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House of Lords Offices: Select Committee Report

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I beg to move that the Second Report from the Select Committee on House of Lords Offices be agreed to.

Moved, That the Second Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 66).--(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:



    The Committee approved the first two phases of a message handling project for both Houses. The first phase, lasting until September 1997, will involve a consultation process to determine

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    the implementation and content of the project. The second phase, lasting from October 1997 to August 1998, will consist of the initial implementation of new message services and will be followed by a fundamental review of the project.


    2. COMPUTER TRAINING AND SUPPORT


    The Committee agreed new arrangements for computer training and support for Lords to permit more effective use of resources. Peers may go without notice to the Computer Room for training and advice between 11.30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Mondays to Thursdays, and between 11.30 a.m. and the rising of the House on sitting Fridays. Outside those times and in recesses, Peers are invited to give notice before seeking training and advice from the Computer Room. Emergency calls for support will continue to be met without notice.


    3. COMMEMORATION OF 150 YEARS OCCUPATION OF THE HOUSE OF LORDS CHAMBER


    The Committee agreed to a proposal from the Chesterfield Canal Society to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the occupation of the House of Lords Chamber in 1847. It is proposed that a cubic foot of stone from the quarry where stone for the Houses of Parliament was extracted will be transported by canal from Derbyshire to Black Rod's steps, and will be used in the restoration programme of the Palace.


    4. RECEPTION TO CELEBRATE THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF INDIA AND PAKISTAN


    The Committee agreed to share the cost of a reception to be held in the Palace of Westminster by the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the countries of the Indian sub-continent.


    5. BLACK ROD


    The Committee agreed to the extension for a further two years from May 1997 of the appointment of Sir Edward Jones as Black Rod.

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?

I do not think that the other items in the report are of a sufficiently contentious nature to mention, but the question of the message service is terribly important

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because we have recently seen an example in another place of how the use of automatic message services can be grossly abused to devalue the entire traditions and honour of both Houses.

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.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Ministerial Accountability

3.41 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

It may be of assistance to your Lordships if I say a few words about the background to this Resolution and explain why I bring it before the House and commend it to your Lordships.

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

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Government agreed that there could be value in this, not because Ministers were in any way unsure about what was required of them, but because such a Resolution could set out clearly and unambiguously for all to see what the standards were and the standards against which Ministers were prepared to be judged.

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.

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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.

Moved, That, in the opinion of this House, the following principles should govern the conduct of Ministers of the Crown in relation to Parliament:

(1) Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and Next Steps Agencies;

(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;

(3) Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest;

(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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