Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:


1. This is the first report published by this Committee in accordance with guidance set out by the Liaison Committee, to establish common objectives and tasks for all Committees (attached in Annex). The Public Administration Select Committee is not a departmental Committee, and therefore does not directly have a Government Department to scrutinise, but it takes a broad policy perspective on the quality of administration.


2. Since the Public Administration Select Committee last reported to the Liaison Committee, in January 2002, it has had an extremely productive year. The two central themes which currently underpin our work are constitutional developments and reform in public services. Following the publication of the Government's White Paper 'The House of Lords: Completing the Reform'[1] early last year, the Committee decided to conduct an inquiry into reform of the Second Chamber. The Committee held three oral evidence sessions on this inquiry, which included witnesses from Members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords. They included the Lord Chancellor, The Rt. Hon. Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the Leader of the House, The Rt Hon. Robin Cook, MP. Our subsequent report on the Second Chamber has been widely recognised in the House as both authoritative and providing a way forward for the reform process. We were however disappointed to receive only an interim response to this report[2]. In December last year, the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform (whose terms of reference made specific reference to this Committee's report) published a report on the options for the future composition of the Chamber. Members of both Houses have recently voted on these options.

3. The Committee is conducting an inquiry into Public Service Reform, which will last for the whole Parliament. The first strand of this inquiry examined the 'Public Service Ethos' on which we held a total of seven oral evidence sessions. Our report outlined a proposed framework of values for the public service. We recommended that the Government should require all public service contracts to include a public service code which would enshrine and promote values of ethical propriety, democratic accountability and fairness as well as excellence in service quality. We published this report[3] before the Summer Recess last year and we recently received the Government's response, which has been published as our First Special Report of this Session.[4]

4. The second strand of this inquiry is focussing on public service targets and league tables. We have so far held eight evidence sessions. For this inquiry (and also as part of the Committee's inquiry into Public Appointments and Patronage), we visited Bristol to gather evidence on league tables for hospitals, schools and police, taking oral evidence from those who work in the area's public services, and also senior figures in local government, the NHS and education. We expect to report on this inquiry in the spring.

5. The Committee published the latest report in its series on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions[5] which highlights the democratic importance of questions, and called for departments to stop providing inadequate answers. It raised the issue of the variable quality of replies, citing cases where responses were tardy, irrelevant, inaccurate or misleading. The importance of this issue has been recognised by the Speaker who, in a number of statements to the House, emphasised the role of this Committee in relation to ministerial responses. The Government's reply was published as an Appendix to the First Report from the Committee in the current session.[6] Government agreed that Ministers should no longer be able to claim vague excuses when seeking exemption from answering written questions on the grounds that the information is confidential. Ministers will have to provide proper explanations, with specific reference to the 'open government code' on each occasion. The Committee has recommended this on several occasions and warmly welcomed the Government's move as a victory for Parliament. The Committee will continue to report on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions on a regular basis. The Committee has recently written to all Members offering its further help in pursuing unsatisfactory ministerial answers, and a number of Members have already responded to the invitation.

6. The Committee's Third Report 'Special Advisers Boon or Bane: The Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2000-01', included, as an Appendix, the Government Response to the report of last session. The report reiterated our concerns on the issue of special advisers which we felt were not fully addressed in the Government's response.

7. The issue of special advisers came up again when the Committee held an inquiry on Government Information and Communication. This looked at the relationships between ministers, civil service press officers and special advisers following the well publicised events at the former Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions (DTLR). The Committee took evidence on three separate occasions from: the Head of the Government Information and Communication Service, Mr Mike Grannatt; Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service; Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary, DTLR; and also Mr Jonathan Baume, General Secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants. The Committee reported on this inquiry in July last year.[7] Our findings indicated that there was an urgent need for greater clarity about the work of special advisers and we called for a radical review of communications across government. We recommended that the Government should clarify the system of managing special advisers; and that the roles of the Permanent Secretary, Minister and the Prime Minister should be made clearer, particularly in relation to disciplinary matters. The Government's response, just published, accepted these recommendations.[8]

8. We have not had the opportunity to scrutinise any draft bills. But we are preparing to draft our own Civil Service Bill. This draft is expected to be ready early this year. We hope our draft would enshrine the core values of public service such as fairness and impartiality: it would set out how Parliament would protect those values and would give greater clarity to the constitutional position of civil servants.

