6 Bodies accountable to Parliament |
58. Some public bodies report to Parliament, not
Government. In the taxonomy for public bodies proposed by the
Institute for Government, these would be known as 'constitutional
bodies'. The heads
of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and of the National
Audit Office are Officers of Parliament.
This is also true of the Secretary of the Public Accounts Commission,
and the Chief Executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards
information can be found in the reference book Erskine May, but
is not clear from the Parliament website.
59. In recent years a new species of arm's-length
body, the 'constitutional watchdog', such as the Electoral Commission,
has added complexity to parliamentary accountability. The Cabinet
Office told us that non-ministerial departments often have professional
duties where ministerial input would be inappropriate or would
damage their integrity.
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, reiterated to us
his concern that he is not independent enough of Government.
He is appointed by and reports directly to the Ministry of Justice.
He called this "by its nature incompatible with full independence"
and preferred to report directly to Parliament, as a safeguard
of the independence of his role.
60. Monitoring the work of public bodies is a core
task of select committees.
Members of Parliament need information on public bodies to scrutinise
them. This is often lacking. The Cabinet Office already says that
public bodies should inform Parliament of their activities in
annual reports, but this is only happening in 63% of cases.
Nick Hurd MP told us this was "not enough".
61. During this inquiry we reviewed the answering
of parliamentary questions and learned that there is a little
consistency. The Government says flexibility is beneficial, but
it can hinder or blur accountability.
Nick Hurd MP agreed that if a Minister is providing a response,
he or she remains accountable for the quality and content of the
response. A ministerial
department normally retains a watching brief over a non-ministerial
department so that a minister of that department can answer for
them in Parliament. For example, the Cabinet Office has a watching
brief over the Charity Commission, which is a non-ministerial
department. However, the Cabinet Office is not accountable for
62. It is difficult for individual MPs to hold non-ministerial
departments to account unless they sit on the relevant select
committee (for example the Education Select Committee, in the
case of Ofsted). In some cases, a public body is accountable to
Parliament through answering parliamentary questions through a
select committee chair. In the case of the Independent Parliamentary
Standards Authority (IPSA), Charles Walker MP, Spokesman of the
Speaker's Committee on IPSA, responds to questions from other
MPs. Charles Walker
MP has on occasion had to send an answer back to IPSA to be redrafted,
as he considered it unsatisfactory.
This strengthens accountability.
63. Parliament has made some public bodies accountable
to Parliament rather than government. These arrangements are variable
and inconsistent. Not enough up-to-date information is available.
Lines of accountability need to be clarified and in some cases
64. Parliament should provide clear information
on its website on which public bodies it holds directly accountable.
The Information Commissioner and HM Inspectorate of Prisons should
be more fully independent of Government and should report to Parliament.
The Information Commissioner, Commissioner for Public Appointments
and the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life should
become Officers of Parliament, as the Parliamentary and Health
Service Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General already
65. Many written parliamentary questions are addressed
to non-ministerial departments. These should be replied to by
the non-ministerial department in the name of the Chair of the
relevant select committee. This would increase accountability
directly to Parliament and enable the MP answering the question
to send a proposed answer back if they consider it unsatisfactory.
156 Institute for Government, Read before burning: arm's length government for a new administration,
2010, p14 Back
Erskine May, 2011, 24th ed, p120 Back
As above Back
Cabinet Office (QPB27) Back
HM Inspectorate of Prisons (QPB12) Back
As above Back
Liaison Committee, Annual Report 2002, HC 558 (2002-03), para
Figure refers to non-departmental public bodies in 2012-13. National
Audit Office, Progress on public bodies reform, February 2014,
HC (2013-14) 1048 Back
Leader of the House of Commons (QPB22), Clerks of Procedure Committee
and PASC, House of Commons (QPB24) Back
Cabinet Office (QPB14) Back
Clerks of Procedure Committee and PASC, House of Commons (QPB24) Back
As above Back