HL Deb 24 March 1987 vol 486 cc140-7

4.49 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The main aim of the Bill is to extend the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—or the ombudsman, if I may so refer to him—to allow him to investigate the actions of non-departmental public bodies, or quangos. Experience over the past 20 years has shown the value of the commissioner's work in investigating complaints against government departments. It seems appropriate that his jurisdiction should now be extended to include non-departmental public bodies, some of which have functions whose impact on individuals can be as significant as those of government departments.

Recommendations to this effect were made in 1984 by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in its report on non-departmental public bodies. In their response, the Government noted that there was no evidence of significant maladministration by these bodies but accepted the case in principle for the proposed change, subject to further observations on the criteria for scheduling and on the bodies to be listed.

The main purpose of the Bill is provided for in Clause 1 and its associated schedule, which replace Section 4 and Schedule 2 to the 1967 Act. Clause 1 lays down the criteria that non-departmental public bodies will have to satisfy in order to be added to the schedule. These criteria in essence reflect the concept that these bodies must be subject to some ultimate ministerial accountability to Parliament, in that they are dependent for their financing and existence on government policy. Clause 1 also defines certain broad classes of body which the Government feel it would not be appropriate to schedule. These provisions take account of the views expressed by the Select Committee and in the Government's response.

Rather more than 50 bodies are listed in the schedule to be brought into jurisdiction together with the government departments already scheduled under the 1967 Act. Most of these were recommended for inclusion by the Select Committee. There is a broad range of quangos which fall within the Bill's scope—from the Red Deer Commission to the Trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, or the Data Protection Registrar to the Sports Councils. The remaining clauses of the Bill embody a series of minor but useful amendments to the existing legislation.

Clauses 2 and 4 are designed for the smooth functioning of the commissioner's office during an interregnum. Clause 2 allows the removal of the commissioner if he is unable for medical reasons to carry out his duties and is too ill to resign. Clause 4 allows for the appointment of an acting commissioner pending a permanent appointment, should any of the offices become vacant unexpectedly.

I should stress that the opportunity has been taken in this Bill to introduce these new provisions purely as a precautionary measure. They seek to guard against an unlikely event, but one which could create considerable difficulties for the continuation of the ombudsman's work.

Under existing legislation the health service commissioner has not felt able to send copies of his reports to Members of Parliament who have been associated with a complaint. Clause 3 ensures that he can do this without fear of challenge. Clauses 5 and 6 relate to provisions in the health service legislation on the time limits with which health authorities themselves can submit complaints to the health service commissions. The main effects are to extend the time limit in England and Wales from three months to 12 months and to clarify the application of the existing 12-month limit in Scotland. Experience has shown that these small amendments are needed to ensure that these provisions work smoothly. In addition the Government intend to bring forward at Committee stage a new clause to allow for exchange of information between the parliamentary and health service commissioners, if these offices were no longer, as at present, held by the same person.

The Bill thus provides, in addition to its main purpose, an opportunity to introduce a number of useful improvements to existing legislation. I commend the Bill to the House and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Belstead))

4.55 p.m.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, it is now some 20 years since the Labour Government of 1964 implemented their promise to provide the citizen with a right of redress for injustice suffered in consequence of governmental maladministration. At the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill on 18th October 1966, my right honourable friend the Lord President, as he then was, made this remark: The investigations of our Parliamentary Commissioner will in no way replace Question Time or the Adjournment debate. On the contrary, they will provide the back bench Member, once he knows how to use it aright, with a new and powerful weapon which, up till now, neither he individually nor we collectively as a House has ever possessed—the possibility of impartial investigation into alleged maladministration".—[0fficial Report, Commons, 18/10/66; col.43.) At that time the ombudsman system had been successfully operated in Scandinavia and New Zealand and was strongly advocated by such all-party bodies as Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists. It had the enthusiastic support in particular of my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, to whose pioneering work the House will wish to pay tribute and whose absence from our debates we greatly regret.

