HC Deb 12 February 1997 vol 290 cc273-93

[Relevant documents: Second report from the Public Service Committee of Session 1995–96, on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC 313), the Government's response thereto (HC 67 of Session 1996–97) and first report from the Public Service Committee of Session 1996–97, on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC 234).]

11 am

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)

As you rightly say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I speak this morning in my capacity as Chairman of the Public Service Select Committee. As a Back Bencher, I remain convinced, as I was on 26 February 1996, when the House debated the Scott report, that Ministers should have resigned over that committee's findings.

When Sir Richard Scott came before the Select Committee, he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright): Was Parliament denied information that Parliament constitutionally ought to have been provided with? Sir Richard replied: I think so, yes. When asked: Did something constitutionally improper happen? Sir Richard said: Yes, I think it did and I said so. In the event, the Government won the Scott debate by one vote and Ministers survived. I was always clear in my mind that our role in the Public Service Select Committee should not be to re-run the resignation debate; rather, it was to try to learn lessons from the Scott report and also from the Lewis affair, which had prompted our original investigations—lessons for ministerial responsibility and accountability and how it was to be defined and exercised in the modern world of a powerful Executive, the reformed civil service with new next steps agencies and, of course, rapidly changing events both at home and abroad.

We published our main report on ministerial accountability and responsibility last July. I thank my colleagues, many of whom are here today, our specialist advisers, our Clerk and our staff for their very valuable contribution. I know that hon. Members who are on the Select Committee and others wish to speak in the debate, so I shall summarise the main recommendations of the report.

With respect to definition, the Committee rejected the distinction that Sir Robin Butler attempted to draw when he came before the Scott inquiry between accountability and responsibility—in other words, that Ministers are always accountable to Parliament for the work of their Department but are not necessarily responsible for everything that happens in those Departments. We point out that it is not possible to distinguish clearly an area in which a Minister is personally responsible, and liable to take blame, from one in which he or she is merely constitutionally accountable. That is why we concluded: Ministerial responsibility is not composed of two elements with a clear break between the two. Ministers have an obligation to Parliament which consists in ensuring that government explains its actions. Ministers also have an obligation to respond to criticism made in Parliament in a way that seems likely to satisfy it—which may include, if necessary, resignation. However, as a Committee we are not obsessed, except in one respect to which I shall return, with the question of resignation. In fact, we tended to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) that Parliament undervalues accountability, and that proper and vigorous scrutiny in accountability may be more important to Parliament's ability to correct error than forcing resignations.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I hope not to use the time of the House again in this important debate.

My hon. Friend made the important distinction between accountability and responsibility, but does he agree that it is the responsibility of Ministers to order the arrangements in their Departments in such a way that correspondence—including that from statutory bodies—on certain matters is drawn to their attention, when necessary? If that does not happen, Ministers are irresponsible in the organisation of their Department. There may be cases where correspondence on important matters sent to the Minister is not received by the Minister personally.

Mr. Radice

My hon. Friend gives an important example that shows why it is so difficult to make the distinction that Sir Robin Butler was trying to make, and emphasises the point that Ministers are responsible for the organisation of their Departments. If the organisation does not work effectively, and prevents a Minister from knowing about things that he should have known about, the Minister is responsible for that.

When we considered the issue of accountability, it seemed extraordinary to us that the only explicit statement on how Ministers are expected to discharge their obligation to Parliament appears in "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", which is not only, as Professor Hennessy told us, in his usual witty way, a mix of immutable principles with housekeeping practicalities", but very much a prime ministerial or Executive document. I congratulate the Prime Minister on publishing that document, but that is not good enough. If Parliament is to make Ministers more accountable, we need a parliamentary resolution that sets out in clear and simple terms what we ourselves expect of Ministers.

Our report attempts to provide such a resolution. Indeed, if our report has a big idea, it lies in our resolution on ministerial accountability. As the House knows, the Government have accepted the value of our idea and issued their own draft, which they have been discussing with the other main parties in the House. Meanwhile, the Public Service Select Committee has considered the Government's draft. As we say in our follow-up report, which we managed to publish in time for the debate—I congratulate those who were responsible for that—we believe that the Government's draft resolution represents a useful and important step forward". The resolution has four main principles. First, it sets out a Minister's duty to account to Parliament for policies, decisions and actions of Departments and agencies. Secondly, it lays on Ministers the duty of openness, limited only by statute and by the code of practice on access to Government information. That is something on which we have insisted, and I congratulate the Government on accepting what we said on that point. Thirdly, the resolution lays on Ministers the duty to give accurate and truthful information to the House. Any inadvertent error should be corrected at the earliest opportunity. If Ministers knowingly mislead the House, we expect them to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

We had a slightly different formula. We said that Ministers should resign forthwith. We are prepared to accept the Government's formula, because it is the case that Ministers offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

The fourth principle is the obligation on civil servants to be as open as possible with Select Committees, as set out in the civil service code. I congratulate the Government on accepting our formulation. It is important to draw in civil servants: we are not proposing that they should be directly accountable to Parliament, but it is their responsibility to be as open as possible in their dealings with Select Committees and with Members when, under ministerial direction, they reply to their letters and meet them.

I congratulate the Government on their response to the Committee's report. However, I emphasise the need for speed. It is essential that a resolution along the lines proposed by the Government should be passed before the dissolution of Parliament and the general election.

The Liberal Democrats feel very strongly that agencies should be directly accountable to Select Committees. In the Government's formulation, agencies are mentioned only in passing; they were not mentioned at all in ours, although in our report we made several recommendations. We said that, in practice, the House had already moved beyond the conventional position, and that agencies and agency chiefs were directly involved in giving information to Parliament with only formal involvement of Ministers. In my judgment, the House would not want to give up that formal involvement, because many hon. Members appreciate the fact that they can go to Ministers if they are not content with the answers they receive from agencies. We may move beyond that in time, but we are not in that position at the moment.

