith’s committee passed that section of its work to the new political and constitutional reform committee. But his panel still handles the courts and criminal justice – a major topic in itself, and one with huge significance for the work of other departments across Whitehall. Unusually, early last year the justice committee produced a major piece of research that tried to map out a way forward around crime: Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment. The 220-page tome is, Beith believes, “regarded as something of a bible as to where we should be going by lots of people in the professions and organisations concerned with fighting crime”.

One of the report’s main themes is an argument for investment in activities that are likely to help in “tackling the roots of crime and the beginnings of criminal behaviour, involving other departments whose actions may be more significant than those of the Ministry of Justice in preventing crime”, explains Beith; over time, the consequent falls in crime should ensure that these investments produce excellent returns. “The first exclusion from school may be the beginning of a life of crime – when had it been addressed differently, the result might have been very different,” he adds. “But it’s somebody else’s budget”.

Many of the last government’s ministers, says Beith, were “too driven by the tabloid press and populism, at the expense of looking at what works”. But he thinks he sees in shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan “the beginnings of a move away from that direction” – and in justice secretary Ken Clarke’s team, he says, “we’re fortunate to have ministers who are quite keen to follow up [on the committee’s report]. They’re very much working to its agenda.”

Localism in criminal justice

Ultimately, Beith would like to better match courts’ requirements for criminal justice penalties to their supply, by passing the responsibility for commissioning such penalties down to the local level: currently, he points out, judges and magistrates can only give offenders non-custodial sentences if an appropriate alternative is available – but if no such alternative can be found, the prisons don’t have the option of turning them away. “There’s no question of saying: ‘We can’t have this prisoner because we don’t have a suitable place for him’,” he points out. “So you’ve got a different form of decision-making.”

If criminal justice budgets were allocated at a local level, Beith argues, service commissioners could buy in the right mix of sentencing options for their area – and work with other public services to head off individuals’ criminal behaviour before patterns of offending behaviour become entrenched. He accepts, though, that such radical reform is not currently on the table; and in the meantime, he welcomes the shift towards payment-by-results (PBR) that’s emerged in the latest round of private prisons contracts and the government’s drugs-treatment strategy.

Establishing a level playing field for PBR contractors in a field as complex as criminal justice is fraught with difficulty, Beith acknowledges. “Given that a house and a job are the key things that stop people from reoffending, there are other factors involved here,” he says. “Is public housing available? Is the job centre good at dealing with ex-offenders? And you’ve got to monitor your systems very carefully for the creation of perverse incentives.” Nonetheless, he applauds the government’s focus on outcomes, and notes that Clarke’s approach has the support of most MPs: “The interesting thing is how much consensus there is around this.”

An appeal for common sense

The committee’s most recent report, published earlier this month, considered Clarke’s proposed reforms of legal aid – which include curtailing support for people challenging government decisions through the tribunals system. On this point, the committee was critical of Whitehall for failing to improve the poor decision-making processes which prompt so many appeals. “Lots of people appeal because bad decisions are made,” says Beith. “Unsatisfactory decisions generate appeals, and if the appeal process instantly overturns decisions you’re wasting quite a lot of money.” Why, in his opinion, don’t departments react to high numbers of complaints and appeals by improving their decision-making? “Very often, they simply get bogged down in trying to deal with the complaints, rather than addressing the root causes,” Beith replies.

The justice committee’s solution is for the government to impose a fine on departments that lose appeals. “We suggested that the government should look more carefully at ways in which we could incentivise departments to get decisions right in the first place by putting them under some financial penalty for the costs that arise from not doing so,” says Beith. “This wouldn’t be just to pay the bill [for appeal hearings costs] but to act as a financial discipline.”

If government is to provide better services to the citizen, then it may have to take a tougher line with departments. And while Beith’s not the kind of chair to adopt a hostile attitude to select committee witnesses, he knows that senior civil servants (SCS) called before him are under pressure from within the department – pressure that his committee may have to match. “Some SCS see it as quite advantageous to make quite clear at least some of the problems they’re facing, and to be frank and open with committees,” he says. “But at the back of their minds, quite often, is both the feeling that it’s their job to support their minister, and the fact that they’re speaking on behalf of their department and want to defend their people against what might turn out to be unfair criticism.”

Often, says Beith, the people given the hardest time by select committees are private sector chief executives – “because if you’ve got the head of a bank and he’s being evasive, there’s nobody else to go to”. When committee members feel that SCS aren’t providing a full picture, though, they can call the minister to answer those questions. “So members are more likely to be adversarial with ministers than with civil servants, unless they think the civil servant is being improperly evasive,” he explains. “But if SCS are glossing over things that they should be frank about, they should get a slightly rough ride.”

Empty chairs

A former chief whip, Beith fully supports the withdrawal of whip office patronage in the selection of chairs, and its replacement with elections open to the whole House. But he does warn of a shortage of candidates for some committee chairmanships: “I know of a case where a party whip is desperately looking for someone to fill a vacancy, rather than there being competition for the job,” he says. That problem is likely to get worse if the coalition realises its plans to reduce the number of MPs. “I think the government should shrink in number if the House shrinks in number, and by a similar proportion,” Beith comments.

Meanwhile, the task of appointing the chair of the liaison committee – on which all the chairs of the main select committees sit – has passed from the whips to the committee members; and last July, Beith got the job. By convention, the PM makes occasional appearances before this committee: now Beith reveals that David Cameron has agreed to appear three times a year, rather than twice. “They’ll be shorter sessions, probably dealing with only one or two topics each time,” he points out. “I think that’s better for both sides: two-and-a-half hours was too long. From his point of view, he doesn’t need to be briefed in depth on so many subjects. From ours, we can maintain the pace.”

So Beith, the Liberal Democrats’ most experienced MP, will have plenty of chances to put questions to the PM. But after nearly 40 years on the opposition benches, wouldn’t he prefer to take a job inside the government, as the Liberal Democrats sit in the cabinet for the first time during his long political career? “I’m not looking to do so,” he says carefully. “Scrutiny and select committee work is very important, and I’ve always believed that there should be a political career path that doesn’t depend on going into government. By the time of [the last election], the direction of my career had moved into that side of parliamentary life. But obviously it’s a fascinating time to be close to government, so I would be happy doing either.”
Our time’s up; Beith has to leave. “Anyway, some aspects of government are tougher than scrutiny,” he concludes, gazing out past that hair-raising toy balcony at the towers of HM Treasury on the other side of Whitehall. “You spend a lot of time in government trying and failing to do things, or trying to achieve things and not achieving all of them.”

He’s smiling again – then the smile disappears. “I must go now,” he says apologetically. And he nods, deadpan, at his full-length window, with its view across the UK’s greatest corridor of power: “I won’t use that door, if you don’t mind.”

CV Highlights

1943: Born in Poynton, Cheshire
1964: Graduates from Balliol College, Oxford, with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics
1966: Takes a lecturing post at University of Newcastle
1969: Elected a councillor in Hexham
1973: Elected MP for Berwick upon Tweed; made Northern Ireland spokesman
1976: Chosen as chief whip of the Liberal Party
1985: Made the Liberals’ foreign affairs spokesman and deputy leader
1987: Takes the Treasury portfolio
1992: Made deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, a position he holds until 2003
1994: Joins the new intelligence and security committee; becomes home affairs spokesman
2003: Becomes chair of the constitutional affairs/justice select committee
2010: Elected chair of the liaison committee

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