The Bill did not, however, have an untroubled passage. As one who took part in the debates in another place, I recall that it suffered a douche of cold water from the Conservative Opposition and in particular from the distinguished speakers on the Opposition Front Bench, a future Lord Chancellor and a former Attorney-General. Despite that, however, the Bill became law and I believe it has been an unqualified success. I doubt if anyone now would argue the contrary. That success can be measured not only by the considerable use to which the original legislation has been put as a safeguard for the citizen through a Member of Parliament in dealing with the Executive, but also by the fact that virtually the only changes made in two decades have been in the direction of widening the ombudsman concept by applying it in local government and in the National Health Service.

I believe that one of the chief reasons for the success of the legislation has been that the parliamentary commissioner, like the Comptroller and Auditor General, has been essentially a servant of Parliament rather than of the Executive, both of them reporting to the Select Committees of the other House and so providing an opportunity for Parliament to express an informed view on the actions of government.

This Bill is a modest measure of improvement which, as the noble Lord has said, derives from a report of the Select Committee. The principal purpose is to extend the jurisdiction of the parliamentary commissioner so that he can investigate complaints against a limited number of non-departmental public bodies which are listed in Schedule 1. We welcome the extension. It must, however, be emphasised that control over government departments can be exercised through parliamentary action directed to Ministers, whereas there is normally no corresponding means of control over non-departmental public bodies. It could well be argued therefore that there is a greater need for supervision by the parliamentary commissioner or an equivalent personal body in the case of non-departmental public bodies than in the case of government departments.

It is interesting to observe that, in moving the Second Reading of the Bill in 1966, the Lord President, referring to the Scandinavian system, said: In a country where Ministers are not responsible for the administration of their Departments, and where civil servants, therefore, are not answerable to them, it was obvious that the citizen was in desperate need of protection against the bureaucracy".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/10/66; col. 42.] However, the criteria which the Bill seeks to establish look at this question from the opposite point of view. According to those criteria, public bodies would not be subject to supervision by the parliamentary commissioner unless they are—I quote from the Minister of State introducing the Bill in the other place— subject to some degree of ultimate ministerial accountability to Parliament. in that they are dependent for their financing and continuing existence on Government policy."—[Official Report, Commons, 4/2/87: col. 10571 There is something of a dilemma here. It is in those very cases which cannot be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny, question or debate, that the Bill excludes the scrutiny of the parliamentary commissioner and so leaves the citizen without the valuable protection which the parliamentary commissioner can provide.

I appreciate the point that if the parliamentary commissioner's protection were available in those cases, there would still be no direct ministerial responsibility. The citizen would be relying rather more on the inherent respect for the parliamentary commissioner's office than, in the case of a complaint about a government department, recourse to Ministers and to Parliament. My own view, borne out by experience, is that that respect should and would normally be sufficient. But whether that be right or wrong, I do not follow why the citizen should not have some protection even if it cannot be complete. The criteria in the Bill would make the best the enemy of the good.

That is probably the most important point which was debated in the other place and it may be that noble Lords will wish to debate it here. However, judging by past experience, it may be some years before we have another opportunity of looking at the ombudsman system. In those circumstances I hope that the House will forgive me if I take a little longer than did the noble Lord and raise, as briefly as possible, two other points of principle even though they do not directly arise from this Bill.

The first is the question whether it is still desirable that Members of Parliament should act as a filter for citizens' complaints to the parliamentary commissioner. The original reason for that restriction was the fear, at the inception of what was then an experiment, that the parliamentary commissioner's office might become overloaded and so be unable to perform its functions efficiently and without undue delay. I very much doubt whether that is today an adequate reason for the restriction. I doubt very much whether today many complaints would be brought direct if the compulsory filter of a Member of Parliament were removed. A Member of Parliament will always remain a valuable channel for a citizen's complaint, whether to the Minister or to the parliamentary commissioner; or, indeed, to the parliamentary commissioner in default of adequate satisfaction from the Minister.

What concerns me, even more so with the extension of jurisdiction embodied in this Bill, is the principle that the citizen should be wholly debarred from resort to the parliamentary commissioner if no Member of Parliament will take up his case. I ask whether that is just and whether that is desirable.