The Committee has said that the Osmotherly rules should be amended to indicate a presumption that Ministers will agree to requests by Select Committees for agency chief executives to give evidence. As yet, we have no example of agency chiefs who have not come before a Select Committee when it has called for them to appear. We have also said that agency chief executives should give evidence to Select Committees on matters delegated to them in framework documents, and that that should be put in the Osmotherly rules. They do precisely that in practice.

The Lewis issue concerned the possible confusion between the responsibility of Ministers and that of agency chief executives. The Committee said, first, that there should be far greater clarity of roles; the role of Ministers and that of agency chiefs should be clearly defined with respect to the responsibilities in framework documents.

Secondly, we said—a number of hon. Members were responsible for this point, including some who are present and who, I hope, will speak later—that we should consider whether politically sensitive agencies should be established on a statutory basis. It is true that the ability to question Ministers about what happens in those statutory agencies would be lost, but the agency chiefs could come before and be directly accountable to Select Committees, which is what Liberal Democrats believe should apply to all agencies. What we would lose on the swings, we would gain on the roundabouts. We want the Government to consider that possibility.

I understand, and to some extent sympathise with, the Liberal Democrats' position, but it would be a tragedy if we failed to get this resolution through. The report concludes: We recommend that the Government should continue to seek cross-party approval for its draft Resolution, but we believe that failure to obtain the support of all parties should not prevent the House agreeing to a Resolution before the dissolution of this Parliament. I want to make two short points about how the House could enforce accountability. The Committee considered a number of models, such as the Nolan model, which proposes a commissioner. We saw a possible role for the parliamentary ombudsman, but we preferred the idea of the Table Office publishing a list of the questions that had been blocked, which could be considered by a Select Committee—perhaps the Public Service Committee—to see what lessons could be learnt and whether the rules on the provision of information were being correctly applied.

The Committee believes that the Select Committee system should be strengthened. We must ask ourselves whether we have kept up with the revolution in government. In her evidence, Kate Jenkins referred to the Government as a modern organisation dealing with a rather old-fashioned form of accountability. Another witness talked about the embarrassment of informational riches". We receive an awful lot of information, but are we making as much sense of it as we ought?

I am glad that the Liaison Committee is examining the role of Select Committees in its end-of-term report, and I hope that, at the beginning of the next Session, it will take a longer look at that. The Liaison Committee should consider whether we have enough staff, whether there should be a closer relationship with the National Audit Office—I know that there are problems about that—and whether we should build a more proactive and positive relationship with agencies. I am sure that there are other questions that should be considered.

The Public Service Select Committee, in its very short life, has proved itself. It has considered civil service matters, but it has also had to deal with the aftermath of the Scott report and with constitutional issues. I see its future developing partly along those lines, rather like the Swedish select committee that we saw.

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way during his concluding sentences. In reviewing the various matters that the Committee considered last year, particularly the supervision and checking of the accountability of Ministers, would he refer to the wider ambit of the ombudsman in Sweden?

Mr. Radice

There is no doubt that the ombudsman plays a much greater role in Sweden, as indeed does the audit officer, who is an important figure, although that may not be his correct title. In Sweden, various bodies enforce non-parliamentary accountability and protect the individual. Clearly, we need to consider that as well.

In conclusion, I repeat that we must get a resolution on accountability through the House of Commons. We must show the public that proper lessons have been learnt from the Scott report, and that some good has come out of those events.

11.18 am
Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)

This is an important, if somewhat esoteric, debate for both the House of Commons and the public at large. I am sure that it is right for the Liaison Committee to use one of its scarce slots on Wednesday mornings to provide the House with the opportunity to debate the issues to which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) referred.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work of his Committee. He served a long and distinguished apprenticeship as Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. I agree with him that the new Committee, which he chairs, is making an important contribution. I congratulate also the Minister responsible for public service—also an alumnus of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service—on the response that the Government have given to the various recommendations in the Committee's reports. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for North Durham that the resolution that he proposes should be passed during the current Parliament. We should seek to resolve the matter now rather than waiting until the next Parliament, when not all of us will necessarily be here.

This is a difficult subject to "mug up". It has an enormous history, which I shall say something about before taking up one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for North Durham about the Liaison Committee, which I have the honour of chairing. The history to which I refer is largely lost in the mists of time, but the matter came to public attention way back in 1954, on 20 July, when statements were made by the then Home Secretary about the famous Crichel Down case.

The myth grew up that a Minister had resigned—as Ministers ought in such cases—because something had gone wrong in his Department. Although the Minister had known nothing about it, because not he but his officials had been involved, it was nevertheless right for him to resign. As Professor Griffiths and others have amply demonstrated, however, this was a myth: the Minister in fact resigned for an entirely different reason—the fact that he had been involved in a row in the Conservative party's 1922 Committee. When I first arrived in the House, the myth was pretty widespread—and, in some ways, a rather good myth, as it endorsed the idea that Ministers should resign regardless of whether they knew about things if they had a responsibility to know about them.

None the less, the myth was a myth. It was very much to the fore again in 1985–86, when the Treasury and Civil Service Committee decided to look into the question of ministerial accountability. Rather to the Committee's surprise, it had hardly become involved in the issue when the Westland affair developed, and we were inundated with a spate of Committee reports. The Treasury Committee's seventh report, published at the beginning of the affair in 1985–86, was followed by a Defence Committee report; there was then a report from the Liaison Committee—the only one, I believe, to deal with a specific subject—and another Treasury Committee report. During all that there were innumerable Government responses, none of them very satisfactory. Important distinctions were made, relating to both ministerial accountability and responsibility and the position of officials—the distinction between officials' conduct and their actions.

