HL Deb 04 August 1966 vol 276 cc1474-81

4.0 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, may I repeat a Statement which has been made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place? The Statement is as follows:

"As the House is aware, the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill was given its First Reading on the 20th July, but, for reasons the House will understand the Bill cannot now make further progress before the Summer Recess. It is, however, the Government's firm intention to press ahead with this administrative reform, and to afford the necessary Parliamentary time for the Bill to pass through all its stages in both Houses by the end of the year.

"In view of this, and the great importance attached, both by the House and by many outside, to the earliest possible introduction of this improvement in our administrative procedures, it has been decided that the first Parliamentary Commissioner ought now to be designated. This will enable him to make as much progress as possible with the establishment of the necessary administrative arrangements and the staffing of his office before the Bill becomes law. The formal appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner, which will require the approval of Her Majesty The Queen, must, of course, await the passage of the Bill.

"I need hardly add that this decision in no way interferes with the freedom of Parliament to consider all the details of the proposed legislation in the normal way. But the choice of the Parliamentary Commissioner himself is we think a separate matter within the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government and the advantages of an early appointment are clear.

"As the House is aware, our intention is that the Parliamentary Commissioner's should not be a judicial office but a characteristic Parliamentary institution, carrying a high degree of independence. The Commissioner will be an officer of this House, dealing with complaints transmitted to him by honourable Members and reporting back both to honourable Members individually, to the House as a whole and to whatever Select Committee the House may appoint. It is therefore of the greatest importance that the first holder of this office, who will inevitably play a special part in establishing the traditions of a new institution, should be someone who fully understands this House and its workings, and who at the same time will be immediately capable of working with Government Departments in the course of his investigations.

"I have reached the conclusion, and I am confident that my view will be shared by honourable Members generally, that the best possible appointment that can be made for this purpose is that of Sir Edmund Compton, the present Comptroller and Auditor General. I believe that he enjoys the confidence of this House in a high degree, and in particular I know that past and present members of the Select Committee on Public Accounts have a lively appreciation of his great efficiency, independence and complete loyalty to the service of the House. I am also most pleased to be able to inform the House that Her Majesty The Queen has graciously indicated her willingness to approve this appointment when the necessary legislation has been passed.

"We propose that Sir Edmund Compton should take up his appointment as Parliamentary Commissioner designate from the 1st September though he will not, of course, be able to receive or consider complaints until the Bill receives the Royal Assent.

"Until the legislation can be passed—when the intention is that he should be paid on the Consolidated Fund—his salary will be voted by Parliament.

"I commend these arrangements to the House."

My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.


My Lords, the House will be obliged to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for repeating this Statement; and I am sure that Sir Edmund Compton will be an excellent choice when, and if, the Bill receives the Royal Assent. But, my Lords, several questions, I think, arise. First, I would ask the noble and learned Lord whether this is not a most unusual procedure. It seems that we are being told that Sir Edmund has been designated as Parliamentary Commissioner, and will take up his appointment in September, before the Bill providing for his appointment has even been presented to this House. It seems, to say the least of it, to assume the assent of Parliament to the Bill. I do not know whether there are any precedents for this, but on the face of it it certainly seems to be treating Parliament rather as a rubber stamp.

Secondly, may I ask the noble and learned Lord what will be the relationship of the Parliamentary Commissioner to this House? In the Statement that he read out we were told that the Parliamentary Commissioner is to be an officer of another place, and is to be responsible to a Select Committee appointed by another place. But, my Lords, is your Lordships' House not a House of Parliament? Noble Lords in all parts of the House will agree with me that we get a number of letters and complaints from members of the public. What will our position be with regard to the Parliamentary Commissioner? It may be that this is a very difficult question for the noble and learned Lord to answer, but that is probably because it is extremely difficult to draft a Statement before a Bill has been discussed in either House of Parliament.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for repeating this Statement. I commend the appointment of Sir Edmund Compton, and I wish him well in his future task. I agree, however, that the procedure is somewhat unusual. May I ask the Lord Chancellor whether the proposed functions of the Parliamentary Commissioner will include dealing with complaints relating to local authorities, many of the complaints being of that nature, or whether they will be limited to dealing with complaints against Government Departments? Lastly, may I press the point that this House should be regarded as part of Parliament?


My Lords, may I ask a further question of the noble and learned Lord? For very many years this House has been a place where, on Wednesday afternoons, it was possible for any subject of the Crown who had a grievance to have it fully debated and examined by the Government. Is this new appointment going to take the place of the functions of this House in that regard?


