Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)
MR CHRISTOPHER LESLIE
THURSDAY 31 JANUARY 2002
1. Could I welcome, on the Committee's behalf, Mr Leslie, Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office. We are delighted to have you here to talk about some Cabinet Office issues, in particular ombudsman-related issues and cognate territory. Would you like to say anything by way of introduction?
(Mr Leslie) I think you have a copy of the memorandum I sent in last week. That essentially explains broadly the Government's position on our intention to reform the Ombudsman. The only thing that does need saying is on the bigger picture issue which I think always needs reiterating in these cases, particularly when you go into some of the detail: that is, the general state of the public services today requires attention to the need to have the facility to address the grievances of individuals if they have a complaint about administrative failings. That is a crucial part of public service reform in general. The more I learn about the history of the Ombudsman, the more I see about the work of the Ombudsman in general, the more I am impressed and conscious of the fact that it really is a very important part of our constitution. I am quite enthusiastic about trying to see if we can make some progress on reforms in general.
2. What is the blockage on this? We have been talking about this for a few years now. All the ombudsmen recognise that they need to get the barriers down so that the service to the citizen and complainant can be improved and seamless. The Government has done a consultation exercise on it and a review. The Government has said it likes the review and broadly agreed with it, and yet nothing very much has happened after that. Now there is talk of more consultation. What is holding it all up?
(Mr Leslie) Looking back at the development of the ombudsman in the Sixties, and I am not, as I say, a complete expert on that, there was quite a large span of time between the Whyatt Report and then the White Paper and the eventual development of legislation. These issues, when they are so strategic, do take some time to develop. Certainly the Collcutt Review, which was very comprehensive and a great piece of workand I would like to put on record my thanks to all those involved in writing thatwas very significant. It proposed a number of major changes and, of course, when looking at how we would perhaps implement some of those, we considered whether there was regulatory reform or other non-primary legislative means. We broadly concluded that we do need primary legislation in order to make some of these significant changes. Making sure that we try our best to get our detailed plans lined up and ready to go for legislation I think is now the task at hand. I do not have any particular desire to wait around or delay things. I want to see if we can take steps forward fairly quickly. As ever, we need to make sure we get time when the parliamentary timetable allows. That is really, I suspect, where we are at the present.
3. The real problem then is the queue for legislation?
(Mr Leslie) Also, I think we are not quite at the stage where we have the draft Bill to hand. I think we want to use any time at present, when we might be looking to get a legislative slot, productively, so that we can finesse some of those particular details. For example, there are some big questions about the jurisdiction of the ombudsman. There are obviously developments going on elsewhere. The Scottish Parliament are considering their own issues in respect of devolution. I think we are just trying to make sure that we get the right arrangements for the way forward.
4. Part of the Leader of the House's reform proposals for the Commons is that far more Bills will go into draft now, and indeed we might move towards a two-year cycle for much legislation, which seems a very good idea. What would you reckon on bringing forward a draft Bill on this, now that all the preparatory work has been done, so that maybe this Committee could have a look at the draft Bill, and then you would still be in your place for the real slot when the time came? At least the work would have been done and the process moved along a bit.
(Mr Leslie) There are still a few issues, I think, that do need to be resolved. The Collcutt Review was, I think, broadly the foundation on which we want to construct the Bill but there are still a number of issues that I would like to have set in my mind before we can even really get to the stage of having an actual draft Bill, for example, in place. But I have no problems at all in working, particularly with this Committee, in making sure that the legislation is as refined as possible. In fact, I think this is one of those issues where we do particularly need a consensus if we are going to move forward on this. It is not a particularly partisan matter at all. I think we can look at trying to do something on that issue.
5. Would your judgment be that some time, either this session or certainly in the next 12 months, we might be in the position to see a draft Bill?
(Mr Leslie) If that were possible, I would like to see it, as I say, as soon as I can. The difficulty comes in making sure that we get the resources as well as the policy matters straightened up so that we can actually have drafting taking place. Once that is done, then of course we would like to work with the Committee to make sure that we can move forward fairly speedily.
6. While we are in the area of asking you where things are, the Committee is quite interested, too, in what has happened to the civil service legislation, much promised but never delivered. There was a common expectation that, the commitment to it having been made, we would see a consultation document in January and then a draft Bill. We may be involved in looking at that. Yet, that again seems to have stalled. There seems to be no sign of it on the horizon. Do you know what the state of play is with this?
(Mr Leslie) We are committed to civil service reform in general but to the Civil Service Act in particular. We do intend to look to wider consultations as soon as possible, those requiring publication as a consultation as well as decisions that have not yet been made by Ministers. I am hoping, though, to have an input into that fairly soon. As I say, we do intend to try and make progress on that. In a similar way to the ombudsman, these are matters where we have to make sure we get our parliamentary priorities right and look to make progress as soon as the opportunities allow. I think in general we will want to see progress fairly soon on the Civil Service Bill. It is not really possible to be enormously more precise than that because of the constraints of drafting and decisions, as well as parliamentary time.
