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I strongly subscribe to the view expressed by the noble Lord that at this time of great and widely expressed public concern about the standards of public administration and public life, the matter continues to be embarrassing for everyone involved because, in a sense, we are all tarred by the same brush. We have to see what can be done to bolster the authority of the bodies that have been established to protect our democratic system from taint, by looking not only at what they do but at what they do not do and ought to do. The objective of independence is extremely important.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, I take a somewhat pragmatic approach to this. It is right, as he suggested, that these bodies are truly independent. He may also be right in saying that we can be satisfied with the perception of their independence. It has to be said, however, that the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, in her concluding report as Commissioner for Public Appointments, drew attention
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There are very strong arguments for putting some of these bodies on a statutory basis, as has been advocated, particularly the Civil Service Commissioners, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the House of Lords Appointments Commission. All of them would be strengthened by being seen as working at arms length from the Prime Minister from the word go. The concentration of patronage in his hands is part of the wider constitutional problem which we face in this country of centralisation of power and the Executives inadequate control by, and accountability to, the institutions that are part of our democracy.
I therefore go along with the broad view, but it would not be a cure-all. I would counsel against the belief that the provision of a statutory basis will necessarily overcome some of the problems about remit and direction of work. How it should be encompassed in statute is a genuine problem, because it could be either too confining, limiting the power of initiativewhich, as has been suggested, is an important role of, for example, the Committee on Standards in Public Lifeor too vague and not provide the clear format for the operations of the body. Those arguments are not fatal to the case for statutory basis, but they raise problems that ought to be addressed. They are an example of why we should not rush to judgment on these matters. They also illustrate why I hope there will genuinely be further debate when the Public Administration Select Committee makes its reportnotwithstanding the fact that the debate has been running for some time and the uncertainties within the bodies we are seeking to regulate, which it would be comfortable to have resolved.
Accountability is the test of our willingness to look for radical solutions, and we are right to do so. The current consensus among most members of the Civil Service, present and retired, is that the proper line of reporting is as it is for such bodies; that is, through the Cabinet Office to a Minister and in turn to Parliament. Is there not a better way of making clearer the checks and balances that such arrangements are designed to fortify but which do not always have the strength that they should? You could clearly go down the route of recognising that if these bodies are going to be influential, they must take close account of the work of the Executive and what is practical in guiding the Executive towards the espousal/acceptance of the concerns of the supervisory regulatory bodies. They have to be in touchvery closely in touchwith the Executive, if they are going to come up with sensible and workable solutions.
There is more to it than that, however. If you simply engage in a dialogue with the bodies that you are seeking to regulate, you will be less open to the views that are held by members of the public and
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Having served for a very long time in another place as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I tend to think of the role of the National Audit Office, which is perceived as being, and is in fact, completely independent of government and whose chairman, or effective chairman, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, is appointed as a result of a dialogue between the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Minister responsible. That recognises that the legislature and the Executive have an interest which needs to be embodied in the structures that we create to ensure the true independence of the system.
On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, made about continuity, in one sense I accept what he says; but there is another requirement to which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, alludedthe need for flexibility. The truth is that the methods of government, the problems facing government and the issues that come before these bodies change, so the system has to be apt for confronting the changes of direction and quick off the mark in recognising them. There, too, we must acknowledge the difficulty of drafting the statute that allows that kind of flexibility. The informality of the procedures that are followed may be regarded as too dependent on the discretion, wisdom and judgment of those who operate them, but I am bound to say that they give a certain strength to the system in so far as they allow it to be flexibly responsive to changed circumstances. I pose that as a requirement, but I do not believe that it is an insuperable obstacle.
I hope that when we come to consider the embracing response to the Public Administration Select Committee we will not regard it as unthinkable that one or other House of Parliament should have an oversight role in respect of these matters while, at the same time, not seeking to sever the necessary intimacy of the relations with the bodies that they are overseeing.
Lord De Mauley: My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on initiating this very timely debate. It is odd that our practice is not to address academics in this House as learned; in my view there are few noble Lords more deserving of that appellation than my noble friend.