My second point of principle arises from the very success of the ombudsman concept from which has sprung the local commissioners, the National Health Service commissioner and the analogous, if not identical, machinery of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Race Relations Board. The question which arises is whether it is more helpful to have separate bodies for each of those various functions or whether the time might now have come to consolidate them through the establishment of a single citizens' protection umbrella to cover all aspects of protection against abuse of authority, including breach of human rights. For myself, I have long believed that a commission of human rights, operating broadly as a parliamentary commissioner operates, would be a better instrument than the courts for dealing with complaints of breach of those rights. I believe that at least one former parliamentary commissioner, Sir Alan Marre, expressed a similar view. I accept, of course, that this Bill would not be an appropriate vehicle for so far-reaching a change, but looking to the future and bearing in mind the very few opportunities we have for discussing this particular type of subject, I very much hope that at least the idea will not be lightly dismissed but will be considered in our debates and in the future.

I believe this is a sound Bill. I welcome it on behalf of these Benches and I wish it as speedy a passage into law as is consistent with the proper use of this rare opportunity to review the protection which Parliament provides for the citizen and which is a very important part of the parliamentary function. In doing so I express what I believe is the sense of the whole House that Parliament has been well served by those who have been appointed to the offices which we are considering and those who have served on their staffs.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, I apologise for the fact that my name does not appear on the list of speakers, although I did notify the noble Lord the Minister and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, that I would seek to say a few words at this point on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, we regard the whole business of the ombudsman as being desperately important. When the system was first established way back in the 1960s I think everyone expected that, once we had an ombudsman, it would suddenly be the end of injustice. However, it has not exactly turned out that way. There may be noble Lords old enough to remember that when the Bill first came before your Lordships' House my noble friend Lord Wade, sitting on his Bench, said that perhaps we had not so much an ombudsman as an ombudsmouse. Perhaps that is unfair to successive ombudsmen.

I served on the Select Committee for the Parliamentary Commissioner in another place. For four years I spent every Wednesday with Sir Edmund Compton, who was the first ombudsman, discussing matters with the Select Committee. His first action on being appointed was to set up what he called his administrative screen of 10 jurisdictional tests through which every complaint had to pass before he could even look at it. Therefore, it seemed that it would not be possible for the ombudsman to deal with absolutely everything.

I said I have a personal interest in the matter of the ombudsman and it would be right to say that my noble friend Lady Serota has a deep interest in this field. She has, of course, a great knowledge of it and would have spoken in this debate had she not been detained in one of your Lordships' Select Committees. In general, we on these Benches welcome this Bill but we say that, like so many Bills dealing with the ombudsman, it does not go far enough. We would have liked many other changes. What the Bill does about quangos is, of course, to be welcomed. However, I suspect that the present Government, who were dedicated to abolishing quangos, have since 1979 set up more new quangos than they have abolished. I have a Question on the Order Paper which might provide me with the exact numbers, but I merely make that point in passing. If it is possible for the ombudsmen to look at that activity and to seek maladministration, and if there is maladministration from which injustice has resulted to recommend a remedy, then that obviously is worthwhile.

I am reinforced in that belief by the message I received this morning from British Telecom and from Oftel to say that now British Telecom will insist on an annual or quarterly rental before it will carry out repairs to telephones for subscribers. It will be an additional payment which will have to be made before carrying out repairs to a subscriber's telephone, despite the fact that the subscriber will continue to pay rent for a service which he is not, in fact, enjoying because his phone is faulty. Apparently, Oftel have approved of that. Whether that approval amounts to maladministration depends, of course, on the manner in which it came to that decision. That will have to be looked at, but in general terms I merely say that I welcome the extension of the ombudsman's powers to look at certain other bodies such as quangos.