My Lords, as one of the original Life Peers on this side of the House, I feel compelled to add my voice to that of my noble Leader in his nicely worded protest at the treatment of Parliament in relation to this particular issue. This is not the first time, even in the space of only a couple of days, that a measure has been served up with sauce. But, joking apart, my Lords, it seems to me very odd, and it would be quite wrong for me not to say that I think so. After all, Peers are Members of Parliament, and, as my noble Leader has said, we do get numerous communications from members of the public. The other evening it was suggested on the other side of the House that Peers on that side were more in touch with the common people than Peers on this side of the House. I do not for a moment think that is so, and I feel that I must add my voice to what my noble Leader has said in protesting at this extraordinary arrangement.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether Sir Edmund, for whom I have the greatest regard, will continue to be Comptroller and Auditor General? If so, he will then have three jobs. He is in charge of the budget of the Church Assembly—a million pound task in which he is being always chivvied to try to keep expenses down. He is also in charge of Government spending, or is acting as a "long-stop" on Government spending, which looks to me as if it is going to amount to about £10,000 million a year, with an increased number of civil servants—and, naturally, the more civil servants there are, and the greater the money spent, the larger the opportunity for error. Now, in addition, he is to have this job. How can one man discharge these three functions?


My Lords, perhaps I might recall to the House a passage regarding Statements which appears in The Companion to the Standing Orders, and which reads as follows: Questions for clarification may be asked upon such statements, but they should not be made the occasion for immediate debate unless the House so order". I am not aware that the House has so ordered, and I venture to think that possibly the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor may wish to reply to the questions which have been put by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and others.


My Lords, may I put just one point to the noble and learned Lord? I did not gather from him why there was any particular hurry for this legislation to come forward, and why there was any need for this to proceed straight away, without any notice whatever.


My Lords, I think it would be quite unfair to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor any questions regarding the powers of this official after the legislation has gone through, because neither this House nor the other House has the slightest idea of the answer to those questions. I think I am right in saying that there has been only a First Reading in another place. While, of course, I do not expect the Lord Chancellor to answer any question regarding the powers, I share the doubts expressed about whether this very able official is really benefited by being appointed in advance of the debate on this Bill, even by another place.


My Lords, may I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, for their reception of the name of Sir Edmund Compton; I am glad to know that they consider him such an excellent choice. Then the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked whether this was not an unusual procedure. Well, I am afraid that I am not very well versed in the precedents. I do not know whether this is usually done so openly; but this Government is sometimes accused of doing things in a great hurry and without sufficient preparation. Of course, if one is to start a new organisation, people have to be found, arrangements may or may not have to be made to give notice that may then be served, and premises and staff must be found.

Your Lordships may remember that the Law Commission Bill which started in this House was a case in which it was well known (and the names were stated in this House) whom I proposed to appoint as Commissioners if the Bill were enacted. Obviously, that could not have happened if they had not been approached. But the fact is that within twenty-four hours of the Royal Assent being given to the Bill the Law Commissioners were appointed, and found waiting for them both offices and a staff. Whether I should have had to pay for that out of my own pocket if the Bill had not become law, I do not know; I was prepared to do so if necessary. Otherwise, we should have started the Law Commission at least six months later; because somebody had to give six months' notice to his employer. Here the provision is being made quite openly.

I am asked what is the hurry. I think the reason is simply this. Here is a measure which, I think, has been generally welcomed, not only by all Parties but by the general public. It was in the 1964 Election Manifesto. If my recollection is right, it was in the Queen's Speech in that year; but, owing to the Dissolution, it could not be taken in the lifetime of the last Government; and so far this Session we have been particularly pressed. But it is something that the general public want. That is the reason why this has been done.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, it is not proposed that complaints against local authorities shall be included. The Bill has been published. There is a Schedule which contains a list of all the Government Departments who must be covered and a provision whereby by an Order the Schedule can be enlarged. It is possible that it may later be considerably enlarged. Your Lordships will be aware that this is the first time that there has been an Ombudsman in a country with a population of a size anything like this. We must prevent him from being overwhelmed to start with.

I have been asked: Why the House of Commons? These are no doubt provisions which your Lordships will consider when the Bill comes before you. As proposed in the Bill—and there was a White Paper in October of last year—complaints will reach him through Members of the House of Commons and he will make a report to a Select Committee of that House. I am afraid I cannot answer Lord Hawke's question, although I should have thought that this was a whole-time appointment; but I have not made inquiries about that and it is only a matter of opinion that I can express.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor whether the justification for the hurry for the appointment of the Ombudsman is not to protect Parliament against the Executive?


My Lords, that is indeed so. This is looked on as an extension of the power of Members, particularly of another place, against the Executive; and it is very proper that it should be so. As your Lordships know, a Labour Government always introduces special legislation—whether it be the Crown Proceedings Act or otherwise—to safeguard the independence of the ordinary individual.


My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord confirm that in the Statement it is the intention that the present Comptroller and Auditor General should combine those two duties with the duty of Ombudsman?


My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, I do not know the answer to that question. I expressed a purely personal opinion that the Ombudsman should be a whole-time job.