Much of the report to which the hon. Member for North Durham referred is concerned not only with ministerial accountability and responsibility but with the position of officials. I believe that, following what I can only describe as the negotiations that have taken place between the Public Service Committee and the Minister, we have reached something of a modus vivendi with regard to officials. One question has been largely resolved: if the conduct of an official is in question, the Government, as employer, are responsible for their employees and for ensuring that they too are accountable to the House, through the Minister. I am glad about that, because the issue is not easy. I believe that the distinction that has been made is now perfectly workable.

The Public Service Committee recently published a report, which was followed by a Government response and then a response to that from the Committee. While that was going on, the new Osmotherly rules were published, which was something of an advance in that the position was rationalised. Paragraph 18 of the Public Service Committee's first report deals with accountability in Select Committees, a subject that concerns me as Chairman of the Liaison Committee. It recommends that the Liaison Committee should inquire into a number of aspects of the work of Select Committees, including their relationship with the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee"— a point on which the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) may wish to comment—and adds: Although the Liaison Committee may be unable to undertake a full-scale inquiry in the little time that remains before the dissolution, we welcome the steps it has taken to assemble information". I do not wish to breach Select Committee confidentiality, but it is well known that normally—although not invariably—the Liaison Committee produces an end-of-Parliament report, and I hope that it will be able to do so on this occasion.

I am a little doubtful about the Public Service Committee's broad recommendation that we should look into the operation of the whole Select Committee system. It is true that there was an inquiry by the Procedure Committee back in 1990, but an appraisal of how clever we have been may lead to a feeling that we are judge and jury in our own cause, and such an investigation should probably be carried out by someone else. I hope, however, that we can take up the issues raised by the Public Service Committee, and that—although I must not prejudge what will happen—the individual reports that normally form an appendix to the Liaison Committee's report will provide a firmer basis for an examination of the way in which the Select Committee system can be improved. I hope that that will be done before the end of the current Parliament, and will provide a guide for the future development of the Select Committee in the next one.

There is always a problem of continuity, not least because we have no mechanism to ensure that Select Committees are established without the delays that we have seen in the last three Parliaments. As I shall not be able to perform such a role, I hope that a group of existing Chairmen, returning in the next Parliament, will press strongly for such a development. I also hope that a system can be devised to deal with each of the issues raised by the Public Service Committee—for instance, the question of the NAO and the accountability of agencies.

These are deep waters. It is difficult to discuss such issues on one's feet, rather than writing about them in a report. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham on the way in which he has spelt them out. I believe that, although more work remains to be done, we have made considerable progress on the question of officials' accountability and, to a greater extent, that of ministerial accountability.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. I hope that, despite the divisions that may exist between, say, the Liberal party and other parties on the precise content of the resolution, it will be tabled before the House rises for the general election. We want to get it out of the way and firmly on the record, so that, whatever the result of the election, the House will have made real progress on an important matter.

Select Committees now play a fundamental role in the responsibility of Ministers to the House. As we all know, in party debates across the Floor of the House it is very difficult to pin down a Minister; at Question time the subject changes from moment to moment, and there are very few supplementary questions. That is not the same ball game as appearing before a Select Committee on an all-party basis, a process that can go on for two hours or more. It is important for us to get the whole of that side of it right, and I believe that the progress made in the succession of Select Committee reports and Government responses gives us hope that matters will be improved in the future.

11.28 am
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

It is a great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir. T. Higgins). His tenure as Chairman of the Liaison Committee provides a model for his successors, and we look forward to his principles being copied throughout the next Parliament. I am concerned with the notions of ministerial accountability, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) has introduced this matter, because it needs to be settled, at least to some degree, before the end of this Parliament.

Accounting officers, usually the permanent secretaries, come before us in the Public Accounts Committee. Sometimes they provide notes of dissent to the PAC. We had a notable case in the Pergau dam affair. The permanent secretary put in his note of dissent—I believe that it is called a letter of direction now—saying that he disagreed with the expenditure of public money. A total of £234 million was spent on the basis of a two-day visit to Malaysia to see the dam site. That was clearly inadequate. It was discovered by the PAC only because the National Audit Office had investigated the matter. If it had not, it would not have been discovered.

When I gave evidence to the Nolan committee, I said that I had requested that all notes of dissent should come to the PAC. That was finally agreed only days before I gave evidence to the Nolan committee, so now I get those notes of dissent via the NAO and receiving them is of great importance. Quite a few have come to my attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham dealt with the relationship between the Department and agencies. That relationship varies widely. We have one extreme example. Sir Michael Partridge, the permanent secretary to the Department of Social Security, came before the PAC on a number of occasions to deal with the Benefits Agency, whose head was Michael Bichard, a person of great standing and great ability; yet Sir Michael Partridge dealt with all the questions—it was as though it had not become an executive agency.

The Committee was happy with Sir Michael doing that, because he obviously knew exactly what he was talking about. He had all the details at his finger tips. That is the normal position, although one would not expect it to be, so there are variations between the relationship between such executive agencies and the Department. I am not against a certain amount of flexibility, but perhaps it would be better, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham rightly points out, if some of this were set out.

There are serious gaps in accountability, particularly in non-departmental public bodies, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) for the way in which he has reacted, which follows on from the arguments that some of us have been putting forward. He spelled it out in much greater detail, which I welcome. Non-departmental public bodies, or quangos as they are generally called, now spend about £17 billion of public funds each year. The Comptroller and Auditor General audits only half of the 300 quangos which fall into that category. The rest are audited by private firms appointed by Secretaries of State and include bodies with substantial sums of money, such as the Housing Corporation and the Legal Aid Board, which each spend more than £1 billion a year.

