Select Committee on Liaison First Report




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.

Our work

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) [23]and of the Health Service Ombudsman[24]. In addition the Committee heard evidence and published a Report on the Cabinet Office's review of Public Sector Ombudsmen[25] 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 the press.[26]

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[27] on her controversial Report which suggested that there was bias in the system of making appointments to NHS Trusts and Health Authorities[28].

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[29] 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 November 2000.

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 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 shortly.

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 and delivery
    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 civil servants
    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[30]. 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 Reports

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.

Other activities

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

24   First Report of the Committee Session 2000-2001 HC 60. Back

25  Third Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 612. Back

26  HC Deb 29 November col 966 et seqBack

27  Second Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 410. Back

28   Public Appointments to NHS Trusts and Health Authorities. Back

29  First Report of the Committee Session 1999-2000 HC 78. Back

30   HC 238: Q403. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001