7. I understand about the Bills and parliamentary time, but that does not apply to a consultation document, which is just the beginning of the reform process. There is to be a draft Bill after that. We are talking about way back down the process. Is the consultation document imminent?
(Mr Leslie) I think that certainly, as the Parliamentary Secretary of the Cabinet Office, I have a particular interest in the day-to-day running of the civil service. The Prime Minister also, as Minister for the civil service, is involved here as well. We want to look at both the broader issues that might be involved in a Bill as well as some of the detailed issues. We are not in a position to publish the consultation at present. We will try and do so when we have resolved our views on these matters.
8. So it is proving more difficult than was thought a little while ago, is it?
(Mr Leslie) I do not think so; it is not particularly difficult. There are some big "in principle" issues at stake here, as well as the need to try and make sure we do not get into a partisan tit-for-tat on something that really is as crucial as the independence of the civil service. I think consultation would certainly be desirable in so far as again we can work towards a consensus.
9. What are some of the big issues that are causing difficulty?
(Mr Leslie) I do not think there is difficulty. There are quite large questions about how you would frame that in statute law in our particular constitutional system and questions about the independence of the civil service. There is a number of other issues as well. We will try our best to make progress. I take the hint from the Committee that this is an issue, even though that is not the topic of the discussion today. We want to move on fairly quickly.
10. There are two things: one is that the Government has rightly and properly aroused expectations now and it has given a commitment that there will be such legislation. I think, in a way, it was deserving of credit for being the first government that was going to give some constitutional reflection on the civil service and sort out some of the issues you were talking about. Any pulling back from that is regrettable. Obviously we are expecting to see some drafts of this shortly. We have our own interest in it. What we are just doing is urging you to pursue it. It is easy to get a consultation out because consultation can share some of these issues with the rest of us.
(Mr Leslie) I accept that. We do need to try and make progress. These things are not simple matters. They are large-scale changes and we are committing to putting into statute the independence of the civil service. However, we want to make sure that not just the Ministers but also the service itself have in mind the nature of how such legislation might be framed as well. I have no problem with trying to move towards a consultation as soon as we are able.
11. Having had two questions about delay, that leads to the third one, freedom of information, in which this Committee has had a long-standing interest. Again, the expectation is this will begin to kick in this year and that it will be an aggressive process of introduction, starting with the centre and going through local government and so on. Then the decision was made to delay the introduction of access rights until 2005. This was quite contrary to everything that was said when the Bill was being passed and everything that was said by your predecessor. Lest you think I am making this up, on the very last day when the Bill was here, your predecessor said: It seems sensible for the Bill to be implemented in stages by extending coverage gradually, by tighter organisation. It would make sense to start with central government and it is right that central government would provide the models of good practice. What the House of Commons was told was that this notion of a gradual introduction with bits consisting of learning how to do it, and other bits were bring brought in, was central to the strategy. Then suddenly it was decided instead that none of that would happen: there would not be a gradual introduction but it would all go live in 2005, with no learning process across the system. It has been suggested that the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, who is a formidable and distinguished person, was so unenthralled by this prospect that she decided not to renew her tenure in the job of Information Commissioner, which is a great loss to the system. What has been going on?
(Mr Leslie) There are a number of points there. First of all, I am not sure that Elizabeth France's reasons for moving on or whatever are necessarily related to the points you have raised. In general, I think that the progress on freedom of information and the Freedom of Information Act, which is a radical piece of legislation, is a step forward that is unprecedented in British constitutional history and we are making good progress. Certainly I hear your argument about the right of access schemes, but I think we wanted to make sure that the Government was ready when we had the implementation so that we did it effectively and we did not do it in a piecemeal or haphazard way. I think that was the motivation behind the January 2005 date, if I am right. The publication schemes are to be rolled out, I think from this year. Those will be significant pieces of work put voluntarily with much larger volumes of information into the public arena and which, as I say, are very significant steps forward. These are actually matters normally for the Lord Chancellor's Department and the implementation does not fall into my portfolio as Parliamentary Secretary of the Cabinet Office, but certainly I accept that the civil service in general is affected.
Chairman: I accept what you say. I was just taking the chance to have a go at you really.
12. Would you say in general that the culture in government is to be co-operative, helpful and open with the Parliamentary Ombudsman? Certainly I can read you a quote from Public Finance of the week of 11 January which says: "Whitehall's most powerful watchdog has criticised departments for being `less co-operative' . . . Whitehall Ombudsman, Sir Michael Buckley, claimed that his investigations into mismanagement by departments were `uphill work'. He said: `We have noticed a tendency for departments to take a harder line and be less co-operative'. He also accused officials of `double-standards' in imposing strict deadlines for public complaints while taking too long `to sort things out' when complaints were upheld." That does not sound like the Ombudsman would agree that there is that sort of culture. What would you say to those criticisms?
