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Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships if I am a little more incoherent than usual, but I have only just arrived on the premises to see to my surprise this report on the Order Paper. Perhaps the Chairman of Committees will in due course, after the election, furnish the House with a list of the dates when the committee reported to the House and the dates when Parliament rose. I suggest that this is not the first time that such reports have been put through at the very last minute. Although I am not suggesting any ulterior motive, the practice is unfortunate for those of us who take an interest in these matters.
Paragraph 1 on the "enhanced message" service was the subject of some discussion last time when the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, inquired about the cost of the service. At that time the Chairman of Committees was unable to enlighten the noble Lord, but I can tell the House that the consultancy charge was £144,000. It was done on a daily basis and included the charges of two partners for two days. I believe that the House is being taken for a ride, as is the other place, which shares the expense with us. Therefore, I should like some more information on this because when we discussed it previously it was suggested that there should be wider consultation. Will the Chairman of Committees tell us what opportunity there has been for ordinary Members of your Lordships' House to contribute; and how much notice was given, and how, of the demonstration that was available to members of the committee?
The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, perhaps I may point out--your Lordships may know this already--that the Select Committee on House of Lords Offices met on Wednesday of this week. It was thought--I strongly supported, and do support, this view--that it would be right to present the report of that committee to your Lordships at the earliest possible moment so that there would be no delay into the next Parliament. That is the first point. As the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, knows, I am always anxious to assist your Lordships as much as possible on such matters, not least the noble Lord himself, because I know that these domestic matters are of interest and are regarded by your Lordships as of importance to the House.
If I may say so, ample notice was given of the demonstration carried out last month for members of the committee. There is to be an extensive consultation process between now and September of this year in which noble Lords will be consulted about their requirements. There will be ample opportunity for noble Lords' views to be put forward before the matter comes back to your Lordships' House.
As the noble Lord has said, mention has already been made of the costs. As far as concerns the consultancies, your Lordships' committee has been assured that the costs are certainly in accordance with normal practice in these matters. They are regarded as being market value, if I may put it in that short way. As the noble Lord has indicated, the costs have been shared with another place, which has also scrutinised them.
I hope that that provides some assistance to the noble Lord. If I am able to provide any further information I shall do so by means of writing to the noble Lord. Any queries on further matters arising out of this report to your Lordships' House can always be dealt with in the new Parliament by means of Questions for Written Answer.
The Resolution stems from a recommendation by the Public Service Committee of another place in July last year. In its 1996 report on ministerial accountability and responsibility, the committee recommended that Parliament should lay down in the form of a Resolution how it expected Ministers to discharge their duty of accountability to Parliament. In their response, the
The Prime Minister's document Questions of Procedure for Ministers sets out what he, as head of the Government, expects of his ministerial colleagues in this respect. This Resolution would parallel my right honourable friend's expectations by laying down in similar terms, perhaps even more importantly, what Parliament required. The Government took the view that to have the full authority it deserved, such a Resolution should, so far as possible, be adopted by cross-party agreement, and that both Houses would want to consider it.
To this end, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster initiated discussions with the main opposition parties in another place. I have done likewise with representatives of the main opposition parties and the Convener of the Cross-Benchers in our House. I should like to take this opportunity to thank noble Lords who took part in those discussions for their courteous and constructive participation. Our aim throughout has been to reach a stage where we can lay Resolutions before both Houses to complete this piece of business during this Parliament. This we have now done. Noble Lords may be aware that colleagues in another place last evening adopted a very similar Resolution to the one now before us.
I make just two points about the wording of the Resolution. First, I make a technical but nevertheless important point. The Resolution refers to two documents: the Civil Service Code and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. These documents have, I believe, attracted widespread support, but they remain government documents rather than parliamentary documents and are therefore capable of subsequent amendment by the Government. I should like to make clear that if these documents were amended, they would not automatically alter the terms of the Resolution itself. For that to happen, the House would be required to take an independent decision on whether the Resolution should be amended to refer to any additions.
Secondly, the Resolution that I commend to your Lordships is not identical in every particular to the one adopted last night by another place. While the principles are identical, the format is slightly different. I am indebted to the learned Clerk of the Parliaments for his advice that technically it would be more appropriate if in a Resolution of this House the two government documents that I have mentioned were referred to in a separate paragraph; that is, paragraph (5) on interpretation. That is the paragraph that we have before us. The advice he gave was that that would be more appropriate rather than that it should be cited within paragraphs (3) and (4). I found that an extremely helpful suggestion, for which I am most grateful. I am more than happy to adopt it.
I hope that is sufficient to explain why I believe that this is a useful addition to the armoury that the House possesses in its manifest duty to render Ministers accountable to Parliament. It is in that spirit that I commend the Resolution to your Lordships.
(2) It is of paramount importance that Ministers should give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;
(4) Ministers should require civil servants who give evidence before Parliamentary Committees on their behalf and under their directions to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information;
(5) The interpretation of "public interest" in paragraph (3) shall be decided in accordance with statute and the Government's Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (Second Edition, January 1997); and compliance with the duty in paragraph (4) shall be in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of civil servants set out in the Civil Service Code (January 1996).--(Viscount Cranborne.)
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