HC Deb 12 February 1996 vol 271 cc674-708
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.37 pm
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the erosion by Her Majesty's Government of the principle of ministerial responsibility. It is often said that the United Kingdom has no written constitution, which is technically inaccurate, although it may be substantially correct. It undoubtedly conveys the message that much of the practice and many of the principles of our constitution depend on convention, and one such convention is that of ministerial responsibility.

What are conventions? They are merely habits and practices that do not have the force of law. If a convention is broken, no law is broken. Conventions are habits and practices that depend on their observance for their validity. A breach of a convention may, however, do serious damage to the integrity of the constitution, and it may do intense—even immeasurable—damage to the reputation of the Government and of Parliament.

The observance of some conventions is exclusively the responsibility of the Government; self-evidently, ministerial responsibility is one. Ultimately, enforcement of the convention of ministerial responsibility is a matter for the Prime Minister. He leads the Government; he selects his Ministers.

It follows that, when a breach of convention is tolerated, that breach is the Prime Minister's responsibility. He alone has the right to determine who should be in his Government and who should continue to be his Ministers. If, by a breach of the convention of ministerial responsibility, the reputation of Parliament is damaged, the Prime Minister is liable for that, too.

We should ask ourselves how far ministerial responsibility extends. It has been the subject of some dispute in the past three years, in an inquiry the results of which we may shortly hear, but I start with a proposition to which there can be no objection—that the personal actions of a Minister must be his own responsibility.

If a Minister knowingly deceived Parliament or Members of Parliament about a secret change in Government policy, that would be his personal responsibility, and I have no doubt that such a Minister should resign. A Prime Minister who did not require him to do so would be culpable in the extreme because, jointly and severally, they would be guilty of a gross breach of the convention of ministerial responsibility. Together, they would damage the reputation of Parliament.

Let us take another example. If, by his actions, a Minister knowingly created circumstances in which a person facing serious criminal charges was denied information necessary for his defence, would that not be his personal responsibility, and should not that also require resignation? Indeed, if, in either of the examples that I have offered merely as hypotheses, resignation did not follow, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility would have been seriously eroded.

We must ask ourselves, how do we predict that the present Government might respond to either of those two hypotheses? We shall have to wait to know precisely, but we can obtain a clue to their future behaviour by examining their past behaviour—for they are a Government who have already been party to a substantial erosion of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

Sir Robin Butler, in a written statement to the Scott inquiry, appeared to absolve both Ministers and Whitehall permanent secretaries—of which he is, by some distance, the most senior—from almost any mistake, misdemeanour or malpractice in the government machine. In his written statement, he said: While ministerial heads of department must always be accountable for the actions of their departments and its staff, neither they nor senior officials can justly be criticised for shortcomings of which they are not aware, and which could not reasonably have been expected to be discovered, or which do not occur as a foreseeable result of their own actions. Ministers and senior officials can only be criticised personally for deficiencies in the organisation if those deficiencies occur as a foreseeable result of their instructions, or they could reasonably be expected to have known about them or discovered such deficiencies and taken action to amend them. While ministerial heads of department must always be accountable for the actions of their department and its staff, neither they, nor senior officials, can justly be criticised in a personal sense for shortcomings of which they are not aware. I fancy that, in a report to be made public later this week, issue may be taken with some of the propositions in that statement.

Let us take the statement at its face value, however. Let us take what I understand to be perhaps an updating of the Maxwell-Fyfe propositions, but which essentially is the assertion that, where personal responsibility is concerned and where personal knowledge is available, a Minister is likely—indeed, bound—to be held to be responsible. Let us test that modern statement of ministerial responsibility against two recent examples, the first of which is the Pergau dam affair.

The Minister with responsibility, the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), against the advice of the permanent secretary of the Overseas Development Administration, expressly authorised the commitment of aid for the Pergau dam. He did so as his personal responsibility; as I understand it, that formed part of the submissions made on his behalf when the matter reached court. Notwithstanding that, he was found by the court to have acted illegally. In a decision in which he overruled the advice of the most senior civil servant in the Department and for which he took personal responsibility, he was found by the court to have acted illegally.

Did resignation follow? Did remorse follow? Was there even an apology? There was none of those—the Foreign Secretary no doubt possessing all the Christian virtues except resignation—yet the circumstances that I have just described fall fairly and squarely within the Butler definition. The failure to resign or to accept responsibility unquestionably eroded the convention of ministerial responsibility.

If being found to have acted illegally were grounds for resignation, the Home Secretary, who has a somewhat feline character, can be regarded only as possessing nine lives. For a while, hardly a week passed without a court holding that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had exceeded his powers.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, when the High Court, or the Court of Session in Scotland, finds that a Minister has acted ultra vires—has acted outwith his powers—that is not an assertion of the supremacy of the court, but rather an assertion of the supremacy of Parliament. To the Minister involved, the court is saying, "You have sought to exercise a power that Parliament has not conferred upon you." Hon. Members should not be critical when members of the Executive are held by the courts to have acted illegally. By doing so, the courts are asserting the sovereignty of Parliament over the Executive.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Would not the Liberal Democrats' policies of weakening the veto and handing more power to the European Parliament undermine ministerial responsibility and accountability to the House?

Mr. Campbell

I think that I am correct in saying that the hon. Gentleman takes an interest in defence matters. He will be aware that, under article V of the north Atlantic treaty, the United Kingdom is bound to go to the defence of any one of the 15 members of NATO, including, for example, Greece or Turkey, and that we are bound to do so using nuclear weapons, if necessary. That shows that a sovereign Parliament can, by treaty, cede certain of its responsibilities. What was the Single European Act if it was not a formal cession of sovereignty from the House to Europe? If we choose to do that, we do so in the exercise of the responsibility that has been conferred on us by the electorate.

As we sign treaties, we can abrogate them—the sovereignty of Parliament is not affected. The suggestion that qualified majority voting, which already exists in certain areas, is somehow an abrogation of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, as it applies to the obligation on Ministers to take responsibility for their own actions is, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, somewhat constitutionally inept.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer said not so long ago that, were he to be found guilty of what I might term conduct unbecoming of a Cabinet Minister, he would resign forthwith. Surely his Cabinet colleagues hold to the same code of honour.

Mr. Campbell

It is not for me to lay down a code of honour for the Cabinet. That is an issue on which members of the Cabinet must satisfy themselves and the electorate. In a sense, I think that the hon. Gentleman seeks to anticipate the Scott report. I have studiously tried to avoid doing so; I have merely put forward some hypotheses that I think might legitimately test the argument and the extent to which the doctrine and convention of ministerial responsibility can he applied.

What matters is not only the form of responsibility but its substance. The House will recall that the Home Secretary told us that the chief executive of the Prison Service was dismissed because of operational shortcomings in the service. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he took no responsibility for operational matters. We were told that policy was for him alone and that operations were for the chief executive.

If we are to believe the chief executive, however, he met the Home Secretary almost every day to discuss the Prison Service. Are we to believe that in the course of an extensive relationship only issues of policy were discussed? I do not believe it. Allegations have been made that on occasion the Home Secretary made recommendations, as it were, to the director about the way in which certain prisoners should be dealt with. If that is not involvement in operational matters, what is it?

Did the Home Secretary go to his party conference and receive a standing ovation on the understanding that he took no responsibility for operational matters? When the blue-rinsed matrons of Surbiton rose to Lord Archer's invocation that "Michael should stand and deliver"—the noble Lord has much style, but not much originality—did they do so on the understanding that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would maintain an Olympian detachment from operational matters? Of course they did not. They did so because they were led to believe that, in terms of the Prison Service, the Home Secretary would be a hands-on Minister.

There was then the legendary failure of the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), either to anticipate or to answer the question whether Mr. Lewis should have been sacked. The logical position is that, if Mr. Lewis and the Home Secretary were both engaged in operational matters and there was a failure in that regard, both of them should have gone. It is a pity that the quick wit of the shadow Home Secretary did not permit him at least to anticipate that question and to give that answer.

What does the erosion of ministerial responsibility tell us about government? It tells us, first, that there is a great deal of arrogance in government. It tells us that there is an unwillingness to be held accountable. It perhaps tells us that there is a great deal of self-satisfaction in government.

What are the consequences of the erosion of ministerial responsibility? They include a deep cynicism among the electorate about the governance of Britain. It is clear beyond any question that the political system has never been held in less respect than it is now.

Above all, the erosion of ministerial responsibility tells us of the weakness of a Government who dare not apply a doctrine that lies at the very heart of constitutional government in the United Kingdom. They dare not do so, because the political consequences would be so damaging to their survival. That is the final indictment of the Government. In their weakness they damage not only themselves but the fabric of the constitution. It is time that we saw the back of them.

4.57 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: welcomes the Government's policies for discharging Ministerial accountability to Parliament, for improving the management and delivery of public services, for maintaining high standards in public bodies, and for improving the openness and responsiveness of the public sector, thus creating a framework for good Government.". To claim that there has been an erosion of ministerial responsibility is contradicted by the facts. The Government have not only adhered to the principle; we have clarified it, sharpened it and taken care to explain it to a wide public audience. I shall respond to the motion by considering how Ministers have discharged their responsibilities in five broad areas.

First, I shall deal with Ministers' responsibility to their own civil servants. Secondly, I shall deal with their responsibilities to next steps agencies. Thirdly, there are Ministers' responsibilities for non-departmental public bodies. Fourthly, I shall refer to ministerial accountability to Parliament. Finally, I shall take up Ministers' responsibilities to the public at large.