I agree entirely with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, that it is time that we looked again at the provision which requires all complaints to be put to the parliamentary commissioner via a Member of Parliament; that is, a Member of another place. Several times in recent years in your Lordships' House I have raised the question of why complaints from citizens cannot be put to the ombudsman by a Member of your Lordships' House. That seems to me to be quite reasonable. Very often we deal with matters of injustice and are frequently approached about the grievances of ordinary citizens, and yet we are not allowed to pass on these complaints to the ombudsman if we think that they are matters at which he should look. That is something to which we rightly object. I should like to think that it may be possible to make some slight change in the Bill in order to bring about a more desirable situation. However, looking at its precise wording, I doubt it.

Another matter about which I am particularly concerned concerns the Parliamentary and Health Service Commissioner and not the local commissioner. Many people in many parts of the country—and indeed, many of the local commissioners both the present ones and those who have served in the past—rather regret that they have no powers with which to back up their recommendations. Over and over again there have been debates in your Lordships' House about cases in which the local commissioner has made an adverse report on a local authority which the authority has ignored. The only step that the local commissioner can take is to issue another report and in some cases that also has been ignored.

The same applies in parallel to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. There are no cases of departments of government not having accepted his recommendations but there are several cases—and I could quote a number of them—in which matters have had to be ventilated in another place before action has been taken. Noble Lords will recollect that some years ago there was one case that concerned the Foreign Office and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The then Foreign Secretary, Mr. George Brown, finally rose to his feet in the other place and said that he did not accept the ombudsman's report; he thought that it was all wrong and he did not accept that there had been maladministration; however, he would pay the damages that had been recommended. That seems to me to be a very strange procedure. However, those are matters which perhaps go a little wide of this Bill.

We welcome the Bill so far as it goes but we wish that it went a little further. If it is possible during its later stages to take it a little further, we shall seek to do SO.

5.12 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin of Dulwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for their reception of the Second Reading of this Bill. We have had a useful, if short, debate and in particular I am grateful to both noble Lords for welcoming the main purpose of the Bill, although they have discussed the question rather more widely and probably will want to discuss it further.

First of all, I can give the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, an assurance that since 1979 the net reduction of non-departmental public bodies is some 500, which I think shows a good reduction in such bodies where they are no longer needed.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, thought it was necessary for bodies which are not government departments but which fall within the scope of being non-departmental public bodies to have greater supervision because there is no absolutely direct ministerial responsibility to the department. If I may say so, it is precisely for the reasons that the noble and learned Lord had in mind that we have taken the broad approach that bodies to be listed should have administrative functions of the kind that would fall within the jurisdiction if they were carried out by government departments, and that they have to be subject to some degree of ministerial accountability in that their financing, and indeed their continuing existence, are dependent upon government policy.

The noble and learned Lord also made the point that in his view, because one is talking about including non-departmental public bodies within the jurisdiction of the commissioner, arguably there should be stricter and greater enforcement than there is at present under the 1967 Act. As regards enforcement we feel that there is no reason to expect that non-departmental public bodies will be less scrupulous than are departments in accepting the commissioners' recommendations. Experience with health service complaints has suggested that direct sanctions are not needed to ensure compliance by non-departmental public bodies any more than by government departments.

The noble Lord said that he wondered whether perhaps the time had now come when we ought to look again at the requirement in the 1967 Act that the channel of communication must be a Member of another place. The present procedures for complaining to a Member of Parliament are reasonably well known. It is unlikely that members of the public would draw a distinction between departments and non-departmental public bodies if they wanted to complain. They recognise that a Member of another place is the channel of communication. The Select Committee took the view, which the Government fully accept, that Members of Parliament should be directly involved in the submission of complaints to the commissioner.

To suggest that the commissioner should pursue an individual complaint without either a Member of Parliament or even the complainant seeking his involvement seems unnecessary and unwise, although, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Silkin, would probably be the first to tell me, there is an ad hoc provision to ensure that it is within the vires or the powers of the commissioner to approach the complainant and to take up the case through an MP if he feels that it is necessary. I think that this is something that we might like to look at again when we debate this Bill in Committee.

Those are the points that were raised in this brief debate on Second Reading. Once again I thank noble Lords for accepting the main purpose of the Bill, which is to extend the jurisdiction of the parliamentary commissioner very considerably by adding a whole list of non-departmental public bodies to the schedule which is to be found in this Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.