Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Richard: My Lords, we on this side of the House welcome the Resolution. We believe that it is sensible and appropriate. We have waited long enough for it. It is time that Parliament had its say on ministerial responsibility. Is it not extraordinary how the approach of a general election concentrates the Government's mind? Here we are on the very last day of the Parliament and at last we have a sensible Statement on ministerial responsibility. For every sinner that repenteth there is joy on these Benches!

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for his Statement. My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was consulted. The noble Viscount will be aware that he is content, as are the rest of us on these Benches.

Lord Renton: My Lords, this is a matter of great constitutional importance. I am grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the House for his lucid explanation of it. It is a matter of great satisfaction that this is agreed between the parties.

For centuries ministerial responsibility has been a matter of convention. Now we have it clearly laid down. I believe that sometimes in the past it went too far.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1058

Ministers were held responsible for the actions of all their civil servants, sometimes several thousands of them, with an ever-widening scope of activity. It was impossible for Ministers to know about everything that was happening in their departments, even within the scope of the policies that they had declared and laid down.

With that in mind, I invite your Lordships' attention to paragraph (1), which says:

    "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".

Let us briefly consider that proposition in the light of what I have said about the vast number of civil servants and the scope of their activities. It is quite clear that Ministers should be responsible for policies and decisions of a major kind, but not all of the minor decisions that must be taken from time to time to implement those policies. It is right that they should be responsible for the actions of the government departments so long as Ministers know in advance what those actions are required to be.

For Ministers to be responsible for every minor incident, which has sometimes led to parliamentary embarrassment and even the resignation of Ministers in unjust circumstances, would be absurd. Therefore I hope that that important paragraph will, in future, always be interpreted in the light of reason.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Lord Privy Seal two questions on the Resolution. In his helpful elucidation he referred to Questions of Procedure for Ministers. In fact the resolution is not about responsibility; it is about accountability. But Questions of Procedure for Ministers deals also with responsibility. Does this resolution take the place of paragraph 27 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, which hitherto has made it clear that Ministers have not just a duty of accountability but also of responsibility?

Is the Lord Privy Seal reminded of Sir Richard Scott's report which at reference D4.42 stated:

    "The answers to Parliamentary Questions in both Houses of Parliament failed to inform Parliament of the current state of Government policy on non-lethal arms sales to Iraq. This failure was deliberate and was the inevitable result of the agreement between the three junior Ministers"?

Does the Lord Privy Seal believe that, if we had had the resolution at the time of the Scott report, the three junior Ministers would have been required to resign because of their deliberate lack of openness to both Houses of Parliament?

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, does the House a service by drawing our attention to principle (1) of the resolution. He dealt with the first part, for which I am grateful. I wish to take the matter a little further. The principle refers to:

    "Actions of their Departments and Next Steps Agencies".

The Next Step agencies are meant to be different. Members on the Select Committee of your Lordships' House are finding that there are Next Steps agencies and Next Steps agencies. They are not all the same.

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1059

I had an answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, the other day to a Question I asked about the Prisons Agency, for example. The Prisons Agency is very different from other agencies. Are we to take it from the first principle that there is no difference between a department and a Next Steps agency? If that is the case all the talk about the difference there would be in government as a result of the setting up of Next Steps agencies, which are different from normal departments and are within a big department, amounts to nought. Why Next Steps agencies? We are told by the Government that they are different.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I support the Motion that the Leader of the House has put before the House. Perhaps I may ask him a technical question of some importance which, from me, I can assure him, is completely non-controversial as usual. According to paragraph (1) of the Motion, Ministers have various duties in relation to Parliament.

In view of the fact that both Scrutiny Committees of European legislation are to be out of action for about six weeks, how do Her Majesty's Government intend to safeguard the interests of Parliament with regard to the normal cascade of regulations that appears from the European Commission on Parliament's steps? May we have an assurance that those matters will be dealt with promptly, and that all concerned will be duly informed?

Lord Cockfield: My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, I must apologise for rising twice in the same day. I should like to put a point to my noble friend the Leader of the House on paragraph (3) which states:

    "Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".

We are constantly having cases at Question Time when information is refused on the ground of "commercial confidentiality". I quote that phrase. A case occurred in the House this very week.