First, there is ministerial responsibility for the civil service. Any examination of the subject would be incomplete without dealing with the role of the civil service. The Government regard the civil service as a precious asset that other countries have good reason to envy. In our view, the responsibility of Ministers is not confined to accounting for the actions of the civil service. We have a responsibility for the civil service and to it. We are determined to take such steps as are necessary to maintain its essential character, which is based upon integrity, political impartiality, selection and promotion on merit and accountability, through Ministers, to Parliament.

That is the background to our introduction of the new civil service code. The code provides a succinct statement of the constitutional framework of the civil service and the values that every civil servant is expected to uphold. It restates that civil servants owe their loyalty to Ministers and that Ministers must account to Parliament. We are indebted to the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, whose original draft provided the model to which we stayed very close.

The code restates the established constitutional framework of accountability to which the Government are committed, but it also contains an important innovation. It provides a right of appeal to the independent civil service commissioners for any civil servant who believes that he or she is being required to act in a way that is illegal, improper or unethical; that breaches constitutional convention or a professional code; that may involve maladministration; or that otherwise breaches the code or raises a fundamental issue of conscience.

The code came into force on 1 January and it deserved more attention than it got. Not only does the concise code apply to every civil servant, but, more importantly, there has been wide consensus on its substance. The House will agree that it is of the utmost importance that the civil service should command the confidence of both present and alternative Administrations. We welcome the view that was expressed in the fifth report 1993–94 by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service on "The Role of the Civil Service". It stated that there was little doubt that civil servants would be able to demonstrate a high level of commitment to any incoming Government.

Secondly, the report stated that the commitment by the overwhelming majority of civil servants to the principle and practice of a politically impartial civil service is undiminished. Thirdly, it said that the next steps reforms were in principle compatible with the maintenance of the traditional values of the civil service.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Was not this relationship between Ministers, civil servants and Parliament fatally and permanently undermined when Mrs. Thatcher did not take responsibility for authorising the leak of the letter of the Solicitor-General in the Westland case and did not see it as necessary to dismiss any civil servant for giving that authorisation without her permission?

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House for longer than I have, and he will remember the debate and the explanations that were given at the time. I have affirmed the principles of the new civil service code, the great advantage of which is that it sets out, perhaps for the first time, in crystal clear language the obligations of Ministers and civil servants one to the other.

I shall now deal with ministerial responsibility for agencies. The introduction of the civil service code represents an important element of continuity in the Government's policy for continuity and change in the civil service. At the heart of the programme for change is the next steps project to improve management in Government. Under next steps, since 1988 we have established executive agencies within the public service to deliver services to the public either directly or indirectly. The next steps project has affected practically every part of the civil service, and that covers a wide spectrum of activity. It has made significant management improvements. Currently there are 110 executive agencies, and two civil servants in three are working under next steps arrangements. I expect that proportion to rise to three quarters by the end of next year.

The introduction of next steps executive agencies does not change the usual framework of ministerial accountability to Parliament. Civil servants report to Ministers and Ministers account to Parliament for all the activities of their Departments, including their agencies. The next steps concept introduces a great deal more clarity into the definition of respective roles and responsibilities.

In particular, it makes clearer the aims and objectives of civil service organisations, the tasks and performance targets that Ministers set each agency to achieve, and the amount of resources that are allocated to agencies. The greater separation of roles within the civil service and the introduction of performance targets to areas where previously there were none have been catalysts for change and for improvement in the management and provision of services.

Dr. Godman

Two Benefits Agency offices in my constituency are staffed by highly competent and professional people. However, would the Minister agree that some problems that are brought to us by constituents who are on social security incomes require a response from a Minister in addition to the usual letter from the chief executive?

Mr. Freeman

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My brief contains comments on agencies, and if he will bear with me I shall deal with his point.

The next steps initiative does not change conventional relationships between Ministers and those carrying out the executive functions of Government. Agencies are within the civil service, and next steps arrangements provide for the clear delegation of operational responsibilities. The chief executive of each agency is personally responsible to the Minister for its management and performance. The form and extent of the delegation is determined case by case in the agency framework document, which is published. Each document sets out the range of tasks that the agency is to perform. That does not mean that, in delegating operational responsibility to the chief executive via the framework document, the Minister washes his hands of any interest other than in output and outcomes.

As I have said, the Minister remains accountable to Parliament for the agency. If he is to provide an adequate account, he needs to keep in touch and to retain the right to look and question and even to intervene in the operations of the agency if public or parliamentary concerns justify it. He may need to give fresh directions or to take other action if he or Parliament is not satisfied with what is being done. The Minister must be able, if necessary, to examine in depth and detail every part of the activities of the agency. That does not cut across the principle of next steps agencies.

Framework documents may require certain decisions or events to be referred or brought to the attention of Ministers, and the basis on which hon. Members have accepted the arrangements under which their inquiries about operational matters are handled by chief executives is the knowledge that, ultimately, if it becomes necessary, they can take up the matter directly with the Minister. The Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service strongly endorsed that.

I agree with the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that constituents of any hon. Member have recourse to Ministers either in writing or through their Member of Parliament at the Dispatch Box. The establishment of agencies in no way seeks to cut across that principle.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I have a question for the Minister before he leaves the topic of the next steps agencies. The Prison Service has been mentioned. Does he agree that continual interference by a Minister in what are described as operational matters undermines the authority of the chief executive, and makes it almost impossible for him to run the agency? Is the next steps agency structure incapable of dealing with the problems in the few agencies that are continually surrounded by controversy?

Mr. Freeman

I have defended the right—indeed, the responsibility—of Ministers to inquire, nay to intervene, in the activities of any agency so as to discharge their accountability to Parliament. That is the difference between the public and private sectors. The analogy being drawn by some that an agency is like a subsidiary company of a large group holding company is false. A Minister is accountable to Parliament and must be able to call to account the chief executive and other officers of an agency. He must also be able to examine and inquire into every nook and cranny of its activities.

We are still developing our experience with the agencies. We have 110 of them, and perhaps in certain cases those who sit on the advisory committees of agencies are unclear about their responsibilities. Are they confused about their responsibility to advise the Minister, or do they think that somehow they are non-executive directors of an operating company? They are not the latter. The Minister is responsible at all times, and is accountable to Parliament. He delegates day-to-day responsibility but does not forgo the right to intervene in the affairs of the agency or in the responsibility of the chief executive.

Mr. Beith

I am grateful to the Minister for accepting a further intervention. Is it not the case that the frequency of intervention that he has described and for which there may be the most compelling political and public interest justification, necessarily results in actions at operational level that have been determined by what the Minister has said or by what he is expected to think? Does the Minister accept that the consequence of that is that Ministers must accept that in some circumstances they may have to resign because of operational failures within the agency?

Mr. Freeman

If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall deal with that point in the concluding part of my remarks, when I come to ministerial responsibility to Parliament. However, he must be right in principle. If it is the responsibility of a Minister in discharging his accountability to Parliament to look into the affairs of an agency, the distinction between policy and operations—which I have defined more clearly in this debate for the benefit of the House—means that, if he intervenes and directs because of pressure brought by Parliament or because of a collective judgment by Parliament that the operations of an agency may need to change, that will become his responsibility and not the chief executive's.

Some people, including some members of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, have proposed that chief executives should account directly to Select Committees about their annual performance. However, that could not be reconciled with their position as agency staff or, therefore, in relation to civil servants who report to their Minister. That would also not fit in with the Committee's acknowledgement that it is for the Minister to account to Parliament. However, agency chief executives regularly appear before Select Committees to explain the factual position in relation to the agency without prejudicing normal ministerial accountability.

An essential part of the next steps arrangements is that the framework document should in each case spell out as clearly as possible the division of responsibilities between the Minister and the chief executive. Such clarification does not mean that independent advice to Ministers and agencies should be excluded. Agency arrangements often provide for an advisory board or an adviser to the Minister to serve as a source of outside expertise that is relevant to the business of the agency. That may be mirrored by outside advice which the chief executive requires.

The story of next steps is one of success, and there is no doubt that standards of service and performance have improved. Later this month, we shall publish the 1995 "Next Steps Review", an annual White Paper which summarises progress in all the agencies. The review will show that agencies, overall, met 83 per cent. of the key targets that were set by Ministers in 1994–95, which compares favourably with the 80 per cent. that were met in the previous year.

The 1995 review will be the sixth in a series. However, it is significantly different from earlier ones because it has developed from being a report on the next steps project to one which focuses on agency performance. It will show that, in different spheres and in different ways, many next steps agencies are delivering services to improved standards with increased efficiency and effectiveness.

I should like to remind the House of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee's conclusion, in its most recent report on the role of the civil service. It reported that agencies represented a significant improvement in the organisation of Government … any future Government will want to maintain them in order to implement its objectives for the delivery of services to the public. I shall now examine the question of ministerial responsibility for non-departmental public bodies, commonly called quangos. The Opposition's arguments in relation to quangos lack common sense because, first, they accuse the Government of eroding the principle of ministerial responsibility and, secondly, they accuse us of the opposite—of having strengthened ministerial control through quangos in spheres that were once the responsibility of local government, thus creating the so-called democratic deficit. The Opposition cannot have it both ways at once—indeed, I am showing that they are wrong twice over.

