HC Deb 28 July 1965 vol 717 cc646-56

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lawson.]

12.26 a.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

The rôle of the standing advisory committees to Her Majesty's Government is a vast topic to discuss in a very short time, but I am grateful for the opportunity to refer to it. I am obliged to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for coming here to reply to what I have to say. He will probably recollect a previous occasion not so very long ago when he was able to concede a point which I put to him, and if he is equally forthcoming tonight, I shall have reason to feel very satisfied.

I do not intend in anything that I say to criticise the work of the standing advisory committees, the Governments who set them up and, above all, the people who serve on them. I am quite certain that these committees have an extremely valuable part to play in our system of government, particularly in these days when the rôle of government is growing year by year and when the technical and scientific advice which Government require is becoming increasingly important.

What I suggest is that the time has come to have a look at the rôle of these committees, the way in which they are developing, and their constitutional significance. I ask the Financial Secretary if he would not agree that the time has come when some body or other should take a look at the way in which they have developed.

My reasons for suggesting that are, first of all, the extent to which the number of committees has grown, particularly over the last 50 or 60 years. In the researches that I have been doing, I have been able to trace a standing committee back to the 17th century. I have discovered that in 1621, merchants and Privy Councillors met to discuss the decay of trade and the want of money. In the following year, a standing committee was set up to deal with these matters which eventually formed the germ of the Board of Trade. I am bound to say that I hope that all the standing committees which we have at the moment are not going eventually to form Ministries, because it will mean that there will be no back benchers in the House on either side if they are all to be manned.

The significant development in the growth of these committees has undoubtedly taken place during the last 60 years or so. The Prime Minister, in answer to a Question of mine, on 10th February, told me that there are now 251 of these committees. On 23rd February, when I asked him for a list of them, to whom they report, whether the reports are published or not and when they were set up, I was given a list in which I found that there were 241; so there is a certain discrepancy, which is perhaps explained by some committees not being of a permanent character. Whatever the number is, in addition, there is a very large number of ad hoc and temporary committees of various kinds.

All of them have been set up during this century, well over half of them since the war. The pace has grown significantly in recent years, with an average of eight new ones in each of the last 15 years. Last year there were 12 new ones and there have been at least five new ones since the General Election. The fact that there are now a large number of these committees and that their number is growing is, therefore, one good reason for looking at them.

The second reason which I give is the function of these standing committees. It is broadly true to say that the earlier ones were largely technical, specialist committees: for example, the Osborne House Committee, set up in 1903, and the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, set up in 1922, with a fairly narrow range of specialist functions to perform. Admittedly, there were one or two notable exceptions to this rule among the earlier committees: for instance, the University Grants Committee, set up in 1919.

Studies of the list of committees show, however, that in recent years the tendency has been for the scope of these committees to widen and for them to deal increasingly with fairly major aspects of policy and to advise on a much broader front than did many of the earlier committees. The Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration, which was set up in 1962, and the National Ports Council, set up in 1964, are two examples of bodies which have major functions to perform. Admittedly they are still advisory, but they are much more important than some of the earlier committees.

We have, therefore, the growth in both the numbers and the scope of these committees. This is of some constitutional significance. What are the implications on our system of government and what, in particular, are the implications concerning Parliamentary control over the Executive? These are questions which should be seriously considered.

I suppose that one of the great values of our unwritten constitution is that new machinery can grow quite naturally to meet new needs as they arise. Sometimes it tends to grow in a rather haphazard sort of way, in what might be described as the typically British way, but the very fact that these things are able to happen emphasises the need from time to time to look at these things and to satisfy ourselves that no undesirable tendencies are developing.

An analogy can be drawn with administrative tribunals and inquiries, which were looked into by the Franks Committee a few years ago with very good result. As far as I can see from my researches, however, there has been little study of standing advisory committees. They were considered to some extent by the Haldane Committee a good many years ago in 1918, but there has been very little official examination as far as I am aware. This, therefore, is another reason for an examination.

Another reason is whether we are really sure that all these committees are still necessary. Do we still need them all? Are some of them in existence but fulfilling no useful function? On the face of it, it is not easy to see what is the purpose, for example, of the Committee on the Clergy in War. Admittedly it was set up only in 1963, but this is one example when the purpose of the committee is not obvious.

I wonder whether the Financial Secretary to the Treasury can say how much these committees cost the taxpayer. It must be a fairly considerable sum each year. On that point, surely the more these committees grow in number the greater the possibility of duplication between the particular functions which are allocated to them?

My final point is on the question whether the reports are published or not. The list to which I referred makes it clear that slightly more than half these committees—more than 120 in fact—report confidentially to Ministers. Their reports are not generally available outside the Ministries concerned. This may be right. In some cases I am sure that it is right, where matters of national security are concerned, where trade secrets are concerned, and indeed in many cases where information would not be as readily available if the people providing that information knew that it was going to be published. I can see that there may be many of these cases where it is right and proper that the report should be confidential, but I wonder whether there are some cases where perhaps the confidential nature has been laid down to make life easier for the Ministers of the day.

