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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.

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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:

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    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:

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

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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:

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.

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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-under-Lyne (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:

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

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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.

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