HC Deb 04 August 1966 vol 733 cc694-702
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the proposed office of Parliamentary Commissioner.

As the House is aware, the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill was given its First Reading on 20th July, but, for reasons the House will understand, the Bill cannot now make further progress before the Summer Recess. It is, however, the Government's firm intention to press ahead with this administrative reform, and to afford the necessary Parliamentary time for the Bill to pass through all its stages in both Houses by the end of the year.

In view of this, and the great importance attached both by the House and by many outside, to the earliest possible introduction of this improvement in our administrative procedures, it has been decided that the first Parliamentary Commissioner ought now to be designated. This will enable him to make as much progress as possible with the establishment of the necessary administrative arrangements and the staffing of his office before the Bill becomes law. The formal appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner, which will require the approval of Her Majesty the Queen, must, of course, await the passage of the Bill.

I need hardly add that this decision in no way interferes with the freedom of Parliament to consider all the details of the proposed legislation in the normal way. But the choice of the Parliamentary Commissioner himself is, we think, a separate matter within the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government and the advantages of an early appointment are clear.

As the House is aware, our intention is that the Parliamentary Commissioner's should not be a judicial office, but a characteristic Parliamentary institution, carrying a high degree of independence. The Commissioner will be an Officer of this House, dealing with complaints transmitted to him by hon. Members and reporting back both to hon. Members individually, to the House as a whole, and to whatever Select Committee the House may appoint. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the first holder of this office, who will inevitably play a special part in establishing the traditions of a new institution, should be someone who fully understands this House and its workings, and who, at the same time, will be immediately capable of working with Government Departments in the course of his investigations.

I have reached the conclusion, and I am confident that my view will be shared by hon. Members generally, that the best possible appointment that can be made for this purpose is that of Sir Edmund Compton, the present Comptroller and Auditor General. I believe that he enjoys the confidence of this House in a high degree, and, in particular, I know that past and present members of the Select Committee on Public Accounts have a lively appreciation of his great efficiency, independence and complete loyalty to the service of the House. I am also most pleased to be able to inform the House that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously indicated her willingness to approve this appointment when the necessary legislation has been passed.

We propose that Sir Edmund Compton should take up his appointment as Parliamentary Commissioner-designate from 1st September though he will not, of course, be able to receive or consider complaints until the Bill receives the Royal Assent. Until the legislation can be passed—when the intention is that he should be paid on the Consolidated Fund—his salary will be voted by Parliament.

I commend these arrangements to the House.

Mr. Heath

May I express my agreement with the Prime Minister that Sir Edmund Compton has earned the admiration and respect of the House in the work he has done? May I also express agreement with the Prime Minister that the announcement he has just made should in no way be allowed to influence hon. Members in any action which they may wish to take on the Bill when it comes before the House and that no Amendments which they may move should be taken as in any way a criticism of Sir Edmund himself? I hope that this may be clearly established.

Will the Prime Minister, after today, return to the normal constitutional practice of saying "if" a Bill passes the House rather than "when"?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course. The Bill will be completely under the control of the House as to its passage and amendment. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for what he said about Sir Edmund who, I think, enjoys the confidence of the House as a whole. Certainly, it will be recognised, I think, that if any Member, in the interests of improving the Bill by amendment, wants to make changes, he would be doing so in the interests of the Bill as a whole and in the working of the institution and that that would be in no sense a reflection on Sir Edmund.

Sir T. Brinton

It seems unfortunate that an announcement of this nature should be made at the moment. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is yet another example of assuming that because the Government have decided to do something it will automatically go through this House? Is this not another slight on the power of this House? Why was it necessary to announce this appointment now?

The Prime Minister

There are abundant precedents for making preparation in advance for particular decisions of Parliament, always subject, of course, to the ultimate authority of Parliament, which can set aside any such proposition and render nugatory any arrangements which have been made, but, in view of what I understand to be general support in the country and by hon. Members that this office is an important one and we want to make it work, I should hope that when the Bill goes through, if it is agreed by the House at that time, we should then be ready to swing into action with the necessary administrative arrangements. As I say, there have been abundant precedents where an organising committee has been appointed ahead of a board in the expectation and hope that a Bill would be legislated by Parliament. This has happened under successive Governments.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that, whatever he may say, this is an interference with the freedom of Parliament? He cannot claim—[Interruption.] This is of some importance to hon. Members. He cannot claim that this is a sudden decision, forced on him by a new emergency. This was in his party's programme for 20 months.

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that there are widely held divergencies of opinion in the House as to the nature and functions of this office and that according to how the House decides the office should be discharged this must have a bearing on who should discharge it? Will it not put this distinguished gentleman in a most awkward position if the House decides that it does not want the Bill in principle or perhaps amends it and it requires a different type of person to discharge the office?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that it puts the House in any difficulty. There have been many occasions when Bills infinitely more controversial than this have been brought before the House and there has been some planning of the necessary administrative arrangements. Of course, if there are hon. Members who feel that we should not have a Parliamentary Commissioner, but that we should have an ombudsman or anything of that kind, and it should be a judicial office, obviously, if the House so decided, it would mean that we should have to reconsider the arrangements. The appointment, of course, in all these cases is a matter for the Government and the legislation is a matter for the House. I think that we had better see how we get on with the legislation.

Mr. Sharples

While fully appreciating the particular qualification of Sir Edmund Compton for this office, can the Prime Minister say whether there are any precedents for a constitutional appointment of this kind to be made in advance of legislation approved by this House?