Where the CAG audits such bodies, there is obviously open accountability because reports are produced, which come before the PAC. The CAG reports to Parliament. We know that his independence is guaranteed. By contrast, private firms are appointed by Departments and report primarily to them. It is a matter for the Department whether the audit covers matters that are of particular interest to Parliament and the PAC, such as propriety in particular and the proper conduct of public business, which has concerned the PAC for a long time.

I and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern), the Chairman of Public Accounts Commission, recommended that the CAG should audit such bodies and we produced a memorandum to that effect. Up to now, the Government have not agreed to that recommendation. We need to have the general principle accepted that important national public bodies should be audited by the CAG. That could be done by his appointment to all new quangos, as well as to existing ones, whenever their statutes come up for renewal. We therefore hope that there can be a move in that direction, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland has suggested.

As for other bodies, accountability systems of housing associations, grant-maintained schools as well as training and enterprise councils have developed piecemeal without proper scrutiny of public funds and something needs to be done to ensure that there is proper accountability there in the way that we wish. Lord Nolan saw great merit in the CAG being granted inspection rights over all public expenditure. As I have said, in a memorandum to the Government, the right hon. Member for Horsham and I recommended that that could best be provided by attaching conditions to any public funding.

Up to now, the Government have not agreed to that recommendation. They consider that the independent status of bodies such as housing associations is important. In the past, however, Parliament has recognised the need for the CAG to have access to independent bodies and legislation does provide for him to have access to grant-maintained schools, universities and institutions of further and higher education. The NAO's work in the education sector is supported by the Public Accounts Committee, but we need greater assurance that bodies within such sectors spend public funds entrusted to them efficiently and properly.

On contractors—people who undertake work for Government Departments and other bodies—we need to provide Parliament with an assurance that Government Department business in private hands has been conducted with probity and proper care of public money. The NAO needs to be able to scrutinise records held by private contractors. There is nothing revolutionary in that, because at present the European Court of Auditors has such rights of access. Where European money is involved, it can go to those contractors and see the records, but the NAO, acting on our behalf, does not have the same right. That is absurd, and the right hon. Member for Horsham and I put the memorandum to Government asking for the NAO to have that right.

I look forward to hearing the response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who I know agrees with many of my arguments. I hope that, following the next election, we shall see a move in this direction, to the benefit of accountability in government generally.

11.36 am
Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) on his skilful and common-sense chairmanship of our Committee and on the concise and forward-looking way in which he introduced our reports in his speech. Like him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) and the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)—I am glad, as I am sure that the rest of the Committee is, to have such distinguished and experienced endorsement—I believe that it is important for the House to adopt the resolution speedily.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been brokering this with the political parties—I am glad that he has been doing that and doing it so well—but not because Ministers need to be told that they must tell the House the truth; they know that, and they take trouble to do so—a belief that reading Scott generally confirms rather than undermines. No the resolution is important because it makes it clear that in future the relationship is governed by parliamentary authority and not by Executive convention. That establishes an important principle on which Parliament will no doubt choose to build as occasions and necessity arise.

The resolution will also reinforce Scott in the sense of obliging Ministers and officials to consider with greater care the completeness and the impression left by the answers that they give. That is not easy, because the truth is many-faceted, and replies must be concise. When I was a Minister answering a parliamentary question about the number of escapes from Group 4 escorts, I gave the figures as accurately as possible and, of course, in the form requested. The Opposition gleefully found the answer satisfactory. Group 4, however, rightly felt ill used, because I had not said in the answer something that was also certainly true—that it had lost far fewer prisoners than the police and prison service escorts who had previously provided the service. Group 4 was not convinced that that direct and unadorned answer, which was fully accurate in response to the question, was other than very misleading. I think that Group 4 had a point, but the Opposition thought that the answer was fine.

I believe that the Government's version of the resolution is rather better than our Committee's original suggestion. The Government's version places a positive requirement on Ministers, whereas our's was negatively rooted in the old concept of contempt of Parliament. The effect is not very different, but the wording in the Government's version has enabled them, with some deftness, to emphasise that civil servants are accountable to Ministers—not to the House—by placing the duty squarely upon Ministers to ensure that civil servants give full and accurate information when the latter appear before the House.

I know that some hon. Members are unhappy that civil servants' accountability remains indirect and through their Ministers, but—like the hon. Member for North Durham—I believe that the resolution is a very real advance. I know that some hon. Members—not only those confined to the Liberal party—believe that civil servants should appear on their own account and answer questions autonomously, including their criticisms of and hopes for the current and future policies of their Departments.

I do not believe that that approach would be right or workable, or that it would enhance real accountability to the House, because officials are not responsible for determining policy, although they may and do heavily influence it. Such an approach would certainly destroy trust and working relationships, which are essential to the smooth running of a Department, and it would provide a club with which political opponents could beat Ministers over the head, without making them or their Departments one jot more accountable to Parliament.

I appreciate that the proponents of direct accountability of civil servants are thinking primarily of the role of agency chief executives—who often appear before Select Committees, and who have operational responsibility for running the agency formally delegated to them. It is argued that they are not traditional civil servants but have, it is said, an independent command and thus should be independently accountable to their Select Committee. However, I am sure that that is a misapprehension. An agency chief executive is supposed to direct daily operations, but according to the policy set by the Minister. Moreover, as the Minister is ultimately responsible, the Minister may intervene at any point. Indeed, as he is ultimately accountable, the Minister has a duty to intervene in operational matters if he thinks that some adjustment is required.

Therefore, I do not believe that the rules for agency heads can be different from those for other civil servants—although when they come before Select Committees they can shed light on a wider range of issues because they have a wider range of responsibility. Agency heads should answer fully and frankly when explaining what they are doing and what policies they are following. However, if they are asked questions which require them to discuss the merits of alternative policies that they might be asked to adopt, they should say that that is a matter for the Minister rather than for them.

