§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
I beg to move that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.
On 22nd March 1967, almost exactly eight years ago, Royal Assent was given to what is now the Parliamentary Commissioner Act of that year. The Act provided that the commissioner should have power to investigate any action taken by or on behalf of a Government Department where a written complaint was made to a Member of this House about injustice sustained by a citizen in consequence of maladministration and where the complaint was forwarded to the commissioner with a request that it should be investigated.
The Act, in my view rightly, prohibited the Commissioner, except in particular circumstances, from investigating matters where the aggrieved citizen had a right of appeal to a tribunal or a remedy in any court of law. The Act also provided that the commissioner should have no authority to question the merits of a decision taken without maladministration by a Government Department in the exercise of a discretion vested in that Department. Schedule 3 of the Act laid down 11 categories of Government action which are not subject to investigation by the Commissioner even though the other criteria apply.
The Bill which I seek to introduce would delete entirely one of those 11 categories from Schedule 3, namely, paragraph 10. That paragraph precludes the Commissioner from investigating any Government action even though there should be maladministration resulting in injustice to a citizen involving appointment, removal, pay, discipline, pensions or other personnel matters relating to service in any of the Armed Forces of the Crown and in the Civil Service. My primary concern this afternoon is that the Commissioner should in future have power to investigate injustice arising out of maladministration in regard to the payment of pensions for retired members of the Armed Services and retired civil servants.
1483 At present the Parliamentary Commissioner cannot investigate complaints by a former Service man or a former member of the Civil Service alleging maladministration, whether in the calculation of payment or commutation of his pension. An argument was advanced by the Government of the day in 1967, to my regret an argument in which my own Front Bench and the Government at that time acquiesced. I see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition at this moment delaying her exit. I am in respectful disagreement with my right hon. Friends who at that time did not agree to amend the 1967 Act in the way in which I now submit that it should be amended.
The argument which was put forward both by the Government in 1967 and by my right hon. Friends was that the Government were in a different position vis-à-vis the governed than they were in relation to their own employees or former employees. With respect, I find that argument unconvincing. For example, the Parliamentary Commissioner can investigate a complaint of maladministration about the payment of a war disability pension which does not arise out of service in any of the Armed Forces of the Crown but cannot investigate a similar complaint which arises out of service in any of the Armed Forces of the Crown.
Several of my constituents, some former members of the Armed Services and some former civil servants, have written to the Government Department concerned complaining about what they consider to be errors made in the calculation of their pension. They have been dissatisfied with Governments of both parties about the answers which have been given. They have asked that their complaints should be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner, but in every case I have been compelled to reply to my constituents that under the law as it now stands the Ombudsman has no power to look into the matter.
The whole purpose of setting up the Parliamentary Commissioner was to give hon. Members a better instrument for the protection of the rights of the citizen, a protection better than could be provided by hon. Members. To the extent that decisions of a Government Depart- 1484 ment are excluded from consideration by the commissioner, the whole purpose of the Ombudsman is frustrated and, indeed, violated.
In its report published in 1970 the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner recommended the exclusion of paragraph 10 from Schedule 3 of the Act. The same recommendation was made by the Select Committee in 1972. In its last report published in 1973 the Select Committee reported unanimously as follows:Your Committee note with regret that the Government continue to deny to Members the help of the Commissioner in investigating the personnel grievances of Crown Servants.I said that the primary purpose of the Bill would be to permit the commissioner to investigate the pay and pensions of members or former members of the Armed Forces or of the Civil Service, but there is also a secondary purpose; namely, to enable the commissioner to investigate maladministration resulting in injustice in respect of appointments, removals, discipline and other personnel matters relating to the Armed Forces or the Civil Service. Under the 1967 Act, even if amended by my Bill, the commissioner could not investigate any matter relating to the commencement or conduct of civil or criminal proceedings in any court of law arising out of the Service Discipline Act. Nor could the commissioner investigate—in my view, rightly—the merits of a decision taken without maladministration by a Government Department or other authority in the exercise of a discretion vested in that Department or authority.
However, this second change in the law which the Bill would achieve has been recommended, again unanimously, by the Select Committee on three occasions. Under the provisions of Section 5(4) of the 1967 Act, the Queen may by an Order in Council amend Schedule 3 so as to exclude from its provisions any matters which the commissioner is at present prevented from investigating. Thus, it would be possible to achieve the purpose of the Bill simply by Order in Council. Unfortunately, the Government Front Bench, like my own right hon. Friends when in Government, has not felt able to lay before the House the Order in Council which would achieve at a stroke precisely the purpose of my 1485 Bill. Hence, the necessity for the Bill.
Finally, I emphasise that the effect of the Bill, if it becomes law, will be to give additional protection to citizens to whom protection needs emphatically to be given; namely, those who are serving, or who have served their country, either in the Armed Forces or in the Civil Service. At a time when the power of Government is growing, when the size of Government is growing and the rights of the individual seem to many to be overlooked, the Bill would extend the power of the impartial and independent Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate complaints of maladministration resulting in injustice to the citizen. It is for that reason that I beg leave to introduce my Bill.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Gow, Mr. Michael Marshall, Mr. Tim Renton, Mr. Tim Rathbone, Mr. Douglas Hurd, Mr. Peter Hordern, Mr. John Biffen, Mr. Peter Rees, Mr. Ivor Stanbrook, Mr. Antony Buck, Mr. Walter Clegg and Mr. Neil Martin.