We have not created some sort of quango state. The evidence for that is published annually in a booklet called "Public Bodies", which is a continuous public record that, significantly, did not exist before this Government created it in the early 1980s. The booklet is available to hon. Members in the Library. It shows that, far from running out of control, non-departmental public bodies—the real quangos—decreased from 2,167, in 1979, to 1,227, in 1995, which is a 43 per cent. reduction. Likewise, the number of staff who are employed by those bodies decreased from 217,000, in 1979, to 109,200, in 1995. That is a 45 per cent. reduction.

The Liberal Democrats, at the last count, had proposed the creation of almost 900 new quangos, including an office of utility regulation—to regulate the regulators—an animal protection commission, an arms conversion agency, and both a local enterprise agency and a local housing arbitration agency for every local authority.

The function of NDPBs is regularly reviewed in a continuous programme. Once they are no longer needed in their existing form, the bodies are abolished, merged or privatised. Even so, we have recently undertaken a further series of initiatives to improve their efficiency, standards and responsiveness. First, we are implementing virtually every one of the recommendations on quangos made in the first report of the Nolan committee. Those recommendations deal not only with public appointments but with proprietary issues. We expect to issue a consultation paper in the next few weeks, following a review of the legal framework of propriety and audit in public bodies, as Nolan recommended.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is reviewing the way in which the administrative costs of NDPBs are controlled. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is examining the scope for rationalising the function of NDPBs in certain policy areas in order to minimise any overlap or spheres of unnecessary regulation. Finally, the efficiency unit in my Department is carrying out a study which is designed to ensure that NDPBs with executive responsibilities have a clear concept of their objectives and effective systems to measure whether they have been achieved.

We are therefore strengthening the accountability of NDPBs to Ministers. At the same time, we are strengthening those bodies' accountability outwards—to the people who use them. Our work on public appointments is a clear example of ensuring the maintenance of the highest standards through greater openness and public accountability.

The first report of the Nolan committee, to which I have referred, covered public appointments. It found nothing seriously wrong with the system, but it made a number of recommendations that were designed to demonstrate publicly that clean bill of health. We welcome those recommendations and have implemented them.

One key recommendation was the establishment of an independent commissioner for public appointments. Sir Len Peach, formerly chairman of the Police Complaints Authority and a man with an outstanding personal record in both the public and private sectors, started work on 18 December last year. His job is to monitor, regulate and audit the processes for all appointments to executive NDPBs and NHS bodies. To that end, he is currently drafting guidance on public appointments.

The guidance will incorporate a code of practice that is built around seven key principles: ministerial responsibility, as Nolan recommended; appointment on merit; independent scrutiny; equal opportunity; probity; openness and transparency; and proportionality. Sir Len will be consulting with all bodies that have a direct interest in the guidance, including the House, through a draft that will be issued in the week beginning 26 February. He intends to publish the final version in April. He will then publish a preliminary report on his work, towards the end of this year, and a first substantive report in the summer of 1997.

I believe that those reports, together with Departments' public announcements of appointments, will bring full transparency and a great degree of accountability into that aspect of our public life. At the same time, the reports will endorse ministerial responsibility for public appointments and, by showing that that responsibility is open and fully justifiable in the way in which it works, will strengthen that responsibility.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

In relation to the Nolan committee's first report, the Chancellor has not yet made any reference to the work that is being done on the second report, which of course is extremely germane to the issues that he is speaking about.

Mr. Freeman

My understanding from the chairman of the committee is that work is progressing on its report into local public bodies, such as the training and enterprise councils. I should expect that the committee will reach a conclusion and publish a report, possibly in the late spring. As and when that report is available, I am sure that my right hon. Friend, the Lord President will say what form—

Mr. King

It goes much wider than TECs. It covers the very important spheres into which—it is policy that I certainly support—substantial sums of public money go, such as further and higher education, TECs, universities and colleges of higher education. It covers all the housing associations and the housing corporations. It will cover a wide ambit, which will be of considerable interest to the House.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The report is an important piece of work, and it is being carried out with typical thoroughness. The House and the other place eagerly await its publication.

Dr. Godman

The Minister will have to forgive me for my parochialism, but does Sir Len Peach have a United Kingdom-wide role, or will he have counterparts in Edinburgh and Belfast?

Mr. Freeman

His role extends throughout Great Britain, and he has a similar role in Northern Ireland. He is therefore, effectively, covering the whole of the United Kingdom.

I shall now deal with the issue of ministerial accountability to Parliament, which has been raised by the Liberal Democrats. In the previous sections of my speech, I have said where progress has been made during the past decade, especially in the past few years, in clarifying responsibility in other aspects of public life. The Minister in charge of a Department is the only person who may be said to be ultimately accountable for the work of his Department. Parliament has usually conferred powers on the Secretary of State or the Minister, and Parliament calls on Ministers to be accountable for the policy, actions and resources of their Departments in the use of those powers.

However, while a Minister has full constitutional accountability to Parliament for everything that the Department does, it is manifestly impossible for him to take all decisions, or be personally involved in every action of his Department. It cannot, therefore, be sensibly suggested that a Minister is personally responsible for every action of his Department. It is worth stressing that distinction, because the terms "ministerial accountability" and "ministerial responsibility" have tended to be used interchangeably.

The mistaken inference that is sometimes drawn is that a Minister must personally take the blame—or the credit—for every action of his Department. It is equally mistaken to think, as some on the Opposition Benches do, that, in clarifying that well-established distinction, the Government are attempting to redefine those things for which Ministers may properly be held both accountable and personally responsible.

For the benefit of the House, I should like to spell out briefly the Government's position. Ministers take personal responsibility for five fundamental areas: the policies of their Departments; the framework within which those policies are delivered; the resources allocated; such implementation decisions as the framework documents for agencies may require to be referred to them or agreed with them; and their response to major failures or expressions of parliamentary or public concern, in the sense of demonstrating what action they have taken to correct a mistake and prevent its recurrence.

The Government's position is fully in accord with the classic statement on the subject made in the House more than 40 years ago in the debate on the Crichel Down affair by Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. He said at the time: The Minister is not bound to defend action of which he did not know, or of which he disapproves. But … he remains constitutionally responsible to Parliament for the fact that something has gone wrong, and he alone can tell Parliament what has occurred and render an account of his stewardship."—[Official Report, 20 July 1954; Vol. 530, c.1286–87.] I am aware that some people contend that the establishment of next steps agencies represents a breach of that orthodoxy. That is not the case.

Next steps agencies are part of ministerial Departments and a few are Departments in their own right. The Minister remains accountable to Parliament, whether the civil servants who carry out the departmental functions in question are in an agency or not. Indeed, the delegation of public clarification of roles in the framework documents serves, if anything, to enhance accountability by increasing transparency.

The focus of what I have said so far has been on the accountability of Ministers to Parliament for their Departments. Ministers also have a responsibility to justify their conduct to Parliament. In that respect, too, the Government's position is perfectly clear. It is only a few months since we made it clear that we agreed with the Nolan committee that the principles of conduct which applied to Ministers could helpfully be set out in one place in clear and comprehensible form.

On 2 November, I told the House that the new first paragraph of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" was taking immediate effect. I shall not detain the House by rehearsing all seven principles of ministerial conduct set out there in full, but it is worth reminding hon. Members of the opening sentence, from which the others follow and which puts the matter in a nutshell. It states: Ministers of the Crown are expected to behave according to the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties. I also remind the House of the great care and wide consultation that we undertook before finalising the revision of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" in the light of the first report from Lord Nolan's committee. The third principle, on not misleading Parliament, attracted particular interest in this place and beyond. Let me remind the House of the version approved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, which I announced on 2 November: Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament and the public and should correct any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity. They must be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, withholding information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with established Parliamentary convention, the law, and any relevant Government Code of Practice. It is important to emphasise that the principle is deliberately in the public domain, having been carefully debated in the light of Lord Nolan's report. The opening up and clarification of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" is an achievement of the Government. Until 1992, the document was not publicly available. There is no surer confirmation of the Government's willingness to be held to account and to be seen to be held to account.

Some have argued that the word "knowingly" provides some sort of escape clause for rendering account to Parliament. That is not so. Indeed, in retaining that word, we embodied a valuable and long-recognised distinction between intentionally and inadvertently misleading Parliament.

By releasing "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", by recasting it so that the opening paragraph brings together a code of ministerial conduct, by openly discussing the terms of the principles in that code, the Government have demonstrated their clear commitment to upholding the principle of ministerial accountability and responsibility to Parliament.

I hope that I have assisted the House in response to the debate by stating clearly what the Government's successful and clear record has been.

5.24 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

This is a short debate. It is in Liberal Opposition time, so hon. Members from all parties will be relieved to know that I intend to be brief.

I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) on the authoritative way in which he advanced his case. The Minister was helpful in setting out the Government's position. May I remind the Minister that there would have been no civil service code but for the report by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. The Government set their face against the code at the beginning. It was only after that code was published that work was done to achieve a consensus and the code was finally approved.

The Government have been dragged kicking and screaming through the Nolan committee. Fundamental changes have resulted from the Nolan committee and its recommendations both in the way in which the House proceeds and in the way in which Ministers proceed. The committee's recommendations have also resulted in amendments to "Questions of Procedure for Ministers". So the Minister cannot assume all virtue in recounting what is now the Government's position. The Government have been dragged to that position by the effectiveness of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and the power of the Nolan committee recommendations.

It is fitting that the House is debating ministerial responsibility today, in what might prove to be a crucial week for British democracy and the future of the Tory party. The test for the Tory party is not whether it can react to Scott in a disciplined manner to save Ministers' skins. The test is whether it can rise above short-term party interests to examine the health of British democracy.

