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by encouraging people to

We have a paradox: the more regulated we are, the more the perception of trustworthiness may be affected, and the more standards of behaviour may decline. It is almost as if we are being infantilised, and becoming like children responding to the admonitions of a parent. It is important for us to recognise that if all the decisions are in the hands of an ethical regulator, that parent-child relationship will become standard. I think that we should conduct ourselves, in this place and beyond, as adults. I say that lest we be tempted to establish new regulators in the years ahead. Regulators are nearly always established in response to a particular concern that has arisen: that is true of most of the regulators we have had in the past. The Committee’s report may make us pause to consider that in future.

As Lady O’Neill said,

I agree with my hon. Friends that ultimately, that trusted source must be the people themselves. It must lead us back to democracy. These things cannot be contracted out; trust must come from the electorate. Too much of the direction in public life has moved away from that ultimate accountability to the electorate, and I am not convinced that the public trust in unelected representatives—unelected appointees—is any more than their faith in elected guardians of the public interest. That is why the Committee breaks important ground in recommending a system for ethical regulators to report in a collegiate way to Parliament. Even today, that would give greater independence than we currently have from Ministers. That would be an important step forward.

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In respect of the special ethical regulators that we have, we should take heed of the Committee’s view that sometimes it is hard, or even impossible, to exercise a distinction between the ethical and the administrative. It behoves us all to be temperate in our consideration of reports from those regulators, because they find it difficult to distinguish between the two, and we damage trust in politics if we are seen to react too hysterically to reports before they have been properly investigated.

The direction of travel is clear. We need to have more parliamentary accountability. That is why I am a little critical of some of the Government’s initial reactions to the clear recommendations of the report. It is good that we have established the principle that fixed-term appointments are to be encouraged, but the Government can still delay appointments. We have seen that in the case of today’s appointment, which has been months in coming. It is also the case that that appointment did not conform exactly to the principles that have been recommended.

In an intervention earlier, I asked the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) whether the appointment was the subject of consultation between parties, as his Committee rightly recommended. My understanding is that that was not the case—that my party was not consulted. This is an important appointment; we are dealing with people’s confidence in standards in public life, and we have waited so long for the appointment to take place. It is disappointing that in making this apparently confidence-building appointment, the recommendation of the Select Committee was not followed. I therefore fear that the Committee that the hon. Gentleman chairs was not quite as influential as he might have hoped.

To move on to other areas, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) rightly described the Government’s response to some of the recommendations as opaque. The Committee recommended that:

and that:

All the Government have said on that is that they will give further consideration to the issues raised. The Committee’s report also recommended that all constitutional watchdogs should have the power to initiate their own inquiries. All we have heard from the Government is that they will make a commitment to consider the recommendation. Therefore, if we are to move to a new system of greater transparency and confidence, we have further to go.

If we are to be genuinely accountable to Parliament in the way suggested, the Government must start taking Parliament a bit more seriously in general terms. For example, it is important when we ask questions in Parliament and hold the Executive to account that we have the information made available to us, but my recent experience in questioning the Minister’s own Department—which is responsible for promulgating to civil servants across Whitehall the rules which say that parliamentary questions should be answered promptly and named day questions answered on the named day—is that it gives holding answers that prevent us from exercising that degree of scrutiny. It is important that we live up to the standards that we set ourselves.

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As for how to move forward, I do not want to rehearse the well-made arguments of yesterday—I am sure I would be brought to order if I were to try—but it is incumbent on us all to be clear about some of the abuses, inadvertent or otherwise, that take place. When trade unions are reporting more donors of the political levy than there are members of the union, I do not know whether that is by design or accident, but we should have the courage to look into that and correct it. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who led from the Front Bench yesterday, wants us to do, and I know he would welcome a more positive Government contribution on that subject.

There is also the question of the advantages of incumbency, such as the communications allowance. If we seek to restrict spending by candidates while there are great financial advantages to incumbency, that corrodes confidence in public life.

It is important that the way that appointees, be they ministerial or public ones, conduct themselves is in keeping with the standards that we expect. I know that exchanges have taken place on this earlier today, but it was disappointing that one of the Government’s more recent appointments, Mr. Paul Myners, who has been appointed to a civil service post as head of the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, made an ill-advised personal and political attack on some of my hon. Friends last week. On “Question Time”, he referred to the

That is not the kind of remark that we expect from a public servant. I know that the reputation of Mr. Myners in business is strong, but if someone is working for the public benefit in a position of trust, they ought not to make partisan political statements such as that on the record.

