Select Committee on Public Service Report



Changes in Accountability

  299.    Ministers have always delegated some of their responsibilities to their officials; the officials would answer to the Minister, and the Minister would answer to Parliament. The introduction of agencies has changed fundamentally the way in which certain responsibilities (in particular, responsibility for the operational management of the agency) are delegated to officials. Each agency has a framework document which sets out very clearly the precise terms of the delegation. Indeed some of the provisions read like terms which are contractual. The Chief Executive of an agency is required to sign up to that document, and to undertake to meet the objectives set out in it within the resources which are available to him. Once he has done that, it is his responsibility to fulfil the terms of the framework agreement or to explain why he didn't.

  300.    Accountability to Parliament is, of course, only one aspect of accountability. Some witnesses drew attention to accountability to the public. Mr Michael Bichard, for example, (Q 1106) spoke about the impact of agencies in this regard. "Agencies now have very clear targets which are published, they are not just published in business plans, in many cases they are published in local offices around the country, so for the first time, I think, people, customers, clients, whatever you want to call them, can hold the agency to account. You can hold the agency to account and, as a Permanent Secretary, I can too. They have business plans which set out clearly their objectives in the coming year and beyond. They produce annual reports. The chief executives and their senior managers are very much more visible than I think Civil Servants traditionally have been and I think visibility is an important part of accountability. It is very difficult to hold someone accountable if you cannot recognise them or find them. Management responsibility has been sharpened. ...the chief executives are on fixed term contracts and whether or not those contracts are renewed will depend upon their performance."

  301.    Thus the introduction of agencies appears to have had an impact both on accountability to Parliament and on accountability to the public. This impact caused the Committee to consider various more specific questions in relation to accountability. Among them were:

is there now a consistent approach to accountability throughout the different institutions of the public service?

what does accountability cost?

is it possible-or, indeed, desirable-to distinguish between policy and operations so as to hold Ministers accountable for policy and chief executives accountable for operations within agencies?

to what extent is it possible within our constitutional framework to require officials to be accountable for actions carried out on behalf of Ministers?

The evidence which the Committee received on these questions, together with the Committee's own views, are set out in the following paragraphs.

Consistency of Approach: the Accountability Paradox

  302.    In the Newchurch Lecture Sir Robin Butler described what he called "the accountability paradox". He spoke of the diverse range of mechanisms for accountability which exist for activities which remain the responsibility of the State, and went on to describe a "category of functions which starts by being within the control of Parliament but which then, with Parliament's acquiescence, is divorced from too close parliamentary scrutiny by being devolved to a body at arm's length from Government. I am referring to the famous quango, or non-departmental body. These are cases where there are responsibilities which Government chooses to hive off to others with the acquiescence of Parliament for a variety of reasons, not least in order to protect an activity from the influence of politics." He said that quangos often exercise very considerable power and there is very little right of appeal against their decisions. "They have been given discretion by Parliament and by Ministers so that Parliament cannot hold Ministers directly accountable for the way in which they exercise that discretion, and we seem to find that acceptable."

  303.    Sir Robin went on: "By contrast, when Ministers retain a function for themselves, far more controls are in place. Not only is the exercise of Ministerial responsibility subject to day-to-day scrutiny by Parliament and to the ultimate sanction of the ballot box, such controls are reinforced by appeal tribunals and ombudsmen, in addition of course to the possibility of judicial review. It is no wonder that Ministers often want to devolve their functions to others, whether non-Governmental bodies within the public sector like quangos, or private sector bodies, which are less vulnerable to the panoply of scrutiny to which they themselves are subject." He said "Sometimes, a motive for taking a function out of Government may precisely be to free it from the layers of accountability, oversight and appeal to which they are dependent if they remain subject to the democratic process".

  304.    Sir Robin concluded that this was the great paradox. "The panoply of Parliament, elections and public accountability, are put in place to give citizens control over those functions performed on their general behalf by the people whom they elect. Yet, judging by the extent to which we put layer after layer of further safeguards on the exercise of such functions by our democratic representatives, far greater than the controls we put over the exercise of functions by others, whether quangos or in the private sector, it might be concluded that it is this structure of democratic control in which we have the least confidence of all. Perhaps that huge overhead of accountability and redress which we impose on Government is another of the factors which underlies the trend towards privatisation in recent years."