The risk for the Tories is that the Prime Minister may even misjudge the interest of his party, as he seriously misjudged the mood of the nation on Nolan. How ironic it would be if the interests of the Tory party and those of British democracy coalesced in the need for ministerial resignations, yet the Prime Minister proved too short-sighted to rise to challenge. Perhaps the Government's position is so parlous that they cannot survive the shock of ministerial resignations in the run-up to a crucial by-election and the local elections in May.

We read that the Prime Minister is so determined to protect his Ministers that he is prepared to threaten an early general election to frighten the rebels into line. Does that mean that no one is to carry the can following Scott? After three years of work and 1,800 pages, and after a Cabinet unit has been set up which has probably spent more on monitoring Scott than was spent on the Scott inquiry, that would be remarkable. Or does it mean only that no Minister will carry the can?

I warn the Prime Minister that if civil servants are to bear the full responsibility and Ministers are to escape scot free, he will seriously misjudge the public mood and he may ill serve his party, his Government and the country.

This is an important debate, first, because the trust between the Government and the people has broken down. This is not a narrow, party political point. There is ample polling evidence, both private and public, to testify to the cynicism with which politicians and Government are now regarded. That may not be surprising in view of the broken promises. Before the general election, the Government promised reductions in taxation and no increase in value added tax. After the general election, they did something entirely different. They said one thing before the election but did another after it. The Conservative party is governing in the interests of the few rather than the many, which is undermining trust between the Government and the people.

The story of the fat cats is the most graphic illustration of how the Government now govern in the interests of only the few. In contradiction to what the Chancellor of the Duchy claimed, it is my perception that the people feel that they have no influence over the services for which they pay, which they use and in which they work. The right hon. Gentleman claimed that the Government had done a great deal. He should talk to people in the health service, even the consultants and the people on the NHS trust boards, who often feel that they have no influence over the shape of the services that they have been appointed by Ministers to administer.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on the quango state and said that by centralising power he was increasing ministerial responsibility, so the whole argument about the quango state and the democratic deficit was bogus. He claimed that the Government had reduced the number of quangos. That may be true if we accept the Government's definition of a quango—which excludes NHS trusts and other bodies such as training and enterprise councils.

I do not think that even the right hon. Gentleman would deny that many of the services that are now administered through quangos were once within the influence of local government and therefore democratically accountable to the electorate. That accountability has been removed. The quango state accounts for some £34 billion or more of public expenditure, but few of the quangos bear any real relation to the people who use the services and in whose areas those services are administered.

The right hon. Gentleman claimed some virtue in the imposition of the Nolan recommendations on appointments. I welcome what Nolan said—that appointments to quangos should be open, transparent and on merit, rather than on party position. The Labour party is committed to embracing those recommendations. It is rather rich of the Government to claim virtue in Nolan's recommendations; it is no wonder that Members of Parliament and Ministers are less popular than journalists and estate agents. The Tories have become a "Not me, guy" Government. They love the language of individual responsibility—and as an unreconstructed Protestant I do not object to that—yet they disclaim all responsibility.

The Government claim that unemployment is nothing to do with them. There was a time, for some 25 years or more after the war, when a high and stable level of employment was the objective of Governments of all complexions. Now, unemployment is nothing to do with the Government, but that does not prevent them from claiming credit for falling unemployment.

What about the two recessions during the past decade—the longest and deepest recessions since the war? Once again, they were nothing to do with the Government. They were all to do with an international recession. Yet the Government all too readily claim the credit for Britain being the leading economy in Europe.

Let us think back to Black Wednesday. Once again, that was nothing to do with the Government. No one resigned, even though we are now told that at the time the Chancellor wanted to resign, but the Prime Minister pleaded with him not to do so. That is hardly surprising, because the man who took the country into the exchange rate mechanism at the wrong rate, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, was the previous Chancellor—who then became the Prime Minister. Black Wednesday was nothing to do with the Government, yet they love to claim the credit for the half-competent economic strategy they stumbled into when their policy was blown out of the water.

Crime has doubled since the Government came to power—but that, they say, has nothing to do with them. Yet the Prime Minister claims the credit for the recent drop in the crime statistics. What about schools? It may be thought that there is currently something of a crisis in state school standards. The Government have been in power for 17 years, yet apparently this crisis is nothing to do with them, but much more to do with Labour or Liberal Democrat-controlled local education authorities and the education establishment. It is nothing to do with the Government.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I have been listening intently to the right hon. Gentleman's speech. He said that the responsibility for education standards lay with Labour councils. Can he explain why a parent in the Labour-controlled borough of Southwark feels she has to put her child in a school in Conservative-controlled Bromley? Why does he think that another parent in the Labour borough of Lewisham feels that he has to put his child in private education? What are the Labour councils in those two boroughs and elsewhere throughout the country doing about that? They are responsible for the delivery of education.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman misheard me. I did not say that standards in schools were the responsibility of Labour-controlled councils; I said that that is what the Government are claiming. After 17 years in control of the nation's education, all they can do is blame others. They say that it is nothing to do with the Government and everything to do with other people.

The Government claim that all those matters are nothing to do with them. When the voters' heavy hand is felt on their collar, they say, "It's not us, guy. Don't blame us, we're only the Government." So those who are quick to apportion individual responsibility in and to others deny all individual and collective ministerial responsibility. Yet it was the Prime Minister, in a frank interview in the United States not long ago, who admitted that, after so many years of Conservative government, there was no one left to blame.

The case for ministerial responsibility is constitutionally at the very heart of this debate about trust in the political process. I strongly agree with what the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East said.

Ministerial responsibility is at the heart of our bringing the Executive to account. It has long been my view that the Executive is far too powerful in our system of government, and that the House of Commons is ill equipped to bring the Executive to account. The best development of recent years has been in the Select Committees, which have gone a long way to improving the way in which we can bring the Executive to account, but there is still a very long way to go.

I should have thought that ministerial resignations would have given us some idea of how effective the House is in bringing Ministers to account. A long list of Ministers and parliamentary private secretaries have resigned since 1992. Although all kinds of reasons have been given for those resignations, which I shall not go into, as far as I can tell not one of them resigned because they admitted some deficiency in the policy, operations or activities of their Departments or any of the agencies for which they were responsible. Indeed, a former Minister felt that so deeply that he said: no one ever resigns for anything these days". According to "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of their Departments and agencies. They must be as open as possible with Parliament and the public and must not knowingly mislead Parliament. If they do so, they should resign, according to a letter from the Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) that was dated 15 April 1994. So Ministers, and only Ministers, are accountable to Parliament, yet, according to the Government, Ministers are not responsible for all actions in the sense of being blameworthy.

The House would not want me to enter into a comprehensive analysis of the concepts of accountability and responsibility, suffice it to refer Members to paragraphs 118 to 138 of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee fifth report. I concurred with the Select Committee when it said in its report: We find the government's attempt to draw a sharp distinction between accountability, which cannot be delegated by Ministers, and responsibility which can, unconvincing. The debate has become crucial with the fragmentation of the civil service under next steps agencies and privatisation. Ministers are able to claim the credit for all that is good in their Departments and agencies and delegate the blame to others. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster seemed to suggest that claiming credit for what was going on in the Department was as reprehensible as delegating blame. I just do not recognise that behaviour in the Government—or, indeed, in any other Government. Ministers are all too ready to claim the credit and delegate the blame to others. Indeed, next steps agencies and privatisation have encouraged that.

On the exchange across the Floor of the House on the Prison Service, which was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I simply ask whether the Home Secretary would have escaped resignation if the Prison Service had been part of his Department rather than a next steps agency? That serious question deserves serious consideration.

If the House accepts my submission that there is a serious problem over trust between the governed and the governors, Parliament should be addressing it. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has outlined an ambitious programme of constitutional and democratic renewal, including a freedom of information Act to address the issue. The Government have dismissed it—not as inadequate but as positively dangerous—yet they have advanced no alternative. Their alarmingly self-congratulatory and complacent amendment shows that they do not even recognise the problem.

Sooner or later, someone in the Government must accept responsibility for something. The Scott report will present an opportunity for the Government to show whether they govern in the interests of all the people or whether everything is to be judged in terms of their own survival.

5.45 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

When I looked at today's Order Paper, I must admit that I was extremely puzzled as to what the debate was to be about. The motion refers to the principle of ministerial responsibility". I could not help thinking that, on such a busy day, the Prime Minister's extremely important statement could have been followed by a debate on important, relevant matters. After all, there are few enough days on which the Liberal Democrats can choose the subject. We could have discussed the very important matter of education, which was mentioned earlier, or the national health service, or perhaps have risen higher, to a debate on European or foreign affairs. But not a bit of it—the debate is on ministerial responsibility.

With great enthusiasm, therefore, I came to the Chamber to listen to the speech of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). To my surprise, I heard a speech on the Scott report. I thought that the Scott report was to be published on Thursday, when a statement will be made on it, after which we shall carry—or stagger away with—the vast volumes of the report, wrap towels around our heads and consider it very carefully over the weekend and the days ahead. We know that we are to have a full debate on the Scott report, although I am sure that I shall not have the opportunity to catch Madam Speaker's eye during that debate as the good and the great will tend to be called before me—including the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, who will no doubt have something to say on the subject.