Some excellent contributions have been made in this debate. I have referred to some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who chairs the Committee. He made an excellent speech that forcefully made the case for his recommendations. They speak for themselves, and I hope that the Minister will give them a response.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was a little premature in his hymn of praise to the Prime Minister, although it was tempered later in response to an intervention. We must wait a little to see whether we will have the enthusiasm that the hon. Gentleman expects. He mentioned the contribution of Sir Simon Jenkins to the report. It is a significant one, because when Sir Simon gave evidence to the Committee he made a powerful point about the importance of localism. He made the point that if we were sitting in New York debating confidence in public officials and public representatives, people would think first about the mayor of New York and local council members there, then about the governor of the state of New York, and ultimately about the President.

In this country, when people think about those in public life, they automatically go straight to the Prime Minister, Ministers and MPs. We seem to have lost that confidence in, and indeed the prominence of, people in civic positions between central Government and people’s lives. Having lost that is a fault, because people tend to have confidence in people whom they know, people
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whom they can see and—as was made clear earlier—people whom they can kick out. People do not feel that they can directly kick out the Prime Minister—they feel that they can do so only very indirectly—but those in their own constituencies and their own council areas should be more accountable to local people. That gap in the middle of our democracy corrodes our standards.

The hon. Member for Pendle made a slightly curious speech. He endorsed several of the points that I am making about the Government’s need to respond more proactively. He also expressed some regret for some of his party’s remarks during the 1990s and the contaminating of politics by dwelling too much on matters of sleaze, but he then launched into an unsubstantiated attack on Lord Ashcroft. I was not sure that such an approach had great consistency. The hon. Gentleman made a useful contribution in talking about the dance of the seven veils that the Government have been doing since July 1998, when they first promised a civil service Act. We await the publication of the legislation, and we hope that it has benefited from the scrutiny that the Public Administration Committee has given its own draft Bill and, subsequently, the various Government consultations on it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is perhaps the only Member of this House to have been praised in the evidence that the Committee took. The eminent commentator Peter Riddell said in his evidence that the system of parliamentary regulation was much better than it had ever been,

The whole House knows what contribution my right hon. Friend has made to promoting standards in public life. The point that he made about the Standards Board is well founded. There can be no better example of the sort of parent-child relationship, in which the establishment of the board has encouraged bad behaviour in some councils, with tit-for-tat reporting of the most trivial alleged offences, which wastes public money and corrodes the confidence that people have in those institutions. We should take a much more sensible approach.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Prime Minister’s document, “The Governance of Britain”. That was a great opportunity to go further in proposing arrangements to enforce the ministerial code and ensure that the arrangements that we have for Ministers are as robust as those for MPs, but that opportunity was not taken. There was also the possibility of pre-empting some of the recommendations that we are making in this debate, but sadly, the rhetoric and hoop-la surrounding the great unveiling of that document have not been matched by its content.

The hon. Member for Luton, North paid an appropriately warm tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, and made a fascinating speech that drew attention to the need to hover above some of the micro-issues and ensure that we have the right systems set up that will serve us well for the future. The contribution that he has made, and continues to make, in the Committee, will do that too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) made his usual robust speech. He is a thoughtful and independent-minded Member, and I know that no one
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is more passionate than he is about restoring the importance of local democracy in our national life. His contribution today was in keeping with that.

We have had a good debate. We have covered a lot of ground. The report is excellent and challenging, but the Government’s response so far has been lacking. It has been opaque, although we now have an opportunity to hear from the Minister. I hope that she will take the opportunity—

Kelvin Hopkins: Is the hon. Gentleman committing his party to supporting all the recommendations in the report, especially those on appointments?

Greg Clark: As I said, there is much in the report with which we agree, but I cannot at this stage commit to its every jot and tittle. It enjoys our warm endorsement and it has been fed into our policy review. Our proposals will be published shortly, but we are concerned at the moment to hear from the Minister about whether the measures will be put before us in the Bill that we have been promised in this Session, so that we may change the law.

4.17 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on securing this debate. It has given the House a welcome opportunity to debate important issues with the benefit of what has been described as the bright light, or sunlight, shone by the Public Administration Committee. The debate was all the better for that.

I welcome the open and mostly constructive spirit in which the debate has taken place. I wish to place on record and emphasise that, as the Government said in our response to the Committee, we are giving serious and continued consideration to all the issues raised by the Committee and in this debate. Our commitment is to a continual improvement, and I think that that commitment is shared by right hon. and hon. Members.

