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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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