Why is today's debate clearly aimed at the Scott report? Could it be a soundbite trailer for the learned words of the Liberal Democrats? It is not clear. The subject that has been selected for debate for half a day refers to either cynicism or incompetence. If we are to debate ministerial responsibility, which is in many ways academic and at the heart of the British constitution, it could have been dealt with much more thoroughly. We had to wait for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to address the substance of this somewhat dull yet important and complex constitutional matter.

The rather dull speeches from the previous Front-Bench spokesmen were surpassed by that of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), which was even duller. I happened to note that, during the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, his Liberal Democrat colleagues yawned. In fact, most were absent, and only two are present now. I for one—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. The occupant of the Chair will be yawning if we do not get back to the topic in question.

Mr. Arnold

For my own education, I shall be listening carefully to other contributions to the debate, and I will listen with great enthusiasm to the speeches that we shall no doubt hear from numerous Liberal Democrat Back Benchers on their chosen subject.

Yes, ministerial responsibility is a matter of great importance. We expect Ministers to come to the House and take responsibility for their decisions. Given the subject of the motion, I find it odd that, in their soundbites the Liberal Democrats frequently promise all kinds of constitutional reforms under which they would arbitrarily hand the powers of this House to other, far less established institutions. The leader of the Liberal Democrats has gone on many a rural ramble around the country to give his views on how the House's responsibility for various matters should be delegated. Indeed, I heard him say on television in May 1994: I don't believe in the sovereignty of Parliament". Ministerial responsibility is a wonderful thing and Ministers should be responsible to Parliament, but how can the Liberal Democrats take that approach if their leader claims not to believe in the sovereignty of Parliament?

Many is the time the House has sat late at night to consider motions relating to European Community legislation. I sometimes wonder what good it would do if we took a differing view. The House should be sovereign, but so many of its powers have already been delegated to European institutions, and things could only get worse if we followed Liberal Democrat policy. We know that the Liberal Democrats would abandon the veto on European decisions and grant the European Parliament responsibilities that would reduce the power of this House. How could Ministers come to the House and take responsibility for actions if sovereignty over those actions no longer rested with them? In that sense, it is perhaps appropriate that the motion refers to erosion … of the principle of ministerial responsibility". One of Ministers' most important responsibilities is to answer to the House for the spending of taxpayers' money. An increasingly large amount of the money raised by British taxpayers—it can now be counted in billions of pounds—is being passed to the European Union to spend. How the spending of that money is accounted for is extremely important. I cannot help thinking that, if Ministers were exposed to Liberal Democrat proposals for the extension of qualified majority voting in Europe, they would be overruled time and again on vital British interests. They would then have to come to the House and say that, because of Liberal Democrat policy, they could not answer to the House for decisions with which they may well have disagreed, so Liberal Democrat policies are hardly the solution. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East say from a sedentary position, "Like fishing".

In the example of fishing, the threat comes from the European Union to which the Liberal Democrats would sacrifice all powers, so fishing is not an especially sensible matter to raise.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

The House is lost in admiration at the depth of the hon. Gentleman's grasp of the important constitutional doctrine of ministerial responsibility. As he is so exercised about such matters, he must surely recognise that, in relation to fishing, for example, majority voting rules. That concession was made by Parliament and, indeed, by the Government he supports—no doubt because they believed that it was in the best interests of Great Britain.

Mr. Arnold

The hon. and learned Gentleman refers to the concession to Europe. I am suggesting that the road down which the Liberal Democrats would lead us, were the country to allow them, would end in still more qualified majority voting. British interests could not then be defended, but that does not seem to worry the hon. and learned Gentleman, not least because his party is a federalist party. It would pass much more power up the way—perhaps "across the way" is a better phrase—to Brussels and various European Community institutions. What price ministerial responsibility then?

Under their federalist policies, the Liberals support regional government, which would be a further abrogation of the powers of this House. Whatever the Scots may want, I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that my constituents would certainly have no truck with regional government, which would mean yet another layer of politicians and bureaucrats, and no doubt more heavy spending and the imposition of further taxes. From my constituents' point of view, the idea of regional government for the south-east, from Reading in Berkshire around the other side of London, would be especially disastrous. My constituents would far rather that I come here as their representative and try to hold Ministers to account. That is far more effective.

In a slight digression, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East referred to the Home Secretary's accountability to the House. In the European context, I wonder how any Home Secretary could be answerable to the House, or the country, for Liberal Democrat proposals on, for instance, the dispersal of refugees. How could any Home Secretary answer for the Liberal Democrats' favourite policies, which were passed at their conference, on the decriminalisation of prostitution and the possession of cannabis? I doubt whether any of those would go down very well.

The hon. and learned Gentleman made much of quangos. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster rightly pointed out, although the Liberal Democrats claim not to believe in quangos, they would, given the chance, create them. Indeed, at the last count they had proposed almost 900 new ones. They include such wonderful things as an office of utility regulation to regulate the regulators, an animal protection commission, an arms conversion agency and, in every local authority across the country—not least in my constituency—a local enterprise agency. Every district would also have a local housing arbitration agency. I am not sure what that means, but it is Liberal Democrat policy. No doubt the Liberal Democrats would place their defeated candidates on such quangos.

I firmly believe that one of the greatest strengths of our constitution is the fact that Members of Parliament are solely responsible for separate constituencies on whose behalf they come to the House to obtain from the relevant Ministers detailed answers on matters of concern to their constituents. I am sure that the constituents of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East appreciate having a sole Member of Parliament responsible to them and fighting their corner here in Westminster. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot pass the buck; he has to take up all the issues—or clearly be seen not to take up issues—and hold Ministers responsible for their actions, particularly those affecting his constituents. That is something that I try to do. Yet the very mechanism for holding Ministers responsible would be undermined by the Liberal Democrats' policy of proportional representation.

I am one of seven Members representing west Kent. Under proportional representation, west Kent would still have seven Members, but to which constituents would they be responsible? Those Members could pick and choose. They could tell a constituent to go to a Member of Parliament from the party for which the constituent voted, and they might or might not hold Ministers responsible for some issues. It is important that constituents have an individual Member of Parliament who answers to them and who comes to Parliament to fight for them, wherever they may be.

Proportional representation would mean not only that individual Members who were solely responsible for their constituencies would no longer be able to hold Ministers responsible; the very mechanism for forming a Government would damage that ministerial responsibility. Whereas our constituents now know when Members are returned at a general election which party is likely to form a Government, under the Liberal Democrat proposal they would not know. The formation of the Government, and therefore ministerial responsibility to this House, would depend on backroom deals, smoke-filled rooms, unsatisfactory compromises and the like.

We do not need the type of reform touched on by the Leader of the Opposition, who suggested a referendum on proportional representation, or the undemocratic imposition of PR proposed by the Liberal Democrats. We would end up with a hung Parliament, in which one or two Liberal Democrats—it remains to be seen whether they would be here in the Chamber—would take a minor part in forming a Government.

Then again, would they support the Government? If one is to support the Government and allow Ministers to carry out their responsibilities properly, one has to turn up to vote in support of the Government. Yet only last week the hon. Members for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) and for Truro (Mr. Taylor) voted against their leader's and their party's policy on a motion relating to GP fundholders, while the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Ms Nicholson) is not in the habit of turning up, and certainly did not vote in support of the previous Liberal Democrat motion before the House.

In conclusion, we had a magnificent opportunity today to have a debate that was not subject to the decisions and programme-planning of the Government. All Back Benchers could have looked forward to a motion from a minority party, the Liberal Democrats, on a subject of great relevance and interest to our constituents. Instead, we got a motion on a subject so boring that it has attracted only two Liberal Democrat Members into the Chamber, while most of our colleagues have gone out to attend to their constituency duties.

6.3 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I heard the whole of the speech of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold). Unfortunately, he missed the first 15 minutes of the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who began speaking at 4.40 pm. The hon. Gentleman came in at 4.55 pm, although he may have been listening to the speech outwith the Chamber.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I am sure you recall, I was in the Chamber. I had to leave for five minutes to check Hansard, but I can assure you that I was here for the overwhelming majority of the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech.

Dr. Godman

Naturally, I accept the hon. Gentleman's word, although his absence was noticeable.

I agree about the need for a debate in the near future on the Government's handling of Northern Ireland and on reaction to the dreadful event in London on Friday. I heard the explosion from my apartment in the Barbican, and I said to my wife that I could not believe that yet again it was the foul work of the IRA. We also heard the explosion at the Baltic Exchange a few years ago.

I disagree completely with the hon. Member for Gravesham about electoral reform, which would make for much better governance. I am not happy with the system of proportional representation advocated by the Liberal Democrats, but I think that we need a new system. We shall have such a system when we introduce the Scottish parliament. I much prefer the added Member system to that of proportional representation.

I can well understand why the hon. Member for Gravesham's constituents have no taste for regional government, but the overwhelming majority of my constituents desire that radical change. Their desire is reflected in electors' votes in local and national elections, in which Conservative candidates invariably finish in fourth position, a long way behind—I regret to say, in some respects—candidates of the Scottish National party.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East was anxious to emphasise that a number of issues on which he sought answers were prompted by hypothetical questions, and he chided me for daring to refer—however tangentially—to the Scott report. I was simply making an observation on what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said about ministerial responsibility and the code of ministerial conduct. The hon. and learned Gentleman made a powerful speech, and I offer my compliments to him.

I did not share the Chancellor of the Duchy's sanguine view of quangos, of which many of my constituents are deeply suspicious, especially their membership. In Scotland, members of quangos have been appointed over the years on a party political basis. No matter what party is in power, it is a disgrace if the governance of Scotland is carried out in that way. It is a disgraceful state of affairs when people are chosen on the basis of party allegiance, rather than—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) said—on the basis of their qualifications and capability for the post concerned.