I cannot emphasise enough that the Government are committed to maintaining the highest standards of conduct for those in public life. We welcome the Committee’s review of the regulation of that conduct, with its particular focus on the bodies that have been set up by the Government for this purpose. The Government also welcome the fact that the witnesses to the inquiry were convinced that

I am pleased that that observation was approved by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). He has form in that regard, as he has always supported higher standards in public life.

The Government share the Committee’s views in a number of areas. First, we agree that the primary purpose of the system of ethical regulation is to ensure that standards of public conduct remain high. Many hon. Members have suggested as much today, and we accept that ethical regulation is a component of good government. Secondly, however, we agree that

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Thirdly, we believe that regulators have an important role in ensuring that people in public life are properly scrutinised and that they make an important and valuable contribution to upholding the highest standards. On those points, the Government are very much at one with the Committee, and much of what has been said today bears that out.

Before I go on to deal with specific points raised in the debate, I should like to add my tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and by the Public Administration Committee, which he has chaired so forensically and enthusiastically for a number of years now. As we have heard, he might have been standing at this Dispatch Box had he not made his views so clear in the speeches that he has made. However, I am grateful that he has given me the opportunity to stand here myself; I am for ever in his debt. The Public Administration Committee has produced a large number of recommendations of great quality over many years which have helped to shape the landscape of ethical regulation in this country. I repeat that I believe that standards in public are all the better as a result.

Before I deal with specific matters raised in the debate, I want to put the improvements that the Government have made and the bodies referred to in the report in some sort of context. Most significant in that regard have been the roles played by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by Parliament. On 3 July, the Prime Minister made it clear in an announcement to the House that he hoped to agree a new constitutional settlement that entrusts more power to Parliament and the British people. In the Green Paper entitled “The Governance of Britain”, he set out two objectives for that settlement—namely, that the Government should be more accountable for the power that they hold, and that the rights and responsibilities of the citizen would be upheld and enhanced. Indeed, the Prime Minister has gone further and called on the House to work with the Government in a spirit that takes us

Today’s debate forms part of that discussion, in which I hope that all hon. Members will participate in that spirit.

I shall begin with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, about which the report made clear recommendations. As I announced earlier, the Prime Minister has today appointed Sir Christopher Kelly to be the committee’s chairman. He will take up the post on 1 January and will continue the committee’s important work to ensure high standards across public life. I can assure the House that Sir Christopher was recruited through fair and open competition and in accordance with the rules of the committee for public appointments.

I should also like to take this opportunity to thank Rita Donaghy, a long-standing member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. She has admirably filled the role of interim chair, and I am sure that the whole House would want to pay tribute to her.

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Greg Clark: Will the Minister explain why, in respect of such a sensitive appointment, it was not felt appropriate to consult the leaders of the main Opposition parties?

Gillian Merron: There may be some confusion about the Government’s commitment, so perhaps I can gently point out that we never made a commitment to consult Opposition parties about that appointment. However, we have made a commitment to consult the main Opposition party leaders on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It may reassure the hon. Gentleman and other Members who made the same point to learn that Sir Christopher has indicated that he is more than willing to go before the Public Administration Committee at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that it will welcome that offer.

Kelvin Hopkins: The Government have not yet committed themselves to the Select Committee’s recommendation about appointments. Will my hon. Friend give serious consideration to that recommendation and confirm that future appointments will not be made in the same way as the most recent one?

Gillian Merron: At the beginning of my remarks I said that we were considering all the points made by the Committee. We are keen to work with it to improve things where we can. Given the responses I have heard in the House today, I hope people will feel that the appointment was made in the right manner, in a spirit of openness. Furthermore, I have indicated the appointee’s willingness to make himself available to the Committee, which I am sure will be extremely welcome.

Greg Clark: May I ask the Minister about the manner in which the appointment was announced? We discovered it at Prime Minister’s questions in response to a question. Was not it felt appropriate to make a written statement today that this very important appointment was to be made?

Gillian Merron: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the ministerial code, which indicates that Ministers should come to Parliament, as we have done, at the first opportunity. Indeed, a written ministerial statement has been made and the Prime Minister indicated that an announcement would be made later today, so the Government have been true to the proper spirit and the requirements placed upon us.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Gillian Merron: I was about to refer to the points that the hon. Gentleman made, so perhaps I could do that first. He asked why the term of the previous chair was not renewed. Sir Alistair himself acknowledged that none of his predecessors had been appointed for a second term and, given that precedent, he had no expectation of reappointment.

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