I believe that part of the suspicion generated by the current arrangements results from hon. Members not always being quite sure of when a chief executive is speaking fully and frankly about the execution and objectives of a policy and when he is speaking guardedly on behalf of his Minister about policy alternatives. I am sure that it would be better if Select Committees were always understanding of that distinction, and if a chief executive were to say when discussion moves out of his direct sphere, so that the Committee could decide to raise those issues with the Minister himself.

I agree, however, with those who want change. I believe that it would be a great move forwards if the chief executives of some agencies had independent commands for which they could be held directly accountable by a Select Committee. The essential point, however, is that the nature of their responsibilities would have to change first. Moreover, the House could not then also hold the Minister accountable, as not even Parliament can have it both ways.

I therefore hope that the Government, the House and the appropriate Select Committees will give very careful thought to the case for cutting some agencies loose from their parent Departments. If that were done, policy requirements for agencies would have to be specified in statute or, more probably, in statutory instruments, so that policy would be public and belong to Parliament rather than to the sponsoring Minister. If a Minister wanted to change that policy, he would have to ask the House for changes to statutory instruments. A chief executive would of course have to operate within those statutory rules, but he—not the Secretary of State—would be fully accountable for all his decisions and how he ran the agency under that legislative prescription.

As this is a very short debate, I shall not attempt to argue the proposition fully. With the right agency, however, I believe that there could be real gains in morale, consistency and effectiveness and in liberation from the Department and from constant and unsettling changes of Ministers. There would certainly be greater scope, not less scope, for the House to oversee the agency. The Government would have to obtain Parliament's consent to any policy change, because Parliament would have to embody it in a new statutory instrument.

The chief executive would be directly accountable to the Select Committee. There would certainly be a reduction in the range of ministerial responsibility and of matters on which the House could effectively question Ministers, but there would certainly be no diminution of accountability to Parliament. Indeed, that accountability could be more thoroughly and effectively insisted upon and discharged.

I hope that we shall be able to return to this subject, as I believe it is an extremely important one in determining how we do our business.

11.46 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), the Chairman of the Public Service Select Committee, on the work that he is doing. I also hope that the Committee will be re-established, so that it can continue with and implement its thinking on the important matters covered by the valuable report that we are debating today.

Before I deal with the central point concerning my right hon. Friends and I in the Government's response—which the Government hope will eventually be a resolution of the House—to the Committee's report, I should like to endorse entirely the comments of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) on the importance of bringing non-departmental bodies, which are responsible for such substantial public expenditure, within the ambit of National Audit Office scrutiny. I hope that there is cross-party agreement on that matter, and that it will be acted on early in the lifetime of the next Parliament. The current situation seems to present an anomaly, which could easily be rectified, although not without certain consequences for the establishment of the NAO. However, as the case was so formidably put by the right hon. Gentleman, it is not necessary to enlarge on it.

I suppose that we should consider it flattering that the Public Service Committee felt it necessary, in paragraph 10 of the report just issued, to say that the Government should continue to seek cross-party approval for its draft Resolution,"— I entirely agree with that— but we believe that failure to obtain the support of all parties should not prevent the House agreeing to a Resolution before the dissolution of this Parliament. As several right hon. and hon. Members have said, there is a deficiency in the proposed resolution. The Committee is clearly not comfortable with the position on the accountability of chief executives of executive agencies. The second report repeats the comment of the first report that Chief Executives of Executive Agencies are in a rather different relationship with Select Committees than other civil servants are. I am not sure that the Government accept even that point, but they ought to. The Committee said that the practice of the House in relation to agencies had already moved a good distance from the conventional relationship between Parliament and civil servants.

The right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) gave a caricature of the Liberal Democrat view on such matters. We are not suggesting that all civil servants should be required to give their personal views on matters of policy. That would be absurd and such an assertion does not greatly assist the debate. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that our concerns are primarily about executive agencies. That is true. Executive agencies are a constitutional innovation that grew up without detailed legislative consideration of all the consequences. I am not even sure that they were thought to be a constitutional innovation. I do not think that they had special parliamentary treatment of the kind sometimes reserved for significant constitutional developments. The Government are responsible for that.

We do not find the development unwelcome. There is a great deal to be said for giving freedom of administrative authority to such bodies and an ability to respond without having to look constantly over their shoulders for ministerial guidance. However, that does not appear to be how the agencies have worked—or not all of them, certainly. The experience of the Prison Service agency, which the Committee considered, shows that the Home Secretary constantly interferes.

The distinction between policy and administration does not stand up, as the Committee recognises. I regret that the Committee has not followed through that recognition and recommended how to deal with the lacuna. I acknowledge that it has asked the Government to give further consideration to the matter. I hope that, if it is reconstituted, the Committee will consider how best to tackle the problem. It will not be tackled successfully by seeking to foresee the future and defining in ever greater detail events that may take place for which the bodies will have responsibility. Chief executives of agencies must be given greater responsibility for their own actions, and should have to give a direct account of those actions to Select Committees when they are called into question.

It is almost certainly futile to seek to draw a distinction between policy and administration. That trap was opened by Sir Robin Butler, with an entirely spurious distinction between responsibility and accountability. In linguistic terms, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two. In constitutional terms, that distinction is a device to enable Ministers to have it both ways, putting themselves in a "heads I win, tails you lose" position. When Ministers do not want to take responsibility for an embarrassing issue, they treat it as an administrative matter, for which, by definition, the chairman of the relevant executive agency, or even a junior civil servant, is deemed responsible. In other circumstances, Ministers assume the right to intervene. That is wholly unsatisfactory.

The problem has existed for a long time, but it has become of much greater moment since the development of the next steps agencies. That development is valuable and I hope that we shall not allow this lacuna to remain. The Scott debate—not the debate in the House, but the debate that the investigation unleashed—opened up the possibility of Ministers taking refuge in the Butlerian distinction between accountability and responsibility.

