Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents


5  The co-operation of Government

Departments' record of co-operation

105. More effective scrutiny also requires the co-operation of Government. The memoranda from committees demonstrate varying degrees of co-operation from departments at present. Some enjoy a positive and co-operative relationship with their department; others record a number of problems. Some common themes emerge.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSES

106. Several committees complain about the timeliness of Government responses to reports. The Government's guidance to departments ("the Osmotherly Rules") states that departments should aim to respond to reports within two months[99], but responses are quite frequently late. A bad example was set by the Cabinet Office which took nine months to respond to our report on Public Appointments and Select Committees.[100] The Environmental Audit Committee reported that the Government took six months to respond to its report on the Budget 2011 and Environmental Taxes.[101] Worst of all, the Communities and Local Government Committee reported that the Government had still not reported, two years on, to the report of its predecessor on Preventing Violent Extremism. [102]

107. Other committees — and some outside observers — complain about the content of responses. The Defence Committee said that "departmental replies to reports are usually very defensive, often late, and show little appetite for dialogue with the Committee".[103] The Public Administration Select Committee has complained that the government response to its second report on strategic thinking actually misrepresents the report.[104] The Regulatory Policy Institute's Better Government Programme described government responses as "models of evasion".[105]

108. An increasing number of committees are taking action when a response is unsatisfactory, by publishing a substantive critical report with the response, or by calling the Minister in for a further evidence session to explain it. We, the Liaison Committee, have recently issued a second report highlighting the inadequacy of the Government's response to our report on Public Appointments and Select Committees.[106] The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has done similarly.[107] If a government response is inadequate, a committee can and should draw attention to this when it reports and publishes the response.

109. It was suggested to us that we should introduce a template for government responses, requiring the department to state clearly whether it accepts, rejects, or is still considering each recommendation. Some departments already adopt this format.[108] We are disinclined to impose a strict format for responses as what is appropriate may differ from report to report, and the department's response to the overall argument set out in the report may be as important as its response. However we stand ready to work with the Cabinet Office on new guidelines for departments on producing government responses to reports.

INFORMATION

110. Several committees mention that scheduling their work was made difficult by delays in the production of papers by the department or lack of advance notice of decision-making by Government.[109] The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, for example, reported that its inquiries were hampered by delays in the publication of a number of policy documents.[110] The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) complained that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for International Development had been late in supplying evidence on their departmental change programmes; and on another occasion, the Government had chosen to publish its IT Strategy White Paper on the same day as the Minister was giving evidence on the matter to PASC, which limited PASC's ability to scrutinise the policy being announced.[111] The Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee noted that, while DECC told his committee informally about forthcoming business, it would be helpful to have a more formal arrangement for receiving planning information, on a confidential basis.[112]

111. In other cases, committees' work has been impeded by the Department's unwillingness to provide information. The Defence Committee reported it had been driven by the MoD's reluctance to provide information about the history of the UK's involvement in Helmand to call in retired Ministers and military personnel, "all of whom proved more helpful than their successors".[113] The International Development Committee said that it had been frustrated by DfID's refusal to share advice to ministers on the closure of the bilateral Burundi programme on the ground that it would not be provided if requested under the Freedom of Information Act.[114]

WITNESSES

112. Other committees have had difficulties in securing the attendance of particular officials. In some cases, the responsible official has moved on to another job, or has retired. The Defence Committee reported an instance in which it was told by the department that the witness it had asked for was not the appropriate person only to be told by his replacement and the Minister at the evidence session that they were surprised he was not there.[115]

113. The Government's Osmotherly rules state that:

Where a Select Committee indicates that it wishes to take evidence from a particular named official, including special advisers, the presumption should be that Ministers will agree to meet such a request. However, the final decision on who is best able to represent the Minister rests with the Minister concerned and it remains the right of a Minister to suggest an alternative civil servant to that named by the Committee if he or she feels that the former is better placed to represent them. In the unlikely event of there being no agreement about which official should most appropriately give evidence, it is open to the Minister to offer to appear personally before the Committee.[116]

We do not accept that the Osmotherly rules should have any bearing on whom a select committee should choose to summon as a witness. The Osmotherly rules are merely internal for Government. They have never been accepted by Parliament. Where the inquiry relates to departmental delivery rather than ministerial decision-making, it is vital that committees should be able to question the responsible official directly — even if they have moved on to another job. It does of course remain the case that an official can decline to answer for matters of policy, on the basis that it is for the minister to answer for the policy, but officials owe a direct obligation to Parliament to report on matters of fact and implementation. This does not alter the doctrine of ministerial accountability in any way. Ministers should never require an official to withhold information from a select committee. It cannot be a breach of the principle of ministerial responsibility for an official to give a truthful answer to a select committee question. No official should seek to protect his or her minister by refusing to do so.

A new compact?

114. The joint memorandum from the Hansard Society, Constitution Unit and Institute for Government observed that

The greater assertiveness of select committees in the current Parliament … has challenged previous understandings and relationships between Westminster and Whitehall…. The Liaison Committee should seek a new understanding, even a concordat, to replace the Osmotherly rules. This should recognise more fully the distinction between policy advice and the provision of factual information.[117]

We agree that there is a need for a changed approach. The old doctrine of ministerial accountability (by which ministers alone are accountable to Parliament for the conduct of their department) is being stretched to implausibility by the complexity of modern government and by the increasing devolution of responsibility to civil servants and to arm's length bodies. It is important that Parliament should be able to hold to account those who are in reality responsible. However, we accept that it may not always be possible to distinguish clearly between responsibility for policy making and responsibility for delivery. These are not simple matters. The way ministerial accountability operates has on occasion been unacceptable, with ministers blaming officials for failures in their departments or in agencies for which they are responsible, but also with officials then refusing to answer questions which would indicate where responsibility for failure actually lies.

115. We recommend that the Government engage with us in a review of the relationship between Government and select committees with the aim of producing joint guidelines for departments and committees, which recognise ministerial accountability, the proper role of the Civil Service and the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability.


99   Cabinet Office Guidance on departmental evidence and response to select committees, July 2005, paragraph 108. Back

100   See Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2012-13, Select Committees and Public Appointments: the Government's response, HC 394Back

101   Ev w21 Back

102   Ev w8, para 6 Back

103   Ev w11 Back

104   Public Administration Select Committee, Third Special Report of Session 2012-13, Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge? Government response to the Committee's Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, HC 573. Back

105   Ev w58, para 1 Back

106   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2012-13, Select Committees and Public Appointments: the Government's response, HC 394Back

107   Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, First Report of Session 2012-13, Planning for the next National Security Strategy: comments on the Government response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2010-12, HL Paper 27/ HC 423Back

108   Eg DfID. Back

109   Eg EFRA, Ev w23 Back

110   Ev w4 Back

111   Ev w44 Back

112   Ev w74 Back

113   Ev w11 Back

114   Ev w36, para 14 Back

115   Ev w11 Back

116   Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees, Cabinet Office, July 2005, para 44. Back

117   Ev 12, para 14, Qq 3-8 Back


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 November 2012