To take one or two examples, is it really necessary for the Advisory Committee on the Protection of Birds for England and Wales, and the similar Scottish Committee to report confidentially? Is it really necessary for the Advisory Committee on Works of Art in the House of Commons to report confidentially? Again, why does the National Advisory Council on the Employment of the Disabled report confidentially to the Minister of Labour, whereas a similar committee, the Advisory Committee on the Health and Welfare of Handicapped Persons, which reports to the Minister of Health, has its reports published? Why is it that the English Advisory Council on Child Care reports confidentially to the Home Secretary, while the Scottish Advisory Council on Child Care, which reports to the Secretary of State for Scotland, has its reports published? The two committees would appear to perform precisely similar functions, one in England and Wales and the other in Scotland, yet the reports of one are confidential, while those of the other are published.

Those are a few examples, and one other which I should like to mention is the National Ports Council. It produces an annual report, and only today it has produced a substantial report on the modernisation of our ports. But in the case of the iron ore facilities in South Wales the report was not published, and the Minister of Transport said that there was no intention of publishing it. Although the eventual White Papers which gave the Government's conclusions stated what the recommendations of the National Ports Council were, none the less very limited information was given, and it makes things very difficult for people who have a strong interest in particular matters of that kind if the information which is provided for them is of a very limited character.

It becomes increasingly difficult for Parliament to do its job and for people to be fully informed about matters which are of vital importance to them when the Government withhold information from Parliament and from the general public. I am sure that this is necessary in some cases, but I believe, equally, that the Sunday Times, in another context, was right when it said: There is no antiseptic like public information. There is nothing which makes so powerfully for bad Government as the ability to govern in private. I believe that we would all accept that there is a great deal in that sentiment. Indeed, the more Governments concern themselves with an ever widening range of human activities, the more difficult it becomes to defend individual liberties. I am sure we would all agree that we have to be constantly on our guard, particularly against dangers of secret Government or bureaucratic convenience. It may be that none of these dangers exists over these standing advisory committees, but I hope that I have made out a case for a thorough examination of them.

12.41 a.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Niall MacDermot)

I am sure that all those interested in the development of our constitution and machinery of Government will be grateful to the hon. Member for raising this subject. The development of advisory bodies assisting the Government in their responsibilities is a peculiarly British institution, and an example of the kind of advantage we have through having an unwritten constitution, in that we are able to develop our machinery in this way empirically.

The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he accepts that they are a valuable institution, that the Government are assisted in many ways by expertise which might otherwise be denied them. Another advantage which I see is that this gives a real opportunity for many responsible citizens to take an active part in the machinery of Government. One of the definitions of democracy which I have always liked is that of the Swiss sociologist, Wilfredo Pareto, who said: That country is most democratic where the people participate most in the making of decisions which will affect them. I do not know how well our system of Government would stand up to that test, but this is one respect in which we can claim that we achieve that. These committees vary enormously in their size and in the frequency of their meetings. Different people would have different views as to which are the most important. As the hon. Member pointed out, he brought to light, by Questions which he put down, a great deal of information about them, including the fact that there are over 240 permanent committees of this nature, in addition to a number of ad hoc advisory committees and commissions. They have an ancient history, dating back to the 17th century.

The formation of these committees is a growing practice, developing particularly during this century. As an example, comparing one of his Questions with an earlier one asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes), we find that, in the nine months from February to November, 1964, 21 new bodies of this sort were set up. They are difficult to classify and I do not think that it is useful to attempt to do so. This is because of the unique way in which they have grown up. Some are statutory and this usually occurs when they are part and parcel of some new machinery set up by an Act of Parliament. Random examples are the National Insurance Advisory Committee, the Police Council, the Central Health Services Council and the Legal Aid Advisory Committee. Many are not statutory bodies but are set up because Ministers wish such a committee to be set up and it is not a matter for which they require legislation. The Review Body on Doctors' and Dentists' Remuneration is an example. The Advisory Council for Scientific Research and Technical Development is an important recent one.

The functions of these bodies vary. Some are purely advisory and consultative. Others, to a greater or smaller degree, have had conferred on them executive or quasi-executive functions. The Science Research Council is an example. The University Grants Committee, which began as an advisory body, has now grown into a very important body with extensive administrative powers. There are a number of cases of bodies which, on the face of it, might appear to be purely advisory but which, in practice, exercise near-executive powers.

I do not know whether any justification is needed in principle for bodies which have proved their usefulness so much in practice, but if it is sought, I could not advise the House to do better than consult the Book of Proverbs, which says: Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety". The great growth of these bodies this century has been due to the enormous increase in the scope of Government, entering into almost every sphere of our national life—industrial, commercial, technical, scientific, social, recreational and, in many spheres, cultural.