  305.    The Committee notes Sir Robin's points with interest. The fact that some quangos are not held publicly to account is well documented; but the idea that Ministers are held too strictly to account, and that there is in some way a cost in terms of accountability, is perhaps less thoroughly explored. The Committee consider the idea further.

The Cost of Accountability

  306.    Mr Michael Heseltine MP referred to "overheads" in relation to accountability. Giving evidence in the earlier part of our enquiry on the privatisation of the Recruitment and Assessment Services (RAS Report, QQ 409 and 410), he said "there is an inherent defect in the constraints that the public sector impose upon this sort of service [RAS] and a whole range of others. Manpower restraints, capital restraints, the whole ethos of public sector life, the overheads that all of us impose upon activities of this sort in terms of the name and the notion of public accountability. It does not actually deliver a great deal of public accountability in the vast majority of cases but that is the rational explanation that people say leads to the keeping of all forms of minutiae of records and slow decision making and all of these things. I personally think that is an unnecessary constraint upon potentially wealth creating operations."

  307.    Mr Heseltine's view is to be contrasted with an observation made by Sir Robin Butler in oral evidence to the House of Commons Public Service Committee: "I think that the tradition of accountability, of recording, in the British Civil Service goes very deep, as, indeed, the Scott experience shows. When Sir Richard Scott looked for the story, in all these areas, it was there, and there was a full audit trail, and I think that is a very valuable asset of the British Government that we want to maintain." (Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility, HC 313-III, session 1995-96, p 143.)

The Committee's Conclusions

  308.    Sir Robin's wish to retain the present tradition of accountability must be read together with his view that the trend towards privatisation in recent years is in part due to the restraints which accountability imposes. There are some activities which can generally best be left to a body not subject to daily political control. That body should be allowed to get on with its tasks. But it is not justified to transfer a function to a quango or to the private sector solely or principally so that Ministers can avoid being accountable.

  309.    The Committee notes that, in the majority of cases, the transfer of functions has been done with the acquiescence of Parliament, and indeed in most cases legislation has been required to effect the transfer. In the case of the Recruitment and Assessment Services, however, the offer for sale of RAS to the private sector was made using the Government's prerogative powers and the decision to do so was simply announced by means of a written answer to a Parliamentary Question in the House of Commons. In our First Report on RAS, we drew attention (paragraph 87) to the strong criticisms made of the Government's handling of the matter. Lord Beloff (Special Report, p 221) wrote that recent developments and discussion have called into question the classical theory of the Constitution, citing the most recent development as "the decision to privatise the Recruitment and Assessment Services despite the objections raised by the Committee. And this decision was taken as the Committee will recall despite a strongly negative vote in the House of Lords and strong criticism in the House of Commons." This observation brings us back to the concern raised earlier in this report (see paragraph 153) that changes were made with little public debate and without cross-party consensus.

  310.    The Committee is aware of the danger of imposing so heavy a burden of accountability on Ministers as to encourage them to transfer functions to other bodies. However, the Committee does not consider that that danger warrants a reduction in levels of accountability in the public service. Public bodies such as executive agencies should be able and required to demonstrate to Parliament and the courts that their business is discharged in a rational, fair and reasonable way and that full account can be given of the way in which public money is spent. The inspiration, risk-taking, impulse and flair which can so often be the key to success (or failure) in private business cannot be applied in the same way by public servants dealing with public resources. Many of these considerations apply as much to NDPBs and private companies involved in the delivery of public services as they do to the core Civil Service and to executive agencies. The Committee therefore rejects the idea that it would be beneficial to reduce the meticulous record-keeping which is an essential feature of the public service at present, and recommends instead that the Office of Public Service carry out a review of accountability arrangements in relation to NDPBs and private companies involved in public service delivery.

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