It is well known that British industry is secretive compared with American industry; it is well known that government departments are excessively secretive; it is well known that in this country governments of all complexions are excessively secretive. The excuse of commercial confidentiality is usually only a cloak to hide inefficiency, incompetence, and uncompetitive behaviour.

May we have an assurance that, in the interests of the greater efficiency of British industry, Ministers will take great care not to advance the excuse of commercial confidentiality in order to justify a refusal to give the House information only in the most extreme circumstances, and where, in the terms of this resolution:

    "Disclosure would not be in the public"--

I stress the word "public"--


Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Harris of Greenwich--I am sorry to find that the noble Lord,

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1060

Lord Harris, is not still in his place--for their support. With the indulgence of the House, perhaps I may take the opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, during the past two and a half years or so during which I have had the privilege of being the Leader of your Lordships' House, and say that, although we may differ politically, I have learned to view him with a mixture of respect and affection, which has been a great pleasure during my time here, and which I hope will continue when we face each other from the same positions from 7th May next. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has always been a great exponent of wishful thinking, and I see that that has not changed.

My noble friend Lord Renton, almost predictably, puts his finger on an extremely important point. It has become almost a truism that, in the days of highly complex government and administration, often involving many civil servants, it is impossible for a Minister to know everything that happens in his department. Nevertheless, those of us who have had the privilege to be departmental Ministers--in my case an extremely junior one--will know that any hard working, conscientious Minister will make it his or her business to know the essentials of what is going on in the department and to be able to make a judgment. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, may be in a better position to know whether or not what I say is justified as to where, perhaps, the ministerial gimlet eye should alight.

Nevertheless it means that Ministers have an extraordinarily difficult judgment to make, but also--dare I say it?--Parliament has a difficult judgment to make, particularly when Parliament inevitably will have its judgment coloured--I make no complaint about this--by considerations of party politics. There have been, as the House will know perhaps better than any other body, attempts, particularly by my right honourable friends, to try to define, as is only right, where that difficult decision should lie. There have been attempts to differentiate between operational responsibility and ministerial accountability.

In the end, it is a matter of careful judgment. Ministers are only human; they can get things wrong. I dare say that we all do, and that if in a decade or so the party opposite found itself in office it would be faced with similar decisions. My noble friend Lord Cockfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, are right in stressing the importance of paragraph (3) of the Motion before us. There is an absolute obligation for Ministers to be as open as possible with Parliament.

If, like me, your Lordships are fans of that extraordinarily perspicacious programme, "Yes, Minister", you will remember that often both civil servants and Ministers are depicted by Mr. Anthony Jay and his co-writers as saying that the object of Answers to Parliamentary Questions is to reveal as little as possible. It might be for the edification of your Lordships if you allowed me to take a trip down memory lane to when I made what was clearly a joke in very poor taste to the first civil servant who came to brief me on a Parliamentary Question, implying that perhaps that was the object of all

20 Mar 1997 : Column 1061

civil servants. I shall never forget the chastening look that I received from the individual concerned; it made it very clear that one does not joke about such matters.

I hope that your Lordships will take at least some comfort from the fact that the best traditions of the Civil Service will try to make sure that even the most tempted of Ministers do not stray from an obligation of this kind. Questions of procedures for Ministers and Parliament insisting on a complementary regulation of this kind will reinforce something that has been called into question in recent years.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, that I do not want to go over the individual paragraphs of the Scott Report. They are paragraphs which, as the noble Baroness will appreciate, I know entirely by heart. I dare say that if I try very hard I can complete the quotation that she gave, but I hope that she will not test my assertion. I do not believe that Ministers would have been required to resign. I believe that if Ministers take their job seriously they will always try to keep Parliament as well informed as possible.

My noble friend Lord Cockfield knows more about commerce than I suspect I ever shall and I bow to his superior wisdom. However, I suspect that, more often than not, government contracts and their terms, particularly in the defence field and in substantial contract terms, are very sensitive. It is a matter of judgment to see how we can reconcile commercial confidentiality with the demands of Parliament. That is a difficult judgment to make but it is one that we attempt.

My noble friend Lord Bruce--perhaps I may be allowed to indulge myself for a moment--knows that during our term of office we have done perhaps more than most to increase the level of parliamentary scrutiny of European matters and that parliamentary reserves apply. I can assure him that when we are returned by the electorate on 1st May any parliamentary scrutiny which has had to go by the board because of the events of the next six weeks will, without question, be put before Parliament as speedily as possible.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page