HC Deb 25 March 1996 vol 274 cc695-6
5. Mr. Gerrard

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what are the Government's plans for implementing the recommendations of the Scott report in so far as they apply to the civil service. [20680]

Mr. Willetts

The Government are currently consulting on a number of the issues raised by the Scott report and will consider how the report's recommendations should be implemented in the light of comments received. A memorandum has been submitted to the Public Service Select Committee setting out the timetable for taking forward the individual recommendations of the Scott report. With the consent of the Committee, that memorandum was placed in the Library of the House this morning.

Mr. Gerrard

Does the Minister accept that the Government's response to the question of ministerial responsibility has left civil servants in an impossible position? If Ministers continue to deny responsibility for the actions of their Departments, the civil service will be left with no direct line of accountability to Parliament, which would be completely unacceptable to Parliament and the civil service. Does that not show the need for a freedom of information Act, so that Parliament and the public can be clear where responsibility for decisions lies?

Mr. Willetts

There is a clear understanding of the difference between ministerial responsibility for decisions that Ministers take, for which they must take responsibility in the House, and the wider doctrine of accountability. Of course people must be held accountable for everything that goes on in their Department, but not necessarily personally responsible. Of course it is important that civil servants understand their position. This Government have done more to bring into the open the clear position of civil servants, and the code for civil servants' behaviour takes us way beyond anything that we had before.

Mr. Derek Foster

Is not the Minister for open government shaken when the front page of the Daily Express clamours Can we still trust them"? Was not Scott right to call for the fullest information to Parliament, so that it and the public can judge who was responsible? Will not full disclosure only come with a freedom of information Act, a civil service Act and the strengthening of Select Committees after the next election under a Labour Government?

Mr. Willetts

In a speech last week, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) said: We must be very careful before we edge civil service advice to ministers further into the public domain. Those words explain the reason for Governments of all parties hitherto refraining from making civil service advice to Ministers generally publicly available.

As to a freedom of information Act, the crucial question is what exclusions there would be. We know that many such Acts around the world, such as that which operates in the United States of America, specifically exclude precisely the sort of advice that the right hon. Gentleman seems to want published in this country.