9. A major focus for the Committee is the quality of administration provided by the Civil Service. We have held a number of sessions in pursuit of this goal. Evidence was taken from Sir Andrew Turnbull, just before he took up the position of Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service, in the summer of last year. The Committee also took evidence in its inquiry on the New Centre from three senior officials responsible for important units recently established at the centre of government: Professor Michael Barber, Prime Minister's Chief Adviser on Delivery, (Delivery Unit); Dr Wendy Thomson, Prime Minister's Chief Adviser on Public Services Reform, (Office of Public Services Reform); and Mr Geoff Mulgan, Director, (Strategy Unit). Other witnesses before the Committee have also included: The Deputy Prime Minister, The Rt Hon. John Prescott MP; Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, The Rt Hon. Lord Macdonald of Tradeston; and the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, Mr Douglas Alexander MP. The Committee is expected to report on this inquiry in the next couple of months.

10. Another aspect of our work on the quality of administration is to scrutinise the work of the Ombudsman. We held four oral evidence sessions on 'Ombudsman Issues'. These have involved evidence from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service, Sir Michael Buckley, before he retired in November last year. We took evidence from the Cabinet Office Minister, Mr Christopher Leslie MP, on why the Government had failed to implement the changes to the Ombudsman system, as recommended by both this Committee and the Ombudsman. We also took evidence from the Cabinet Secretary and the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office in light of critical reports from the Ombudsman. In addition, we invited back a number of organisations who had given evidence in the previous session, to see if they had improved the quality of their administration.  

11. Although as a non-departmental Committee we are not required to do so, we have responded to the spirit of the core tasks for Committees issued by the Liaison Committee in March 2002. We will be discussing the Cabinet Office departmental annual report with Sir Andrew Turnbull in March. Although the Cabinet Office is not a major spending department, we will be looking at its expenditure plans asking whether it has met its Public Service Agreement targets.

12. We are currently undertaking a major inquiry into Public Appointments and Patronage. A central theme of the inquiry is an examination of how well and how fairly the appointments system is working, and whether there is a need for improvement. The inquiry has also focussed on the need for wider participation in public life. We took oral evidence from Dame Rennie Fritchie, Commissioner for Public Appointments. In addition, we have taken evidence on a number of other occasions from a range of witnesses, including: the campaigner and musician, Mr Billy Bragg; Baroness Prashar, the First Civil Service Commissioner; former Member of Parliament, The Rt Hon Tony Benn; Mr Mark Thomas, the comedian and activist; and Mr Douglas Alexander MP, Minister of State, Cabinet Office. We expect to report on this inquiry early in the Spring.

13. At the end of the last Session, the Committee took oral evidence from Ms Elizabeth France, the Information Commissioner, during a single session concerning Freedom of Information issues. The topics discussed at this session consisted mainly of: the Information Commissioner's Annual Report; data protection; access to information; the Freedom of Information Bill; e-mail in government communications; and entitlement/ID cards. There are no plans to report on this inquiry at present.

14. In Session 2001-02, two of the Committee's reports were debated in Westminster Hall. The Sixth Report of Session 2000-01 Public Participation: Issues and Innovations, was debated during a Government Motion for the Adjournment in November 2001. The Second Report, again of Session 2000-01 on Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions, was also debated during a Government Motion for the Adjournment, in October 2002. The Fifth Report of Session 2001-02 on The Second Chamber: Continuing the Reform, was tagged on the Order Paper, in June 2002.

1   Cm 5291. Back

2   Sixth Report: 'The Second Chamber: Continuing the Reform: The Government Response to the Committee's Fifth Report', Session 2001-02 HC 794. Back

3   Seventh Report: 'The Public Service Ethos' Session 2001-02 HC 263-I. Back

4   HC 61. Back

5   Ninth Report: 'Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions' Session 2001-02 HC 1086. Back

6   First Report: 'Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions: The Government Response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2001-02' HC 136. Back

7   Eighth Report: 'These Unfortunate Events: Lessons of recent Events at the former DTLR', HC 303 Session 2001-02. Back

8   Cm 5756. Back

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Prepared 26 February 2003