The first operative paragraph of the proposed draft resolution says that Ministers have a duty to the House and its Committees to account, and to be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and next steps agencies. That begs many questions. It takes refuge in the belief that there are sharp distinctions to be drawn. I do not believe that there are. It prevents the House from holding an executive agency's chairman to account and making a proper examination of his thinking in carrying out his tasks. The work of Select Committees will be hampered if this problem is not effectively and speedily tackled.

11.57 am
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)

I shall be as brief as I can.

When in doubt, we tend to send for the judges. We have sent for two judges lately—Sir Richard Scott and Lord Nolan. Sir Richard Scott, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) said, told the Committee that Ministers had behaved in ways in which, constitutionally, they should not, and had denied information to the House which it should properly have.

The Government have proposed a resolution to deal with these matters. It says that when such things happen, there should be consequences. In the events that Sir Richard Scott investigated, there were no consequences. There never are in such events. In that case, the lack of consequences was simply more shameful and brazen than normal. Because time is short, we ought to tell the truth.

Lord Nolan arrived on the scene to dig the Government out of an embarrassing situation. He has done sterling work. In one of his recommendations, he invented a new doctrine that I shall christen prime ministerial responsibility, to be set alongside individual and collective responsibility. The doctrine was that the buck stops with the Prime Minister. He has to judge the conduct of those in his Government. It is interesting that that recommendation was explicitly rejected by the Government. Lord Nolan has recently expressed regret about that, welcoming the fact that the Select Committee has re-endorsed his recommendation.

Even more revealing is that, in wanting to dissent from the Committee's proposed resolution on accountability, the Government have said that they would prefer not to have direct accountability of Ministers to the House, but that it be mediated through the Prime Minister. Yet the Government have already rejected precisely the prime ministerial role, and the doctrine of prime ministerial responsibility. They have therefore nicely escaped from the accountability trap in which they were in danger of finding themselves.

In approaching these matters, the Government have set out to defend the status quo; they have said that the orthodox doctrine on accountability and responsibility is intact and that no change needs to be made. Civil servants, they say, should therefore remain responsible to Ministers and Ministers to the House of Commons. In fact, we in our honest mode know that neither of those things is true. We know that the civil servant-Minister relationship has been transformed by everything that has happened to the public service, of which agencies are simply the most conspicuous example, and that the accountability of Ministers to the House of Commons has been transformed by the rise of party discipline and everything associated with it.

We are therefore dealing with fictions. The question is whether the House of Commons wants to explode those fictions and start asserting a new kind of accountability in relation to a new kind of government. I see the importance of the Committee's proposed resolution—which I hope will quickly become a resolution of the House—as merely the beginning of a process of the House saying that it wants to start asserting itself a little more in relation to all questions of accountability. We have not been doing that.

I again call in aid Lord Nolan, who has been forced to reflect on these matters in some detail over the past couple of years. Giving the Radcliffe lectures at the University of Warwick just a couple of months ago, he said in relation to the Government's defence of the status quo—the orthodox doctrine: We should not overlook the very centralist nature of this position. It brings the accountability of the Executive down to one very narrow point—the answerability of a hundred Ministers, or twenty Secretaries of State, to Parliament and its Committees. And given that Ministers must, by definition, command a majority in Parliament, the accountability which this provides is not necessarily very strong … Ministerial accountability is now in danger of being used to slow down the growth in accountability of public servants". That is the central point. Government has changed. Can the House of Commons make accountability change with it? If it can, it will have risen to the occasion. If it cannot, it will have fallen below the occasion.

I suggest one further point: that the Nolan committee be converted into a standing constitutional commission, so that although we have a constitution that we pride ourselves on making up as we go along, at least with that new device, we would begin to make it up in a more consistent and coherent way.

12.2 pm

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

In essence, the two different versions of the draft resolution on ministerial accountability that we have discussed reflect an historic tussle for authority between Parliament and the Executive. One makes the House the arbiter of the fate of a Minister who has knowingly misled; the other says that for such an offence the appropriate punishment shall ultimately be for the Prime Minister to determine. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the Committee: the language"— of the draft resolution— … expresses what the House would expect but cannot enforce directly". Surely there is an important point of constitutional principle and practice necessitating that Parliament's disapproval be the determinant of an errant Minister's fate.

The seeming immunity of the Executive from responsibility was highlighted by the recent statement of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who told the House that it had been "inadvertently misinformed" on organophosphates, which may be responsible for Gulf war syndrome, but that civil servants were to blame. The post-Scott scenario appears to be one where Ministers not only continue to deny responsibility, but brazenly on occasions blame civil servants into the bargain.

I was worried when the Committee heard that the Deputy Prime Minister and Sir Robin Butler both regarded it as entirely acceptable that Ministers used special advisers—civil servants—to recruit public servants, such as general practice fundholders, headmasters, and so on, as cheerleaders for Government policy. Surely it is unacceptable for any kind of civil or public servant to be used in the dissemination of party propaganda. It makes a mockery of the Government's argument that it would be "constitutionally improprietous" to put civil servants under a direct obligation to be fully co-operative with Parliament.

I fear that, post-Scott, neither the public nor the legislature can be confident that the Executive is properly accountable or responsible for its actions and the civil service is entirely the neutral executor of the democratic will.

12.5 pm

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I do not think that there will be dancing in the streets of Bishop Auckland tonight because we will have had this debate. Nor do I think that it will be a decisive factor in the Wirral, South by-election. Nonetheless, it is very important, and I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) and the members of his Committee on bringing the report to the House. I also offer my thanks to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins). He knows that I have enormous respect for him and the work that he has done in his capacity as Chairman. I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) about the right hon. Gentleman's work, and hope that his successor will continue along the same lines.