The Prime Minister

The only real precedent of a similar character is that of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Since the legislation was passed as long ago as 1861—and 1866 in the case of the Department—I should have to look back a long way to see what the precedent was on that occasion. Certainly, the rights of hon. Members would not be prejudiced either on the legislation or on the question of voting the necessary funds for the Parliamentary Commissioner-designate to be doing preparatory work.

Mr. C. Rowland

What terms of appointment have been offered and have been accepted?

The Prime Minister

Sir Edmund, who already has the office under this House of Comptroller and Auditor General understands that the proposal will be—this is a matter of appointment under Letters Patent—with the rank equivalent to that of Comptroller and Auditor General.

Mrs. Knight

Is the Prime Minister aware that a great many people who at this time have been hit by the wage and prices freeze will be very angry indeed at the thought of vast funds being paid in salaries which are not even paid at this time?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware that many members of the general public really feel aggrieved at the prices freeze—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]. I think that most people in the country would like to see prices, after many years, held at a constant figure. I certainly do not feel that this will lead to very big demands in terms of staff. Very large numbers of people feel that they have grievances which they want examined against a bureaucracy. Whatever Government are in power, the size of Government makes it more essential to protect the individual by independent investigation. That is what we are doing.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for the reasons he has just given his announcement today will be welcomed by many people throughout the country?

Mr. Hastings

While agreeing that it may be necessary for Sir Edmund Compton to study this problem ahead of time and ahead of appointment, and supposing that the Bill will be passed, why is it necessary to make a public announcement? Does the Prime Minister realise that many people will think that this is an attempt to take the eyes of the people off the present disaster, chaos and lack of policy?

The Prime Minister

The reason why it is necessary to make this announcement is that if Sir Edmund is to do his preparatory work adequately he cannot also discharge at the same time the services which he owes to the House as Comptroller and Auditor General. That is why it has been necessary to make an announcement. Of course, an appointment can be made by a notice in the Press, but I thought that since the question of a Parliamentary Commissioner was so involved in the work of hon. Members, the House would like to have a full statement from me. That is why I made it this afternoon.

Mr. Sandys

This is a very surprising announcement. Can the Prime Minister tell us precisely what are the considerations which make it impossible to wait a few months until the Bill has passed the House and which justify treating the House of Commons just as a rubber stamp?

The Prime Minister

There is no question of treating the House of Commons as a rubber stamp, despite the long experience of the right hon. Gentleman in trying to do so. The considerations about which he asks are, as I have said, that there is widespread interest in this matter. I believe that there are many individual members of the public who will want to have their cases examined. It would be very serious if we waited until after getting the legislation and then had to spend several months more getting the machinery into existence and disappoint people who have urgent cases to examine.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The Prime Minister will be aware from his own experience on the Public Accounts Committee that, whatever hon. Members may think of either the nature of his announcement or of the nature of the job itself, the House generally will feel that he has selected a very able and devoted official. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House in general, and the Public Accounts Committee, in particular, owes Sir Edmund Compton a very great debt of gratitude for his services during the last eight years and that the Committee, in particular, will miss him a great deal?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am sure that he was speaking not only for the present members of the Public Accounts Committee, but for all members of the Public Accounts Committee at various times over these past eight years. It is precisely because of his independence and his success in helping to make that Committee so great a success, as it has been throughout the years, that I felt that, if Parliament approved the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill in the form in which it is presented, Sir Edmund will be the ideal person for helping any new Select Committee the House may wish to appoint.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this whole proposition for a Parliamentary Commissioner has caught the imagination of the public?[Laughter.] Yes, indeed. The further announcement by my right hon. Friend this afternoon will also be recognised as a sensible thing to do. The real reason behind the many petulant questions which have been put to my right hon. Friend by both Liberals and Tories is that they are green with envy because they did not think of the idea in the first place.

The Prime Minister

Without going into the whole of what my hon. Friend said in his question, I think that it is a little unfair to hon. Members opposite to say that they did not think of it in the first place. It was brought to their attention and turned down by them.

Dame Irene Ward

While reserving my judgment and adding my warm congratulations to Sir Edmund Compton, under whom I, too, have served, if that is the correct expression, may I ask the Prime Minister whether, if we are to have a successor to Sir Edmund, what is to happen to the Public Accounts Committee if the Government take away its main servant without appointing anybody in his place? It will be chaos worse confounded.

The Prime Minister

In the normal course, when a vacancy occurs in the office of Comptroller and Auditor General, it will be for the Government to submit the name of the successor to Her Majesty and then to announce it.

Mr. Turton

Will the Prime Minister make it clear whether Sir Edmund has been asked to resign his office as Comptroller and Auditor General in expectation of an appointment which has not been debated in the House on Second Reading, nor have the details of the appointment been defined in Committee?

The Prime Minister

Sir Edmund fully understands the position. No one understands the working and practices of Parliament better than he.[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I think that Sir Edmund understands the constitutional position as well as any hon. Member opposite. The position is that, if Parliament refused, in its wisdom, to give passage to the Bill or altered the Bill so fundamentally that there would not be a Parliamentary Commissioner, but perhaps a judge, then this would create a difficult situation. However, Sir Edmund fully understands the position, has accepted it on those terms, and was not willing to try to combine with his present very exacting duties the preparatory work against the day when Parliament decided to legislate the Bill, if it decides to do so.

Sir D. Renton

What will be the authority for the expenditure of any money by the Parliamentary Commissioner-designate or by any staff whom he may engage between 1st September next and such date as a Money Resolution is passed by the House on the Bill which will eventually be brought before us?

The Prime Minister

Exactly as in past cases, the money will have to be voted by Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, and Parliament will be free to reject such a vote. From 1st September until that vote occurs, the money can be advanced, as in past cases, under the Civil Contingencies Fund.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.