HC Deb 09 August 1972 vol 842 cc1753-6

1.0 p.m.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a tribunal to secure the compliance by Government departments with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. The object of the Bill is to make recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration binding upon Government Departments. I confess that I was surprised to discover, and so were some of my hon. Friends and some members of the Opposition, that these recommendations are not regarded as binding on Government Departments.

I was motivated to bring in this Bill by the refusal of the Inland Revenue, supported so far, I am sorry to say, by Treasury Ministers, to accept the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in the case of a constituent of mine, Mr. John Hope Beach. This is not the time to go into Mr. Beech's case, which I have already raised, and intend to continue raising until I get satisfaction, but Mr. Beech, no less than I, is concerned with the general principle of the Commissioners powers.

The point of having a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is surely to give people a further means of redress when they are, or when they think they are, unjustly treated by Government Departments, and if the office is seen to fulfil this function it will strengthen people's belief in parliamentary democracy. Thanks to the admirable way in which the two successive holders of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration have carried out their task there is now a pretty widely held view that "If a Government Department does you down, the Ombudsman will see you right"

On the other hand, it cannot really be said that the Commissioner has been overhasty in his condemnation of Government Departments, and, as emerges from his report, he has been ready on most occasions to accept a mere apology as a sufficient remedy for the grievance alleged by an individual complainant. It is precisely because he has been so careful to take a realistic view of administrative requirements that his office, at first held in some suspicion by Government Departments, has come to be accepted by them. With very few exceptions Government Departments have hastened to comply with his recommendation.

In this context, the refusal of the Inland Revenue to accept the Commissioner's recommendation in the case of my constituent, Mr. Beech, marks a most unwelcome move in the wrong direction, the more so as no Treasury Minister has even attempted to produce any justification for this refusal. It is quite true that Ministers have produced some very plausible arguments to refute the Commissioner's recommendations in this case, but that is another matter and is in no way related to the entirely separate question of whether the Commissioner's recommendation, right or wrong, should be accepted by the Department to which it is addressed. If the idea should get around that Government Departments can and will ignore recommendations when they are really awkward, and, furthermore, will give no reason for the refusal, the ordinary man's belief in his democratic institutions will take a knock; and that belief is not so strong that it can take many knocks.

When the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill was introduced, the possibility that Government Departments might ignore his recommendations was not taken into consideration. I do not for one moment claim that the number of instances in which Departments have ignored the recommendations of the Commissioner have been either numerous or flagrant, but there have been a handful, and the effect will be cumulative. Each case which is ignored creates a precedent which makes it easier for future cases to be swept aside. If this process is allowed to continue unchecked, the ultimate deterrent, the report by the Select Committee on the Commissioner's annual report which necessarily is made a long time later begins in turn to lose its impact. I believe that the number of unrectified cases may be approaching the point where something needs to be done to reverse the trend. It is therefore necessary to find some way of ensuring that these recommendations get treated with greater seriousness by Government Departments.

By this Bill I suggest that we should set up a tribunal to ensure compliance by Government Departments with the Commissioner's recommendations. The composition and powers of the tribunal are matters for further discussion but could perhaps be based on the existing Select Committee, or, if it is felt that it is somewhat cumbrous to set up new institutions, maybe a simpler solution could be found. It could, for example, be achieved merely by altering one word in the existing Act so that, whereas at present the Commissioner is permitted by Section 10(3) to make a special report to Parliament, in cases where no remedy has been or is likely to be offered he should instead be required to make such a report. The object would be to get the Select Committee to breathe rather more heavily down the necks of Government Departments. But, whatever solution is adopted, I believe that it is necessary to check any tendency by Government Departments to frustrate the operations of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor)

I want briefly to support my hon. Friend, and to say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. I cannot take a second speech. This is not an interjection, and in any case interjections are not proper with a Ten-Minute Bill. I cannot take a speech unless it be in opposition.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir A. Meyer, Dr. Glyn, Mr. Michael Hamilton, Mr. Selwyn Gummer, Mr. Knox and Mr. Cormack.