The Chancellor of the Duchy made a number of points about the market testing of public resources and agencies. Where do the Government stand on the market testing of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service? The Minister may not be able to answer today, but I know that he will, with characteristic courtesy, write to me on the matter. The RMAS is being tested, and it is a very important issue to constituents of mine who are employed by the service in Greenock. They give, in my view, valuable and loyal service to the RMAS. They deserve to be kept fully informed about their future; given the fine work that they do in the Firth of Clyde and elsewhere, they should not be treated callously and thoughtlessly. I should be grateful for a ministerial response to that serious constituency point.

There are points to be made about other agencies. Why do Home Office Ministers treat those awaiting deportation in Scotland differently from people caught up in similar circumstances south of the border? We are discussing ministerial responsibility, and Ministers' treatment of individuals. Surely, whatever the circumstances, there should be some uniformity throughout the United Kingdom. I know that the Minister is not responsible for such matters, but males awaiting deportation in Scotland are invariably incarcerated in Greenock prison. That is unfair to those involved, and not very conducive to the good management of the prison. It would be far better for men awaiting deportation to be detained in a holding centre at Glasgow airport.

Let me point out, with respect to hon. Members representing constituencies south of the border, that such holding centres exist at their main airports. Governor Gunn and his first-class staff should not have to look after detainees in Greenock prison, which is often overcrowded at the best of times. Could not the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the Scottish Prison Service persuade the BAA to make a site available at Glasgow airport? That would be an example of good ministerial management. If Home Office Ministers have United Kingdomwide responsibility for such matters, they should ensure that there is more uniformity on both sides of the border.

I seem to be skipping around in my references to Departments, but I believe that the Minister said that there were 110 agencies. Is it feasible for Sir Len Peach to investigate the implications of the severe cut in the action for community employment budget in Northern Ireland? Is that one of his responsibilities? Ministerial responsibility is of prime importance in the context of that savage cut: Northern Ireland Ministers have been grossly irresponsible. ACE provides employment in both traditions, and has helped to unite the two communities in the provision of assistance for people of all ages.

Such initiatives—introduced by the present Government in a principled way—help to diminish some of the hostility and alienation that are experienced in both communities. I feel, especially in the light of Friday's dreadful incident, that such initiatives make for a more tolerable society in Northern Ireland. I hope that Northern Ireland Ministers will be honest enough to admit that they have made a mistake, and that they should reverse their decision forthwith in the interests of those directly concerned. A cut of £12.5 million in ACE's budget may seem an insignificant aspect of ministerial decision making, but it has an important effect on the voluntary organisations involved and on both communities in Northern Ireland.

I appreciate that an immensely difficult task faces Northern Ireland Ministers. I travel to Northern Ireland fairly frequently, as I do to the Republic—I shall be going to Northern Ireland next week—and I recognise the difficulties involved in governing the Six Counties, given the hostility and resentment that exist in both communities; but a brutal fact will determine what takes place over the next few months, or even the next two or three years. The IRA and Sinn Fein are remorselessly pursuing the goal of a united Ireland. That cannot be achieved while the nationalists in the north are in a minority, but the community of two communities can be made a more tolerable place in which to live, and that can be achieved through ministerial responsibility.

Let me add, at a much less serious level, that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way in which Ministers govern Scotland, and it is shared by the overwhelming majority of my constituents. Major changes will have to be made in the governance of Scotland, whichever Minister is in a position to make them. The status quo is now acceptable to less than 12 per cent. of the population.

6.17 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I shall not follow the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), which consisted mostly of constituency points. I want to refer directly to the motion, which not many hon. Members have done.

The speech of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) was based on a popular myth. Although that myth enjoys great currency, I do the hon. and learned Gentleman the credit of saying that I believe him to know that it is a myth. The myth is that a Minister can and should take immediate responsibility for the smallest action that emanates from his Department, and for what happens at the furthest outpost.

As I have done before in the House, I illustrate that with the story of the man who hammered the table at my advice bureau and asked why John Major had not bothered to send his benefit cheque that week. One understands what he meant, but did he seriously believe that John Major had a bit of a down on him, and that the Government were simply being mean to him? Apparently he did. That may seem a silly story, but it characterises the way in which people view what Ministers should be doing. A Minister should "know" what is happening to transactions that, although small, are important to individuals, but that simply is not the case. Not only is the move to executive agencies in line with what is happening in the rest of the world; it must be the right course.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke about the framework. It is always going to be difficult to get the framework right. Almost everybody understands that we need to make a division between policy and operational matters, but getting it right is difficult. Some cases are easier than others—sometimes it is clear what is policy and what is operational. I accept that in the Prison Service, for example, it is difficult to define what is policy and what is operational.

Some dividing lines have been drawn more successfully than others. The establishment of a board to advise the chief executive and the Minister is crucial. When I had responsibility for some agencies, the advice that I received from an independent adviser from the business community was invaluable not only in understanding what was going on but in being able to have some control over what the agency was doing.

Ministers should not be discouraged by the fact that there are teething troubles. Some of the problems may not be teething troubles but matters in respect of which we will always argue—for example, whether they are operational or policy and whether we have got the dividing line right. That should not discourage them from a ploughing on with this course because it is right. When the management structure is right, it becomes clearer what people should do. If people who work in an arm of government know that if they make a complete Horlicks of something, the Minister will get the blame, what is there to make them take the responsibility that they should? It is there that the charters play such a key role.

The charters are best described as a 10-year project of process management. People should examine what they do. The person at the sharp end, the person who is organising at the sharp end and the person who organises a variety of sharp ends—if I can put it that way—should take responsibility for delivering that service. They should not blame the Government or say that it is the Minister's fault. They should say, "I am managing," or, "I am working on this counter. I am taking responsibility for that action." That is process management. There can be no doubt that it has worked.

The combination of the executive agencies and, to an extent, the charters has not only improved the Benefits Agency but transformed it. The service that my constituents get from the Benefits Agency is not perfect. We do not live in a perfect world and mistakes are made. It is a complicated business to administer, but the service that is delivered to my constituents has been transformed.

It is important to be able to identify areas in which performance can be improved. It is not enough only to measure the success. Analysis of public perceptions is crucial. Unless a service is responsive to those perceptions, there can be no real improvement. That is true across the public sector. Service providers increasingly accept that they have to set standards for services and achieve measurable improvements in service delivery. Those who carry out regular customer satisfaction surveys, market research, focus groups and customer panels are much more likely to identify the failings in the service that they provide. The outcomes of such activities inevitably lead to change.

For example, the relatively new patients charter sets challenging targets based on the results of surveys and market research on what users expect and want from our national health service. Thanks to the original charter, nobody waits two years for treatment, and all hip, knee and cataract operations are performed within 18 months. Today, we have had the welcome news that the 18-month deadline guarantee for in-patients that was set in the new patients charter has been met in almost all circumstances, and that soon we should be able to meet it in full.

Why did the Government move from a two-year guarantee to an 18-month one? It was not just the whim of a Minister or because somebody was trying to get publicity. It was because consultation showed that that was what the public expected and wanted from their national health service. They wanted the 18-month guarantee, they wanted nine out of 10 out-patients to be seen within 13 weeks, they wanted new standards for GPs and they wanted the charter to cover the service given by pharmacists and opticians as well as dentists. They wanted choice and information.

There are other examples that I do not have time to go into, but the core of the matter is information. Opposition Members have spoken as though all information has always been available and it has always been reasonable to expect to know what is going on. That is simply not true. Before the Government instituted citizens charters, much of the information on which public service delivery is now based was not available. It is all very well for the Opposition to talk about standards in education, but how do they know what the standards are? How do they know what service was delivered before?

When, a long time ago, I was the Conservative candidate in the old constituency of Stepney and Poplar, there was a school with new buildings and good facilities that had an interesting record. For two years running, it did not have a single examination pass. There were many schools of that sort, especially in working-class areas. People were being let down, but nobody was collecting the information. Nobody knew what was expected from those schools or what the schools were delivering. Thanks to the opening up of government and the availability of information, one service after another is being opened for public inspection.

We know precisely what our railways are delivering, so we will know precisely what improvements are made—and we believe firmly that there will be improvements—by the privatised service. We know what the courts are delivering and what the Benefits Agency is doing because they have to publish targets and people know how they are performing against them.

For the past four years, the examination results of every school and college have been published annually. As a parent with children in school, I believe that it is helpful to have the data necessary to be able to choose the best possible school for one's, children; otherwise, decisions are based on hearsay. I know what the schools in my area were like 10 or 20 years ago but I would not know now without examination results on which to base and inform my opinion.

The Government have done a great deal to open up government. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) mentioned the Select Committees as if they were part of the background and always had been. A Conservative Government introduced departmental Select Committees, which have transformed the way in which the House works. They have enhanced the House's ability to hold the Executive to account. I do not think that one will find any Minister in the Conservative Administration since 1979 who does not take Select Committees seriously. An appearance before a Select Committee is terrifying for a Minister. I am pleased to say that I never had to do it, but I know that Ministers spend a great deal of time briefing themselves and that they take very seriously what is said by the Select Committees.

Select Committees do a valuable job and they are a welcome part of the checks and balances of democracy, but I question whether too much credence is sometimes given to a Select Committee report when it has perhaps been based on a transitory look at a problem with substantially less information, back-up and research than is available to any Minister.