Colleagues will be relieved to know that I do not intend to go into a detailed exegesis of the doctrine of ministerial accountability. I fear that we would be here for many days if I did so. I want to give the Minister time to reply to the debate. Ministerial accountability is crucial because it goes right to the heart of our parliamentary democracy and impinges on the work of this House and the other House and how we conduct our affairs.

The Committee's resolution and the negotiations that followed it are a very important development. Given my experience in the House, I rather fear that, if Select Committee reports are radical, they are ignored, and if they are measured, they have some prospect of influence. The Public Service Committee's report is measured. I am sure that it does not go far enough for some members of the Committee and some people in the House, but it is measured and wise, and will be influential.

If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) said, the report ends up as the beginning of a process by which Parliament over time will begin to assert its strength and use its powers to bring the Executive more fully to account, it will be a very important day. I urge the Minister, as other colleagues have, to bring the resolution to the House soon—certainly before Dissolution. It is quite right to say that the fact that we do not have unanimity in the all-party talks should not deter him and the business managers from making progress.

Ministerial accountability has, of course, become absolutely crucial, largely because of the Scott report and also because of the Derek Lewis affair. I remind the House that paragraph K8.1 of the Scott report said Ministers had failed to discharge their obligations to Parliament on seven separate occasions. The Scott report enumerates those occasions in paragraph D4.63: In the circumstances, the Government statements made in 1989 and 1990 about policy on defence exports to Iraq consistently failed, in my opinion, with the standard set by paragraph 27 of the Questions of Procedure for Ministers and, more important, failed to discharge the obligations imposed by the constitutional principle of Ministerial accountability. I have always regarded that as a damning charge, and I still regard the way in which the Government dealt with the Scott report as one of the most cynical and ruthless attempts at self-preservation in post-war political history.

The Government did not achieve their aim. They thought that their authority was so fragile that it could not withstand ministerial resignations. The truth is that ministerial resignations would have enhanced, not diminished, the Government's authority and they stand condemned by that failure of judgment. The whole exercise was a prostitution of the legislature by the Executive, and that is why this debate is so important.

There is widespread mistrust of Parliament and all our institutions, and the next Government are determined to address that. Ministerial accountability must be examined. I am keen to enhance Parliament's powers to deal with the Executive and to strengthen Select Committees, which have been one of the most progressive developments during my time in the House. Indeed, I congratulate the Conservative Government on introducing them. They are far more efficient at scrutinising the Executive than are most of the debates in the Chamber.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-underLyne (Mr. Sheldon) described some of the developments, and I am grateful for his endorsement for my modest proposals. He did not use the word "sleaze-buster" because he is too decorous, but that is what we need. A freedom of information Act would also increase the accountability of the Executive to Parliament.

I shall now turn to the resolution. I am delighted that the Public Service Committee put forward the resolution, and I congratulate the Chancellor on the way in which he conducted the all-party talks. I also thank him for his positive response to our requests. I hope he will not mind me saying that originally he did not want any mention of civil servants included in the resolution. I believe that he wished to exclude civil servants because he feared that he would be pushed into adopting the Liberal Democrat position that civil servants should be made directly accountable to the House. That is not my party's position. It would be a major constitutional change, and I am not convinced that it is necessary. However, I do not exclude the possibility that it might be a solution for the future.

The Chancellor also responded positively to a suggestion from the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who is not in his place this morning, to reinstate the Committee's reference to ministerial resignation. The reference is not in the form that the Committee suggested, but the difference in the Chancellor's version is unimportant.

The resolution should be put before the House soon. The day that it is accepted will be an important one, because it will enhance Parliament's power to deal with the Executive. My party will support the resolution and I am sure that Parliament will wish to return to it on occasions, as our understanding of the issues develops and as new situations arise. Parliament will thus be able to build on the excellent work of the Committee.

I turn to the subject of accountability and responsibility. If Ministers are accountable to Parliament for all the actions and activities of their Departments and agencies, there is no accountability gap, but there is a responsibility gap. Ministers want to be responsible, perhaps reasonably, only for those matters in which they have been directly involved. However, Scott had an important message for us in his final paragraph: If Ministers are to be excused blame and personal criticism on the basis of the absence of personal knowledge or involvement, the corollary ought to be an acceptance of the obligation to be forthcoming with information about the incident in question. Otherwise Parliament (and the public) will not be in a position to judge whether the absence of personal knowledge and involvement is fairly claimed or to judge on whom responsibility for what has occurred ought to be placed. The Government try to pretend that the responsibility gap is not important or that it should be maintained to protect civil servants. The rest of the country believes that the gap is there to protect Ministers, not civil servants. Indeed, one former Minister has said that nobody resigns for anything these days. Ministers want to claim credit for everything that goes right in Departments and agencies and want to delegate blame for what goes wrong. That is at the heart of the responsibility gap. I share all the reservations of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), but I am not convinced that his solution is the right one. If the House debates the issue, we can all express our reservations, but we should make progress on this issue, which would be an important step for Parliament.

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

I join the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) for his chairmanship of the Liaison Committee. He was also an effective Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. This could be one of the last occasions on which we can pay tribute to him in the House and I add the Government's support to the right hon. Gentleman's comments.

I shall deal first with the substantive point made by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He mentioned the importance of improving the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. I have published today, and copies are now available in the Vote Office, a White Paper called "The Governance of Public Bodies: A progress report". The document is inevitably detailed, and hon. Members will want some time to consider the Government's conclusions. The conclusions are important, and address some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland.

I shall summarise the conclusions in the short time I have available, as I must also refer to the points made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice). First, the Government will review the position of every executive non-departmental public body with a view to extending the ombudsman's jurisdiction in this sector as widely as possible. Consideration will be given to bringing advisory bodies into the jurisdiction for the first time.

Secondly, we will introduce a model code for the staff of non-departmental public bodies, and fuller and clearer guidance on codes of practice for board members of public bodies, covering in particular rules on conflict of interest. I hope that these new codes of practice will be in place by 1 June, and I expect a start to be made at the beginning of the new financial year.