(Mr Leslie) No governments or such a large organisation, large bureaucracies in general, whether they are public or private sector, are perfect. The whole point of having an ombudsman is to reflect the fact that there will, from time to time, be administrative failings that affect individuals who need assistance in seeking redress for their grievances. I think the development of the system that we have, whereby we have an ombudsman who can assist individuals as an advocate to seek redress from the executive for administrative failings, is a powerful one and certainly Parliament has a role in that as well as a check in keeping the executive to account. We can only try our best and put in efforts as far as possible to become much more public service oriented in our approach and to put the customer first as far as possible, but I am not here to say that everything is perfect. We do try our best to be as responsive and as helpful as we can, but there are always constraints within large institutional operations.
13. Accepting that all administrations are not perfect, does it not worry you, though, that the Ombudsman should be saying that departments are becoming less co-operative than in the past? Would you accept that criticism and, if not, why do you think the Ombudsman would be pursing this line at the moment?
(Mr Leslie) I am not aware of any particular trend or internal view that we should be somehow more obstructive. That is certainly not the view of Ministers. We want to be working so that we are much more responsive to consumers of public services. If you have specific examples, maybe I can take those away.
14. For example, last year Jack Straw became the first Minister to veto a ruling by the Ombudsman under the Government's Code of Practice. Would that be a suitable example?
(Mr Leslie) That was a particularly exceptional issue, as I recall, and related I think to a complaint from a Conservative Member of Parliament about the number of times Ministers had made requests to Permanent Secretaries on disclosure of interest internally. The Government took a view that these were matters that should be exempt because of the need for internal confidence and trust within the civil service, but subsequently we have made, I think, great improvements to the ministerial code which have overcome most of those problems in that particular case. I do not think, as far as I am concerned, that was a particular example of a citizen or individual seeking redress for an administrative grievance in terms of a public service failing. I think that was perhaps more of a politically motivated attempt with a wider agenda, which we could talk about more if you wish.
15. I will not pursue that. Perhaps other members will. I want to ask you one thing about devolution and the Ombudsman, in particular in relation to the National Assembly for Wales. It appears that no progress has been made in Wales on the sorts of issues that we tackle about devolution and the Ombudsman in Wales. If Sir Michael Buckley retires in 2002, Wales might be left without a provision for a Health Service or an Administration Ombudsman. What sort of discussions and considerations are being given to this at the moment?
(Mr Leslie) Certainly Sir Michael has indicated his desire to step down, I think from this summer, from the vast array of posts that he holds at present, but I do not think that the Government would see Wales without an Ombudsman facility. Certainly we would want to put in hand steps to make sure that we have a replacement in post. The devolution questions I think are important.
16. Are there discussions currently in the wings between your officials and the National Assembly officials about this issue?
(Mr Leslie) I imagine that there are; I would hope so too, but I have not personally been party to those.
17. Perhaps you could let us have a note on that?
(Mr Leslie) If you would like, I shall certainly do that.
Anthony D Wright
18. I want to go back to this question of the delay there has been since 1998 when this review of the Ombudsman was first announced and now we find out that Sir Michael Buckley is minded to retire in the summer months. What efforts have been made to try to keep Sir Michael Buckley in position until such changes have been made, or is it in fact going to take a lot longer than anticipated?
(Mr Leslie) I think these are matters where we have tried to work in parallel with Sir Michael in making sureand I do not want to put words into his mouth to my understanding that we have a smooth transition to any new and unified reformed body and that any successors have the chance to undertake most of that work towards the reformed organisations. I think that is a perfectly laudable approach for Sir Michael to take. As I say, I do not have any particular desire to delay things any more. It is just a case that we have got to work through all those traditional barriers to legislative reform that have existed for very many centuries.
19. You mentioned within the memorandum that it would take primary legislation to push through all of the changes. You also state that it might be possible to make some of the changes by regulatory change. What sort of change would you be talking about there?
(Mr Leslie) The offices of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration's, and the Health Service Commissioner are obviously held by the same individual at present. There is scope for these bodies and the Commission for Local Administration to come together in a managerial way by unifying functions and co-location. For example, I think they are moving together so that there are no physical barriers between interchange. The difficulty is that the legislation really is quite prescriptive about the jurisdiction that each of the ombudsmen have and it does not really reflect the modern-day approach of "joined-up government"a phrase I had to get in at some point today. It is very relevant in terms of what a reformed ombudsman and unified body need to reflect so that there are not those barriers to solving cases for individuals. For example, a Social Services complaint does not have to be partially Local Government and partially Health Service. There are some real difficulties I think that are driving forward reform but in the meantime there are ways in which the day-to-day workings of the ombudsman can be improved. I think primary legislation is the real step that now needs to be taken.