ANNUAL REPORT OF THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
1. During the Session 1999-2000 the Committee
conducted a variety of inquiries, routine and one-off, short and
long, new and follow-up, own-initiative and linked to legislation.
Details of Committee activity, staffing etc are published in the
Sessional Return and we shall not repeat them here.
The Committee's remit
2. We have a wide-ranging remit to examine matters
relating to the quality and standards of administration provided
by the civil service departments and other matters relating to
the civil service. We therefore have a unique, cross-cutting,
role which we are exploiting in our wide-ranging inquiry into
'making government work', examining efforts to join-up government.
3. Our terms of reference specify that we should
consider the 'Reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration,
of the Health Service Commissioners for Scotland and Wales and
of the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Northern Ireland'. Recent constitutional
developments, therefore, have implications for our work. Devolution
has had the effect that the Scottish and Welsh Ombudsmen no longer
report to the House, although Mr Buckley still holds both offices.
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman still reports to Parliament but
in view of the expectation that his office too is likely to be
devolved we decided to take no action on his Annual Report. Appropriate
amendments to the Standing Order will need to be made in due course.
4. The Committee's jurisdiction on ombudsman
matters may have shrunk but nonetheless these occupied a considerable
proportion of its time during the session. As usual the Committee
reported on the Annual Reports of the Parliamentary Ombudsman
(as the Parliamentary Commissioner is henceforth to be known)
of the Health Service Ombudsman.
In addition the Committee heard evidence and published a Report
on the Cabinet Office's review of Public Sector Ombudsmen
in which we give a cautious welcome to the idea of a college of
Ombudsmen. Such a college should help to provide a joined-up complaints
procedure for joined-up government.
5. More urgent, perhaps, was our work in response
to the Report of the Ombudsman (after an inquiry parallel with
one by the Comptroller and Auditor General) on the question of
inherited SERPS- an act of maladministration which the current
Pensions Minister has described as the 'biggest act of maladministration
since the war'. In our Report we suggested that the redress scheme
which the Government appeared to be suggesting might well give
rise to a number of further problems- a view which the government
has accepted. The Report was well received in the House and in
6. Another public official in whose work the
Committee take a regular interest is the Commissioner for Public
Appointments, currently Dame Rennie Fritchie. Our regular evidence
session on her Annual Report took place after the end of the session
but we did publish a Report
on her controversial Report which suggested that there was bias
in the system of making appointments to NHS Trusts and Health
7. Two years ago we prepared a Report on the
Government Information and Communications Service, and we held
a follow-up evidence session, without preparing a Report, on the
Service and on the new Knowledge Network.
8. The Committee has spent a good deal of time
during the first two sessions in this Parliament examining the
Government's proposals for a Freedom of Information Bill, including
an inquiry in the summer of 1999 into the draft Bill published
by the Home Office. The Bill was finally introduced in the Commons
on 18 November 1999. The Committee immediately published a summary
of what changes had been made from the draft Bill, in order to
help the House in its consideration of the Bill at second reading
and in Committee. We reiterated in our Report
a number of our criticisms of the draft Bill: in particular that
it failed to strike a proper balance between disclosure and access
in relation to the formulation of government policy; and that
it had failed to give the power to the information commissioner
to order disclosure of exempt information on public interest grounds.
These problems have been a theme of debate on the Bill throughout
its passage in both Houses. The Bill received Royal Assent in
9. In the course of our continuing inquiry into
innovative methods of public participation we achieved what we
believe to be a 'first' for a House of Commons Committee, by commissioning
the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government to organise an
on-line discussion for us. The topics for the discussion were
how government had used electronic forms of communication to enhance
citizen participation in shaping policy or the implementation
of government programmes, what are the limits of their use, their
implications for representative government and the prospects for
further developments. The results of the discussion are archived
at www.democracyforum.org.uk and the subsequent oral evidence
is published as HC 79-iv.
10. As in previous sessions the Committee has
conducted, by correspondence, an inquiry into Ministerial Accountability
and Parliamentary Questions. On this occasion, as well as following
our previous practice of obtaining a Memorandum from the Table
Office on questions which Departments have refused to answer ('blocked'
questions) and asking Departments for further information as to
the reasons, we sought to establish from Members what caused them
to be dissatisfied with replies to questions. We expect to report
11. Another inquiry by correspondence has been
carried out with the help of The Democratic Audit who, as a follow-up
to our inquiry into quangos, are tracking for us how open and
accountable these bodies are. We hope that such an exercise may
become a regular event.
12. The main focus of the Committee's interest
in the latter part of the session was in our new major inquiry
into 'making government work'. In this we have set out to examine
the measures to enhance performance
progress - and obstacles - in 'joining-up' government
the implications for the civil service and its values
the development of a stronger centre at No 10 Downing Street
the relationship between politicians, political appointees and
the role of accountability.
We have heard evidence from a number of witnesses
and hope to report in the New Year.
13. We have singled out certain strands of 'making
government work' for particular attention, and we hope shortly
to publish Reports on the Ministerial Code (on which we took evidence,
unusually, from the former Prime Minister John Major), and on
Special Advisers to Ministers; this last inquiry incorporates
consideration of Short Money support to political parties.
14. We did not in the last session do any work
on Resource Account Budgeting; our evidence session with the Minister
for the Cabinet Office was more in the nature of a tour
d'horizon with a new Minister than a formal inquiry into
the Office's Annual Report, but we intend to hold a formal hearing
on the Department's Annual Report with the Minister in the current
session, in the course of which we will look at RAB as far as
our resources allow.