The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland mentioned "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" and said that there was something deficient in it. He is lucky to be able to do so. This Prime Minister published it; no one would have been able to talk about it before. Nor would anyone have been able to refer to Cabinet Committees, and I do not merely mean their composition, as it was a long-standing convention under successive Governments of different colours that one did not mention them. It was not admitted that the Government had them. Now we can discuss what they do, we know who is on them and influence can be brought to bear on them.

The work done by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Office of Public Service to make quangos more accountable, cut down their numbers, publish public bodies and improve the public appointments system is very welcome indeed. Those are not simply things that have been forced on them, but part of a long-term trend for this Government, who believe in open government.

The civil service cannot be a sacred or static entity. It has to evolve and change with a changing background. It has to change with circumstances. Civil servants are often disgracefully smeared by the Opposition and sneered at as being on the side of the Government. That is partly because they cannot answer back. My experience is that, almost without exception, civil servants are loyal to the Government. They are discreet and are committed to good government and to the Government in power. They are keen to engage in intelligent and private debate.

But that is the point—the civil servants who engage in private debate with this Government and who are loyal to this Government would be equally loyal to any Government elected. Indeed, many of the senior civil servants around today served Labour Ministers, often as private or assistant private secretaries. Undoubtedly, as I know from friends in the Labour party, they were 100 per cent. loyal to them, just as they are 100 per cent. loyal to the Government and would be loyal to any future Government. I had no idea what the politics of the civil servants with whom I worked were and I did not want to know; it was not relevant.

Some Opposition Members should tone down some of their criticism of civil servants. I know they think that they are making a point against the Government, but they are sneering at civil servants who are doing their best.

Mr. Derek Foster

Nothing has been said on that subject throughout the debate. I wonder what point the hon. Gentleman is making.

Mr. Hughes

I am talking about remarks that I have repeatedly heard in the House. I have never heard the right hon. Gentleman do so, but Opposition Members, including Labour Front Benchers, have made insinuations against the integrity of the civil service. We should understand where civil servants stand. We need to be proud of the legacy of our civil service and to understand that its daily achievements are important to our nation and to good government and that we should not do anything that would jeopardise it. The changes that my right hon and hon. Friends are bringing about in the civil service will enhance rather than damage it.

6.34 pm
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

I shall be speedy, as realise that Front-Bench Members and the Liberal Democrat spokesman wish to reply to the debate.

I will not take this point too far, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) said that the debate was boring. I have listened and found it extremely interesting, although it has obviously not ignited the interest of the whole House.

The noteworthy part of the introduction to this debate was doubtless the source of the discussion on ministerial responsibility. Without wanting to criticise them, the Liberal Democrats can stand on Olympian heights, as theirs is the party that is furthest from real ministerial responsibility—so one notes what they say. Yet the debate was introduced by a very learned member of that party—the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). His principle—it is the principle that one needs to take apart—was that breach of a convention damages the constitution. Certainly that is true. Doubtless he based that on the Maxwell-Fyfe principles. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster alluded to that.

Indeed, enlarging the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), one has to understand that there has been a huge expansion of responsibility and of day-to-day operations in the administration of Government. At the time of the Crichel Down case, only 3 million people were employed by the public sector. Even after 17 years of Conservative government and of shedding responsibilities and manpower, we still employ 5 million in that sector.

A Front-Bench Member with responsibility for the health service and for a million staff told me that he was responsible—nonsense as it was—for the swab left inside a patient in Carlisle. He employed a million people. Each day, his Department took trillions of decisions, yet, in some people's eyes, he was responsible for every single one of those decisions.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and West Devon)

May I ask my good friend from the Government side how he squares that comment with the knowledge—which he might not have at his fingertips—that, according to a Treasury decision taken by a Treasury QC, as a result of parliamentary questions that I asked, a Secretary of State for Health has personal ownership of every NHS patient's health record?

Mr. Booth

I am grateful for that intervention because it underlines the necessity to make those opaque waters clear. The debate gives us the opportunity to look at those opaque waters. We had illumination passed on them last week by Sir Robin Butler. I was about to say as I was interrupted that Sir Robin, head of the civil service, gave an example, which was germane and which will illuminate the rest of this debate. He explained the difference between accountability and responsibility, and said that, as the head of the civil service, he might go into the Cabinet Office and meet a security guard who was drunk. He said that he had never met a drunken security guard and he hoped he never would, but, if he did, the security guard would be responsible for his drunken behaviour whereas Sir Robin himself, as head of the Cabinet Office, would be accountable for it. That analogy makes the difference and it gives the lie to, and points to the mistake behind, the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

I hope that the House will support the Government because, alone among the parties, the Conservative party may be trusted with ministerial responsibility.

6.40 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) put his finger on at least one important facet of the debate when he drew attention to the recent remarks by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary. Sir Robin sought to draw a distinction between ministerial accountability and ministerial responsibility. It is a fashionable distinction, but in fact it is rather a new one. I believe that it is one that the Government are seeking to elaborate with a view to diminishing the central core pillar of our parliamentary democracy.

The distinction is reflected in many documents for which the Government have been responsible, most recently in their supplementary White Paper about the civil service code. The distinction was reflected in the debate on the prison escapes by the Home Secretary, who sought to evade criticism altogether on the grounds that, although the escapes fell within the responsibility of the Prison Service and were so grave that they ultimately led to him to dismiss the director of the Prison Service, they were not a matter for which he as Minister had responsibility.

One has only to recall those facts to recognise how the doctrine is being changed. I do not suggest that that is part of a systematic rewriting of our unwritten constitution. I suggest rather that it is a consequence, and not altogether a happy consequence, of the changes in the form and structure of government, which have been directed more to efficiency and effectiveness than to the sustaining of the doctrines that have made our constitutional arrangements highly regarded in other parts of the world.

A statement was made some years ago which I prefer to the doctrine of the division of accountability and responsibility. The statement shows how quickly the Government have managed to alter public perceptions, or have sought to do so, and it was made by Sir Ian Bancroft, the former head of the home civil service. When he gave evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in 1982, he said: The Minister in charge of a department … is responsible, and accountable to Parliament, for the effectiveness of his department's policies and the efficient and economical use of the resources allocated to it. It is part of that responsibility to ensure that his department has the systems, procedures, organisation and staffing necessary to promote efficient management. I suggest that Sir Ian did not attempt to draw a clear distinction between responsibility and accountability, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did when he spoke earlier. The Minister expressed a narrow, confining view of accountability, under which Ministers would not take responsibility for the mistakes of which they had no personal knowledge or for the misjudgments that had led to maladministration. If we accepted that view, it would not merely become conventional for the House of Commons to excuse Ministers on the grounds of lack of knowledge—that has certainly been the case in the past—but be argued that it was even improper for the House of Commons to inquire into the mistakes. That we have moved some way in that direction seems to me to be the almost ineluctable consequence of the establishment of the next steps agencies.

The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee has argued strongly that civil servants themselves, certainly the heads of the next steps agencies, should be accountable to the House and should come to answer questions about the discharge of their responsibilities. That is a debatable and important point, but I am bound to say that that would stand our constitution entirely on its head. I am not wholly persuaded that the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee is right to recommend such a new approach to the responsibilities of civil servants. Our country has benefited from having an independent civil service that is non-partisan and non-political.

We need to hold someone responsible and to be able to call someone to account. Conventionally, that person has been the Minister, but if that has changed, we must seriously consider the politicisation of the civil service and all that flows from it. I find that a very disturbing trend, and a much more serious issue than the Minister seemed to allow.

The debate has been brief, but valuable. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) called the debate trivial and yet at the same time, slightly contradictorily, he said that it touched on the core of our constitution. He should decide the issue for himself before he comes to the House to make a speech. The other contributions were rather more serious. I have a very brief time available to speak and I hope that those who contributed so thoughtfully to the debate will forgive me if I do not mention all their speeches.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mention his support for a system of proportional representation, albeit not that which my party advocates. I was especially impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), which was very considered and thoughtful, and much less partisan than his speeches on some occasions.

The importance of the debate, and of the subject matter with which we have wrestled, is enhanced by the fact that a very important report—one which has been three years in preparation—will be published on Thursday. The subject matter of that report is utterly germane to the debate. I know that some people will believe that that report cannot be dealt with adequately in questions and answers following its publication on Thursday. I hope that we shall have a proper opportunity to consider the implications for ministerial responsibility to which it may give rise.

I must tell those on the Government Front Bench that I have been disturbed by evidence of systematic attempts to criticise and devalue the report even before it has been published. The inquiry's procedures have been questioned, but I considered them robust but fair because they allowed the fullest possible comment on allegations by all against whom they have been made. I take the profoundest issue with Lord Howe, who has suggested that the inquiry should have been conducted in an adversarial manner. Such a method is quite unsuited to getting at the truth.

The Government may argue that the Scott report fortifies the Government's commitment to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, and that, by appointing an inquiry, the Government were giving strength to that. I would simply say that the inquiry was not the only way in which the Government could have proceeded. At least one Minister—the Attorney-General—was highly familiar with all the facets of the affair. That was made plain by the extent to which he sought to suppress evidence that might have been of value to the defence in the Matrix Churchill case.

Instead of setting up the expensive and thorough Scott inquiry, it would have been open to Ministers simply to make a clean breast of the affair to the House. That would have been a discharge of responsibility that the country would have understood. That would have strengthened the Government's claim to care for the doctrine of ministerial responsibility.

