HC Deb 14 December 1970 vol 808 cc949-52
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

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

I have to inform the House that Sir Edmund Compton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, has requested Her Majesty to relieve him of his office under Section 1(3) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act, 1967; and that Her Majesty has graciously indicated her willingness to accede to his request. It will take effect on 31st March, 1971. By then Sir Edmund Compton will have completed four years as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and thirteen years in the service of the House since he was first appointed Comptroller and Auditor-General in 1958.

I know that I speak for all Members of the House in paying tribute to Sir Edmund's achievements, both as Comptroller and Auditor-General and more recently as Parliamentary Commissioner. As his final contribution to the public service, he assisted in preparing this Office, he became its first occupant and now he retires after establishing its traditions. He has used his experience of public administration to establish practical working relationships with Whitehall, while fully preserving his independence as an instrument of Parliament. He has developed investigating practices which make full use of his statutory powers while doing justice to all parties to a complaint. He has maintained complete independence of judgment in the findings he has reported to Parliament as well as to individual Members. There is general and sincere appreciation of the effectiveness with which he has carried out his work in the service of this House over the past thirteen years.

I have also to inform the House that Her Majesty has been pleased to approve the appointment of Sir Alan Marre, Second Permanent Secretary in the Department of Health and Social Security, as Parliamentary Commisssioner for Administration from 1st April. To assist the changeover, Sir Edmund Compton, acting under Section 3(1) of the Act, will appoint Sir Alan Marre to service in the Commissioner's Office with effect from 1st March.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his very generous and fully deserved tribute to Sir Edmund Compton will be echoed in all parts of the House?

I suppose that I am one of the very small number—two or three—who, having been Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, with Sir Edmund as Comptroller and Auditor-General, and one of the somewhat larger number of those who have served on that Committee during his period as C. and A.-G., have very good reason to know of the utterly devoted, dedicated, and meticulous work which he put in in that capacity.

The right hon. Gentleman, in my view, was equally right to pay tribute to his pioneering work in establishing the post of Parliamentary Commissioner. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would also wish to include a tribute to the work done by Sir Edmund as the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Northern Ireland, so far as the national position there is concerned, until they appointed another one for Stormont affairs.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, as are many Members of the House, of the great work that Sir Edmund did, not only for this House, but for the whole concept of the control of Government expenditure throughout the Commonwealth. Some of us had the privilege of being entertained by him when he had as his guests, and as the guests of Parliament, the Comptrollers and Auditors-General of practically every Commonwealth country.

Concerning his successor, the right hon. Gentleman can take it from us that we believe that the right appointment has been made. The right hon. Gentleman will know that Sir Alan Marre's was one of two or three names which were being considered last summer when we thought that the vacancy might be occurring somewhat earlier. I share the right hon. Gentleman's confidence in the distinguished public servant who has been appointed. He will have a hard task, as the House will agree, in following the high standards set by Sir Edmund Compton.

Mr. Pardoe

While not in any way questioning the high qualities of either Sir Edmund or Sir Alan, who I am sure will do a marvellous job, may I ask the Prime Minister why he has turned down the possibility of recruiting a Parliamentary Commissioner from outside the ranks of the higher echelons of Government service? I recognise the advantages of recuriting gamekeepers from among the ranks of poachers, but is it not a bit much to ask a man to forget the habits of a lifetime in questioning the actions of the Administration?

The Prime Minister

I very much appreciate the remarks made by the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure that Sir Edmund Compton will be most appreciative of his warm-hearted remarks.

The position in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government. The appointment there is personal to Sir Edmund and I understand that he will continue to hold it.

As regards an outsider being appointed, obviously very careful consideration was given to this point. But, on balance, it seemed to me, as indeed I think probably to my predecessor, that whereas it might be thought that somebody outside might bring more independence of judgment, though I doubt it, the advantage which somebody who has been a member of the public service has in knowing the way in which the Administration is carried on counterweighs any other advantage and leads to the appointment, certainly in this case, of somebody from inside the public service. The House has recognised over a long period that a member of the public service can be put in the position of the Comptroller and Auditor-General and still retain complete independence when in that position. I am sure that this will be true of the new Parliamentary Commissioner.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the Prime Minister aware that all those who have served on the Public Accounts Committee or elsewhere with Sir Edmund Compton will be grateful to him for his tribute to a great public servant and that the House as a whole will want to wish Sir Edmund health and happiness in his retirement?

Mr. Gorst

Is it possible to use this occasion of the change of Parliamentary Commissioner to enable his powers to be altered so that he can look into the case of individuals who feel themselves aggrieved by the contents of B.B.C. programmes?

The Prime Minister

Various aspects of public administration are being considered, some of them in the light of the Select Committee's reports, and some the Select Committee is considering, but I have no statement to make about that at the moment.