Relations with Departments
15. The cross-cutting nature of our work leads
us to consider the operations of more than one Government Department.
In Session 1999-2000 we produced Reports concerning the Department
of Health, the Department of Social Security (and the former combined
Department of Health and Social Security) and the Home
Office and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Co-operation
from our lead Department, the Cabinet Office, has been mixed.
High staff turnover in the Cabinet Office, inherent in its fast-changing
role, may be a factor. We found, for instance, that we are not
always informed of developments affecting the Committee's work.
In particular, there was the case of the paper on the Knowledge
Network which was not sent to us despite the fact that we had
recently taken evidence from the head of the responsible unit!
In this context we would also say that we prefer to receive hard
copy rather than be told something is 'on the web-site'- particularly
since the Cabinet Office web-site no longer has a search facility.
16. On one occasion procrastination by the Department
- indeed failure to supply promised information - led to publication
of Committee documents being delayed. When Sir Richard Wilson
appeared before us on 9th February he was asked to supply 'a list
of the Prime Minister's trips with an addendum showing who accompanied
the Prime Minister for each trip'. The Committee delayed publication
of the evidence (and so also of the following evidence sessions)
pending receipt of the additional information. Repeated efforts,
by letter and telephone, met the response that the material would
shortly be supplied. On 21 June the Committee agreed that, if
the information had not arrived within 24 hours, publication would
go ahead without it. On 22 June a letter detailing numbers of
staff and purpose of each trip was received, but including no
details of the staff concerned, and the Committee published the
evidence with a footnote setting out its dissatisfaction. The
information never arrived. We regard the Cabinet Office's failure
either to let us have the information we requested or to explain
that it would not be forthcoming, as discourteous.
17. We have had some difficulty in getting the
witnesses we want. When we asked the Leader of the House to give
evidence on Short Money, she declined. We hoped that the Prime
Minister would attend to give evidence on the Ministerial Code,
but he declined, citing long-standing convention. During our inquiry
into special advisers we asked serving advisers to appear before
us but were told that it was not appropriate that they should
attend; their place would be taken by the Cabinet Secretary. It
was particularly irritating to be told that it would not be appropriate
for the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff to give evidence when
the Press Secretary, whose position is exactly analogous, appeared
before us on 23rd June 1998. We found the explanation given by
the Cabinet Secretary, that Mr Campbell was invited to give evidence
about the work of the Government Information and Communication
Service whereas Mr Powell was asked to give evidence about his
own role, unconvincing.
On another occasion we invited the former Head of the Performance
and Innovation Unit to appear and were told that his successor
should appear instead.
18. The unwillingness of specified individuals
to appear before Committees, although supported by convention,
seems to us to indicate a gap in the system of accountability
and we hope to return to it in our deliberations.
19. When we heard evidence on SERPS we invited
retired civil servants, as well as former Ministers, to give evidence.
The Leader of the House wrote to us suggesting that we should
defer this until the Liaison Committee had considered the matter,
which we did not do. We are pleased that the Liaison Committee
confirmed our view (and that of Mr Justice Scott in his Report
on Exports to Iraq) that the evidence of retired officials may
be germane to an inquiry and should in some circumstance be allowed.
Government replies to
20. In terms of Government replies to our Reports
we have a problem which is not shared by Departmental Select Committees
in that our reports are not always directed to the same Department
or, indeed, to only one Department. Our report on Appointments
to NHS Trusts and Health Authorities, for instance, was directed
to the Department of Health and that on SERPS to the Department
of Social Security, while our Report on the work of the Parliamentary
Ombudsman concerns Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
and the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office.
The wide-ranging nature of our interests may complicate matters
for those whose duty it is to put together replies to our reports
but we would not expect it inordinately to delay them.
21. We received only one reply to a Committee
Report in the session; the reply to the Sixth Report of Session
1997-98 on Quangos. The Reply was full and detailed and accepted
the majority of the recommendations, but it was not received until
March whereas the Report was published in November. Replies were
also received from Lord Neill and the Commissioner for Public
Appointments to whom some of our recommendations were addressed.
No reply has yet been received to our report on the Report of
the Commissioner for Public Appointments on Appointments to NHS
Trusts and Health Authorities (published in July), although one
is now expected.
22. Some Reports, of their nature, did not require
a specific response. Our Report on the Review of Public Sector
Ombudsmen will receive its reply when the final form of the proposed
new structure is published and, since change will require legislation
we shall look to take part in further debate.
23. A letter from the Cabinet Office setting
out the position in respect of Government Replies to each of our
Reports of last Session is annexed to this Annual Report.
Debates on Reports
24. We sought and obtained a debate on our report
on Quangos and the Government reply to it in Westminster Hall.
This took place on 16 March.
25. In December 1999 the Committee hosted a seminar
on issues relating to the modernisation of government. Topics
included making government more effective, modernising the civil
service, accountability issues and the role of the Committee.
It was attended by a number of distinguished academics, journalists
and other commentators.
26. At 64% the turnover of members in the session
was very high and made for some difficulties. This can probably
not be helped, but we certainly second the comments of the Liaison
Committee in its first Report about the length of time taken to
replace Members who wish to resign. It is not helpful to have
Members nominally on the strength who are unable to attend from
October to February.
23 Fourth Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000
HC 106. Back
First Report of the Committee Session 2000-2001 HC 60. Back
Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 612. Back
Deb 29 November col 966 et seq. Back
Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 410. Back
Public Appointments to NHS Trusts and Health Authorities. Back
Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 78. Back
HC 238: Q403. Back