Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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,

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

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

12 Feb 1997 : Column 275

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

12 Feb 1997 : Column 276

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:

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

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

12 Feb 1997 : Column 277

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page