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12.17 pm

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman): I join the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing(Sir T. Higgins) for his chairmanship of the Liaison Committee. He was also an effective Chairman of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. This could be one of the last occasions on which we can pay tribute to him in the House and I add the Government's support to the right hon. Gentleman's comments.

I shall deal first with the substantive point made by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He mentioned the importance of improving the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. I have published today, and copies are now available in the Vote Office, a White Paper called "The Governance of Public Bodies: A progress report". The document is inevitably detailed, and hon. Members will want some time to consider the Government's conclusions. The conclusions are important, and address some of the points made by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland.

I shall summarise the conclusions in the short time I have available, as I must also refer to the points made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice). First, the Government will review the position of every executive non-departmental public body with a view to extending the ombudsman's jurisdiction in this sector as widely as possible. Consideration will be given to bringing advisory bodies into the jurisdiction for the first time.

Secondly, we will introduce a model code for the staff of non-departmental public bodies, and fuller and clearer guidance on codes of practice for board members of public bodies, covering in particular rules on conflict of interest. I hope that these new codes of practice will be in place by 1 June, and I expect a start to be made at the beginning of the new financial year.

Thirdly, we have made a commitment to take forward the Nolan committee's recommendation on the greatest use of consultative arrangements, which bring together local public bodies and local authorities.

Fourthly, we propose to introduce a national consultative forum to bring together key interests in the public sector. This will be led by the National Audit Office, the Audit Commission and the Accounts Commission and will deal with co-ordination.

Fifthly, details of thousands of appointments to executive NDPBs and to NHS bodies are now available on the Internet. I hope that the Commissioner for Public Appointments will be able to extend his role in this field

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in due course, although it is asking too much for him to do so at the moment, as he is dealing with central Government.

Finally, I can deal with a point raised by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. The Comptroller and Auditor General should have the power of inspection of all NDPBs which are not already audited. There is a broad consensus in the House on that, and I hope that the White Paper will receive appropriate consideration.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland will forgive me if I refer for a moment to his article in The Guardian--I cannot resist commenting on it. It was written in slightly less inflammatory language--as he and I know well--than that produced by our respective central offices or headquarters. For the convenience of the House, I wish to deal with one point in the article, entitled "It's a Sleaze Buster", in The Guardian on 30 January. I know that he would not wish to imply in any way that the civil service did not behave in other than a perfectly impeccable and objective fashion.

The point that I am trying to make is that it is not Ministers who award contracts, and it never has been--under Labour or Conservative Governments. After the appropriate advertising in the official journal and after the proper tendering process, the civil service provides advice on contracts and Ministers are invited to agree. Sometimes there are directions, and I have placed in the Government's response to the Select Committee report the few examples of directions that I could regularly find.

Principally, directions have been concerned over the years with Ministry of Defence procurement matters, where Ministers might decide for policy reasons to pursue a different route--more to do with the impact of defence procurement decisions on the industrial base--than that recommended for value-for-money reasons by civil servants. It is an objective procedure, and there is no sleaze in the letting of Government contracts. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland would not for a moment subscribe to that critique.

In terms of the privatisation of Government agencies, we have to follow a process which depends on the advice not only of civil servants, but of the consultants involved. We must do so because the NAO looks at all major privatisations--it is properly and routinely looking at the HMSO privatisation now. I hope that the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland will not mind me commenting briefly on that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham(Sir P. Lloyd) has long experience of these matters, and he cited with some anguish the problems that he had encountered in answering a parliamentary question. I know that Madam Speaker was concerned about the accuracy with which the Stationery Office was reporting Parliament. I have looked into this matter, because some hon. Members have raised it on points of order and debates with Madam Speaker.

I have come to the conclusion that the error rate has not changed in any significant fashion since privatisation. There are very, very few errors each year, and those which are made are divided equally between the printers and those who supply the text. I am full of admiration for the reporters of our procedures, and for HMSO--now the Stationery Office Ltd. I could trace a couple of errors by the printers since privatisation, but they were made by the same loyal staff who worked for HMSO. I hope that that will set Madam Speaker's mind at rest.

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I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, who talked about the present position in terms of the accountability of chief executives. I do not believe that chief executives can both be non-statutory civil servants and accountable directly to Parliament. My right hon. Friend--and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)--would probably prefer some agencies to become statutory bodies, and I have taken part in debates with Mr. Lewis when he has argued that point. That would give chief executives a wholly different relationship with Parliament, and it is a case that could be argued.

I do not believe that we can ask chief executives, as civil servants, to accept direct accountability and responsibility to Parliament through Select Committees, because that would directly compromise the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament. I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland on this. Ministers know no bounds on their accountability, although there are some limits to their personal responsibility.

That allows me to turn to the final and substantive point raised by the hon. Member for North Durham. I am grateful not only to him, but to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland for their remarks about the Government and myself. As far as the motion is concerned, the Government agreed in principle in November that such a motion was appropriate. This is not a confession of culpability or of error, or that there is somehow a great gulf in the understanding by Ministers of their responsibilities to this House.

"Questions of Procedure for Ministers" lays out clearly the responsibilities of Ministers to be forthcoming, to tell the truth, not to deliberately mislead the House and so forth. The Government agreed that, in parallel with those instructions from the head of the Government to Ministers, there should be a motion in the House to clarify and set down for the first time--a historic constitutional moment for this House and for Parliament--the responsibilities of Ministers.

We accepted that, and I have discussed the text with the major Opposition parties. The draft of the current motion is in the Select Committee report, and is available in the Vote Office. We have had helpful comments from the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons, for which the Government are grateful, and these will allow some amendments to be made. I intend to discuss those amendments--which I believe to be procedural and technical in essence--with the major Opposition parties shortly. Discussions in the House of Lords are continuing.

I note that there is no agreement between all parties on the accountability of chief executives of agencies directly to Parliament. That issue has been raised this morning, and the Government have set out their position. We believe that it is important as a point of principle to make sure that chief executives assist Parliament.

Indeed, I can confirm to the hon. Member for North Durham that I cannot find a single instance of a chief executive of an agency not appearing before a Select Committee. It is their duty to help, to turn up, to be as forthcoming as possible and to operate within the Osmotherly rules--named after the civil servant who drew them up--which describe their responsibilities to Parliament. But at the end of the day, they appear with

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the foreknowledge and agreement of their Minister, and the Minister himself is fully accountable. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that civil servants cannot be expected to debate or answer for policy, as it is their job to help Select Committees.

Once this motion is passed, my advice is that it will remain through Sessions and Parliaments until the House wishes to return to it. Indeed, the House can return to a motion that we pass at any time, and amend it at any time.

I conclude by thanking all those who have contributed to this debate for their helpful comments, especially in relation to the motion. I confirm on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that it is our aim to bring that motion to the House before Dissolution. It is unfinished business, and the whole House will wish it to be finished.

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