6.51 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. David Willetts)

The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) invited hon. Members to rise above party politics, but that may have been a rather optimistic thought, faced with the winding-up speech in a Supply day debate. We have been particularly urged to rise up above party politics and not to prejudge the Scott report. I have not read it, and I will not comment on it today, save to say that in the past three years we have experienced conspicuous attempts to prejudge that report led by, for example, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). I must say that I thought that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) seemed to prejudge the way in which the Government had set up that inquiry.

Some questions have been asked about accountability and responsibility. The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland asked about the distinction between the two. Perhaps it will help the House if I try to explain the distinction that we are making. The terminology may or may not be new, but the terminology is not the point; the thought behind the terminology is an old and well-established one.

The thought is that a Minister is accountable to Parliament for everything that goes on within his or her Department, in the sense that Parliament can call the Minister to account for it. The Minister, however, is responsible for the policies of the Department, including its agencies; for the framework within which those policies are delivered; for the resources allocated; for such decisions as the framework document held by next steps agency heads may require to be referred to him; and for responding to major failures or expressions of parliamentary or public concern.

A Minister cannot, however, be sensibly held to be responsible for everything that goes on in his Department in the sense of having personal knowledge and control of every action taken, and being personally blameworthy when tasks in relation to which he has no personal involvement are carried out incompetently.

Mr. Beith

If a Minister has intervened in a way that does not fit within the list of principles that the Minister has just given, is he then responsible for the consequences of his intervention?

Mr. Willetts

The right hon. Gentleman may have in mind the Prison Service, which I shall consider in a moment.

The explanation is that accountability is exercised for everything that goes on in the Department, and responsibility for matters for which the Minister can legitimately be held personally responsible. If one tries to extend personal responsibility to everything that goes on within a Department, the doctrine in effect becomes meaningless and incredible.

Miss Emma Nicholson

The Minister has properly pointed out that it is the thinking behind his remarks that counts. Is not the law, however, forcing Ministers into the position that the motion decries? For example, a recent ruling states that children are the property of the Crown. Ministers are, of course, Ministers of the Crown. A recent Queen's Counsel ruling to which I have already referred states that ownership of health records rests solely with the Secretary of State for Health. Surely such decisions on property and ownership give the lie to the statement that accountability and responsibility do not lie with Ministers. Property and ownership mean that one is responsible and accountable for those things that one owns.

Mr. Willetts

That is a rather eccentric point, but one which we should expect from a member of the Liberal Democrats.

I am trying to address the fundamental doctrine about ministerial accountability and responsibility. The Prison Service offers a clear example of how that doctrine applies in practice. The Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service, and it is his responsibility to lay down its policies. He is accountable and responsible to Parliament for those policies, but responsibility for day-to-day management has been delegated to the director general of the Prison Service. In his report, Sir John Learmont made no criticism of the Home Secretary's policies, but made serious criticisms about the way in which the Prison Service had been run.

Mr. Derek Foster

If the Home Secretary continually interferes in operational matters within the Prison Service—I do not necessarily blame him for doing so if political issues arise in the House or in the tabloids—and makes the operation of the service impossible, what is the position on responsibility and accountability?

Mr. Willetts

Ministers are, of course, entitled to intervene in specific operational matters. Should information come to Ministers' attention that policy is not being properly implemented or that an operational matter is causing concern, they would be failing in their duty to Parliament and to the public if they ignored such information and did nothing.

In the few minutes left to me, I should like to make a small number of simple points that have been lost in the elaborate arguments of the debate. First, many claims were made about membership of quangos and appointments to them. I have done some research on such appointments, and I discovered that, in 1979, the last year of the previous Labour Government, there were 39 members of the Trades Union Congress general council. I invite hon. Members to consider how many appointments to public bodies those 39 members may have held. [HON. MEMBERS: "Twenty."] I hear 20, but no, not even 50. [HON. MEMBERS: "A hundred."] No, the answer is more than 100. [HON. MEMBERS: "One hundred and fifty."] The answer is more than that. Those 39 members of the TUC general council had between them 180 public appointments. That is an average of four and a half each.

That approach to appointments to quangos quite understandably brought that Labour Government into disrepute. It is in striking contrast to our approach—I address in particular the remarks of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman)—with the appointment of Sir Len Peach. In his role of scrutinising public appointments, he ensures that they are all proper and correct. If there is any known political background to someone who receives a public appointment, that is made publicly known.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) made some important points about the policies of the Liberal Democrats. Today the Liberal Democrats have talked a lot about accountability to Parliament. However, they believe in a massive extension of qualified majority voting—so that a Minister will have a clear responsibility to the House, will have a clear position on which he should be negotiating in Europe, and will have lost the power to deliver the policy for which he was responsible to the House. That is the biggest single threat to ministerial accountability.

The Liberal Democrats also referred to quangos—in fact, they proposed 892 new quangos: new Ministries, new levels of regional government, an industrial partnership agency, a judicial services commission, a national statistical commission, an animal protection commission, a fruit commission, a drugs commission, a national qualification council, a general teaching council, a humanities research council—I could go on. The creation of 892 new quangos would completely undermine the ability of the House to hold Ministers to account for their policies. Therefore, it is clear that the House should reject the motion tabled by the Liberal Democrats and instead support the amendment in the name of the Government.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 39, Noes 247.

Division No. 49] [7.00 pm
Alton, David Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Barnes, Harry Lynne, Ms Liz
Beith, Rt Hon A J Maclennan, Robert
Bennett, Andrew F Maddock, Diana
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Mahon, Alice
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Campbell-Savours, D N Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Canavan, Dennis Paisley, The Reverend Ian
Chidgey, David Rendel, David
Clapham, Michael Salmond, Alex
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Skinner, Dennis
Corbyn, Jeremy Spearing, Nigel
Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Tyler, Paul
Faulds, Andrew Wallace, James
Godman, Dr Norman A Wareing, Robert N
Harvey, Nick
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Tellers for the Ayes:
Johnston, Sir Russell Mr Archy Kirkwood and
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Mr Don Foster.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Atkins, Rt Hon Robert
Alexander, Richard Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)
Amess, David Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Baldry, Tony
Arbuthnot, James Bates, Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bellingham, Henry
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Bendall, Vivian
Beresford, Sir Paul Gorst, Sir John
Body, Sir Richard Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Booth, Hartley Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Boswell, Tim Grylls, Sir Michael
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Hague, Rt Hon William
Bowden, Sir Andrew Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bowis, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Brandreth, Gyles Hannam, Sir John
Brazier, Julian Hargreaves, Andrew
Bright, Sir Graham Harris, David
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Hawkins, Nick
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Hawksley, Warren
Browning, Mrs Angela Hayes, Jerry
Bruce, Ian (Dorset) Heald, Oliver
Budgen, Nicholas Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Burt, Alistair Hendry, Charles
Butler, Peter Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Carrington, Matthew Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Cash, William Horam, John
Chapman, Sir Sydney Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Clappison. James Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Coe, Sebastian Jack, Michael
Colvin, Michael Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Congdon, David Jenkin, Bernard
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Jessel, Toby
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Couchman, James Key, Robert
Cran, James King, Rt Hon Tom
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Kirkhope, Timothy
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Knapman, Roger
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Day, Stephen Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Devlin, Tim Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Dover, Den Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Duncan, Alan Legg, Barry
Duncan-Smith, Iain Leigh, Edward
Dunn, Bob Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Durant, Sir Anthony Lidington, David
Dykes, Hugh Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Elletson, Harold Lord, Michael
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Luff, Peter
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) MacKay, Andrew
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Faber, David McLoughlin, Patrick
Fabricant, Michael Maitland, Lady Olga
Fenner, Dame Peggy Malone, Gerald
Fishburn, Dudley Mans, Keith
Forman, Nigel Marland, Paul
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling) Marlow, Tony
Forth, Eric Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
French, Douglas Merchant, Piers
Gale, Roger Mills, Iain
Gardiner, Sir George Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Garnier, Edward Moate, Sir Roger
Gill, Christopher Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James
Gillan, Cheryl Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Needham, Rt Hon Richard
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Nelson, Anthony
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Neubert, Sir Michael
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Stern, Michael
Nicholls, Patrick Streeter, Gary
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Sweeney, Walter
Norris, Steve Sykes, John
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Ottaway, Richard Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Page, Richard Temple-Morris, Peter
Paice, James Thomason, Roy
Patnick, Sir Irvine Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Pawsey, James Thurnham, Peter
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Townend, John (Bridlington)
Porter, David (Waveney) Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Rathbone, Tim Tredinnick, David
Redwood, Rt Hon John Trend, Michael
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Trotter, Neville
Richards, Rod Twinn, Dr Ian
Riddick, Graham Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Viggers, Peter
Robathan, Andrew Walden, George
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Waller, Gary
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Waterson Nigel
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Watts, John
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Wells, Bowen
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Shaw, David (Dover) Whitney, Ray
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Whittingdale, John
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Widdecombe, Ann
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Shersby, Sir Michael Wilkinson, John
Sims, Roger Willetts, David
Skeet, Sir Trevor Wilshire, David
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Spencer, Sir Derek Wolfson, Mark
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Wood, Timothy
Spink, Dr Robert Yeo, Tim
Spring, Richard
Sproat, Iain Tellers for the Noes:
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Mr. Derek Conway and
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Mr. Simon Burns.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the Government's policies for discharging Ministerial accountability to Parliament, for improving the management and delivery of public services, for maintaining high standards in public bodies, and for improving the openness and responsiveness of the public sector, thus creating a framework for good Government.