It is obviously impossible for the Civil Service to have all the expertise in all these matters which would be required to be able to advise Ministers. Consequently, this kind of partnership has grown in an informal and unsystematic way, although it is none the worse for that. The scale of them—the fact that there are 240 or so of them—must be seen in relation to the fact that we have a population of more than 50 million people and that the membership of these bodies is under 3,500. There would be some duplication within that figure because of members who sit on more than one body.

The total cost in remuneration and expenses is about £150,000, in addition to which the secretarial services which are provided for them cost a further £280,000, making a total of £430,000. The House will agree that that is in no way a great price to pay for the vast amount of extremely useful and highly-skilled advice which is provided. For the statistically minded, it amounts to .006 per cent. of the Supply Estimates for this year.

The fact that it is such a modest sum reflects the fact that a great deal of this work is voluntary and reflects the voluntary tradition of public service which, I am glad to say, is still strong in this country.

The main point of principle which the hon. Gentleman raised is his anxiety about the way in which these bodies work and the possibility of that leading to some secrecy of Government. I do not share those fears and I will seek to explain why. First, I must make it clear that there is no change in the extent to which the reports of these bodies are published. Of the bodies set up in the 'forties, 33 published reports and 41 advised confidentially. In the 'fifties, 35 published reports and 37 advised confidentially. In the 'sixties, 28 published reports and 27 advised confidentially. It will be seen that this is following a general pattern.

It is obviously desirable in many cases that these reports should be made public, and unless there is some reason to the contrary it would be the inclination of all responsible Ministers to publish them, particularly where they are of a purely factual nature. There must, however, be confidentiality in some of these reports, as the hon. Gentleman recognised. Clearly, reports which deal with matters of, for example, commercial confidences cannot be made public. In some cases the bodies concerned can obtain the information which they need to accumulate and then to advise upon only if they can do so on the basis that the information is to be treated as confidential.

In many cases what the Minister is seeking from these bodies is frank advice on matters on which views may differ considerably and on which there could be considerable controversy. If one was to demand that their reports should all be made public, the result would be that they would cease to be the convenient source of frank advice which at present they are. The result then would be that the Minister concerned would have to seek that advice—because he must obtain it if he is to discharge his responsibilities properly—in other and less formal ways.

Where these bodies are set up statutorily, it is open to Parliament to determine whether or not the reports shall be made public, for that can be written into the Act and, in some cases, it is. A particular case the hon. Member referred to was the National Ports Council, which is not in the list we published in HANSARD because primarily it does not fall within the class of an advisory body. It has such important executive functions that, although the Act provides for a specific function of advising the Minister in particular cases, this is a subsidiary function and something beyond the survey we are discussing. That was a case where if Parliament had thought that these matters should be published it could have so provided, but in practice it did not do so. The conclusions and factual findings of the Council were included in the White Paper.

On the question of publication I suggest that we need to be a little careful not to allow confusion to grow up between the rôle of Ministers on the one hand and advisory committees on the other. Whether the advice is published or not is the responsibility of Ministers and responsibility for policy rests and must be recognised as resting on Ministers. Publication of the advice of these committees may admittedly exert pressure on Ministers. To the extent that it does so people might be tempted to regard responsibility for policy as shifting to the advisory committee rather than being with the Minister. On the other hand, it could be suspected that publication of the advice might be used the other way, to exert pressure on public opinion in favour of a Minister's policy, especially if the Minister has control of the appointment of members of the committee. In these ways one might see these committees developing in a way which I do not think any of us desire.

If we made a rule that the advice of the committees must always be published, or on more occasions than now, we might find ourselves approaching these twin dangers. I would regret that, because we might find ourselves deprived of some of the freedom we now enjoy to get expert opinion by means of these committees. It is important to remember that our system of Parliamentary control entails that responsibility rests with Ministers. On virtually every decision Ministers receive advice from civil servants. That advice is confidential. So is the information in a Minister's brief. It does not detract in any way from Parliamentary control that that is not made public. The fact that we find it desirable and wise to extend that sphere of advice beyond the sphere of civil servants to advisory bodies does not constitute any threat to our system of Parliamentary control.

While I have been very interested as a result of the hon. Member's initiative to look into this matter, I cannot feel at the moment that there is any burning issue that calls for any official or public examination of the scope and activity of these committees. If I am wrong about that, no doubt this debate will provoke the kind of public interest and controversy which might lead to such an examination. I suppose that, if one were to be made, the Estimates Committee would be the kind of body which could do it if it was felt that the House itself should investigate it, but otherwise some outside body could be appointed.

While I welcome this debate I can only say from my experience that I have found these bodies to be enormously helpful to Ministers. I personally have benefited from the advice of bodies of this kind and I take the opportunity of paying tribute to the very great contribution which their members make to our system of government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to One o'clock.