Who's accountable? Relationships between Government and arm's-length bodies - Public Administration Committee Contents

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'.[156] The heads of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and of the National Audit Office are Officers of Parliament.[157] This is also true of the Secretary of the Public Accounts Commission, and the Chief Executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.[158] This 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.[159] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, reiterated to us his concern that he is not independent enough of Government.[160] 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.[161]

60. Monitoring the work of public bodies is a core task of select committees.[162] 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.[163] Nick Hurd MP told us this was "not enough".[164]

Parliamentary questions

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.[165] 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.[166] 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 the Commission.[167]

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.[168] Charles Walker MP has on occasion had to send an answer back to IPSA to be redrafted, as he considered it unsatisfactory.[169] 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 altered.

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 are.

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

157   Erskine May, 2011, 24th ed, p120 Back

158   As above Back

159   Cabinet Office (QPB27) Back

160   HM Inspectorate of Prisons (QPB12) Back

161   As above Back

162   Liaison Committee, Annual Report 2002, HC 558 (2002-03), para 13 Back

163   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

164   Q454  Back

165   Leader of the House of Commons (QPB22), Clerks of Procedure Committee and PASC, House of Commons (QPB24) Back

166   Q444 Back

167   Cabinet Office (QPB14) Back

168   Clerks of Procedure Committee and PASC, House of Commons (QPB24) Back

169   As above Back

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Prepared 10 November 2014