Thirdly, we have made a commitment to take forward the Nolan committee's recommendation on the greatest use of consultative arrangements, which bring together local public bodies and local authorities.

Fourthly, we propose to introduce a national consultative forum to bring together key interests in the public sector. This will be led by the National Audit Office, the Audit Commission and the Accounts Commission and will deal with co-ordination.

Fifthly, details of thousands of appointments to executive NDPBs and to NHS bodies are now available on the Internet. I hope that the Commissioner for Public Appointments will be able to extend his role in this field in due course, although it is asking too much for him to do so at the moment, as he is dealing with central Government.

Finally, I can deal with a point raised by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. The Comptroller and Auditor General should have the power of inspection of all NDPBs which are not already audited. There is a broad consensus in the House on that, and I hope that the White Paper will receive appropriate consideration.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland will forgive me if I refer for a moment to his article in The Guardian—I cannot resist commenting on it. It was written in slightly less inflammatory language—as he and I know well—than that produced by our respective central offices or headquarters. For the convenience of the House, I wish to deal with one point in the article, entitled "It's a Sleaze Buster", in The Guardian on 30 January. I know that he would not wish to imply in any way that the civil service did not behave in other than a perfectly impeccable and objective fashion.

The point that I am trying to make is that it is not Ministers who award contracts, and it never has been—under Labour or Conservative Governments. After the appropriate advertising in the official journal and after the proper tendering process, the civil service provides advice on contracts and Ministers are invited to agree. Sometimes there are directions, and I have placed in the Government's response to the Select Committee report the few examples of directions that I could regularly find.

Principally, directions have been concerned over the years with Ministry of Defence procurement matters, where Ministers might decide for policy reasons to pursue a different route—more to do with the impact of defence procurement decisions on the industrial base—than that recommended for value-for-money reasons by civil servants. It is an objective procedure, and there is no sleaze in the letting of Government contracts. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland would not for a moment subscribe to that critique.

In terms of the privatisation of Government agencies, we have to follow a process which depends on the advice not only of civil servants, but of the consultants involved. We must do so because the NAO looks at all major privatisations—it is properly and routinely looking at the HMSO privatisation now. I hope that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland will not mind me commenting briefly on that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) has long experience of these matters, and he cited with some anguish the problems that he had encountered in answering a parliamentary question. I know that Madam Speaker was concerned about the accuracy with which the Stationery Office was reporting Parliament. I have looked into this matter, because some hon. Members have raised it on points of order and debates with Madam Speaker.

I have come to the conclusion that the error rate has not changed in any significant fashion since privatisation. There are very, very few errors each year, and those which are made are divided equally between the printers and those who supply the text. I am full of admiration for the reporters of our procedures, and for HMSO—now the Stationery Office Ltd. I could trace a couple of errors by the printers since privatisation, but they were made by the same loyal staff who worked for HMSO. I hope that that will set Madam Speaker's mind at rest.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who talked about the present position in terms of the accountability of chief executives. I do not believe that chief executives can both be non-statutory civil servants and accountable directly to Parliament. My right hon. Friend—and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—would probably prefer some agencies to become statutory bodies, and I have taken part in debates with Mr. Lewis when he has argued that point. That would give chief executives a wholly different relationship with Parliament, and it is a case that could be argued.

I do not believe that we can ask chief executives, as civil servants, to accept direct accountability and responsibility to Parliament through Select Committees, because that would directly compromise the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament. I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland on this. Ministers know no bounds on their accountability, although there are some limits to their personal responsibility.

That allows me to turn to the final and substantive point raised by the hon. Member for North Durham. I am grateful not only to him, but to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland for their remarks about the Government and myself. As far as the motion is concerned, the Government agreed in principle in November that such a motion was appropriate. This is not a confession of culpability or of error, or that there is somehow a great gulf in the understanding by Ministers of their responsibilities to this House.

"Questions of Procedure for Ministers" lays out clearly the responsibilities of Ministers to be forthcoming, to tell the truth, not to deliberately mislead the House and so forth. The Government agreed that, in parallel with those instructions from the head of the Government to Ministers, there should be a motion in the House to clarify and set down for the first time—a historic constitutional moment for this House and for Parliament—the responsibilities of Ministers.

We accepted that, and I have discussed the text with the major Opposition parties. The draft of the current motion is in the Select Committee report, and is available in the Vote Office. We have had helpful comments from the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons, for which the Government are grateful, and these will allow some amendments to be made. I intend to discuss those amendments—which I believe to be procedural and technical in essence—with the major Opposition parties shortly. Discussions in the House of Lords are continuing.

I note that there is no agreement between all parties on the accountability of chief executives of agencies directly to Parliament. That issue has been raised this morning, and the Government have set out their position. We believe that it is important as a point of principle to make sure that chief executives assist Parliament.

Indeed, I can confirm to the hon. Member for North Durham that I cannot find a single instance of a chief executive of an agency not appearing before a Select Committee. It is their duty to help, to turn up, to be as forthcoming as possible and to operate within the Osmotherly rules—named after the civil servant who drew them up—which describe their responsibilities to Parliament. But at the end of the day, they appear with the foreknowledge and agreement of their Minister, and the Minister himself is fully accountable. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that civil servants cannot be expected to debate or answer for policy, as it is their job to help Select Committees.

Once this motion is passed, my advice is that it will remain through Sessions and Parliaments until the House wishes to return to it. Indeed, the House can return to a motion that we pass at any time, and amend it at any time.

I conclude by thanking all those who have contributed to this debate for their helpful comments, especially in relation to the motion. I confirm on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that it is our aim to bring that motion to the House before Dissolution. It is unfinished business, and the whole House will wish it to be finished.