My noble friend wishes to call attention to the case for putting standards-setting bodies falling within the responsibility of the Cabinet Office on a statutory footing. The fact is that none of the public bodies for which the Cabinet Office has direct responsibility is
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Ministers are answerable to Parliament about advisory NDPBs and have the power to wind them up. Appointees are required to be independent of government, yet they are appointed by Ministers. These facts underline the importance that they are not only independent but are seen to be independent.
My noble friend has spoken about five advisory, or non-statutory, NDPBs which are responsible for setting standards. The first of these is the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which provides advice to the Prime Minister on applications from the most senior members of the Civil Service and Armed Forces who wish to take up outside appointments within two years of leaving Crown Service. Similarly, the committee provides advice to the Foreign Secretary on applications from senior members of the Diplomatic Service. The committee also offers advice direct to former Ministers if they wish to accept employment outside government. The powers of the committee have come into question as recently as this month following the suggestion that a former Minister who served in that capacity until May 2005 accepted a position at a lobbying firm in apparent contravention of the ministerial code.
The second body which is both non-statutory and sets standards, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, was set up in 1995 following a series of recommendations from the Nolan committee intended to increase public confidence in the way in which appointments to quangos were made. The principal recommendation was that an independent commissioner should be appointed, whose role was to be the establishment of a code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies, and the monitoring of the process to ensure that those appointments are made on merit after fair and open competition.
The commissioners code of practice covers all ministerial appointments to the boards of executive and advisory non-departmental public bodies, NHS bodies, public corporations, nationalised industries and utility regulators. As my noble friend said, the commissioners Scottish equivalent is established under statute, so questioning any argument that the one south of the Border should not be.
The third such body is the Civil Service Commission, an independent body sponsored by the Corporate Development Group. It hears appeals from civil servants against matters such as dismissal, refusal to allow participation in political activities and forfeiture of superannuation. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the background of a possible Civil Service Bill, which noble Lords on all sides have been demanding of the Government for some time.
The fourth such body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was set up in 1994 with the terms of reference that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, quoted. On 12 November 1997, the new Prime Minister extended the terms of reference as follows:
This month, Sir Alistair Graham, the committees outgoing chairman, wrote to the Cabinet Secretary about the Prime Ministers decision not to renew his appointment when his current term as chairman expires on 25 April this year. Sir Alistair raised concerns about the appointment of his successor, saying:
I am extremely concerned that, despite raising this issue with you on a regular basis since September 2006, no arrangements have been put in place to appoint my successor. As you are aware, under public appointments rules, this will require an open competition, which even if started now, would take some months to complete, and then further delay is likely depending on the availability of the successful candidate.
While one can appreciate the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, for retaining the pragmatic approach, it is perhaps this sort of development which shifts the emphasis towards at least a serious consideration of the statutory route. Sir Alistairs letter was raised in the context of an Oral Question in your Lordships House on Tuesday, to which my noble friend referred. I should like to return to it briefly today. When I asked the Minister what his reaction was to their statement, he first said that,
As Sir Alistair made clear, whether it was fair or unfair criticism was not the point. It is as much about the perception. It is, once again, about being seen to be, as well as being, independent. The Minister went on to say, in response to my question on Tuesday:
However, we would certainly be open to criticism ... if the Government were to ... take decisions about the future before the Select Committee had produced its recommendations.[Official Report, 27/3/07; col. 1557.]
I find that a non-sequitur. If one were to take that line on all senior public appointments where a Select Committee was deliberating on a related issue, we would be in a state of complete paralysisthat is unless reports, so far denied by the Government, that the future of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is itself under consideration are true. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful that he has another chance to answer my question today.
The last, but not the least, of the non-statutory standards-setting bodies is the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Much has been said about it in recent months and my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, spoke about it today. As my noble friend said, we would all benefit from clarity, for example on whether its remit includes vetting the Prime Ministers resignation honours. In view of the clear likelihood that this will become topical in the next few months, the Minister will no doubt tell us what is proposed.
As several noble Lords mentioned, the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place is currently inquiring into the role and independence of the ethical regulators of government, particularly those established through ministerial powers. It will provide,
It raised some important questions at the outset of its inquiry, including whether it is necessary for these bodies to be seen to be independent by having a physical separation from government; and, indeed, whether it is possible for them to be genuinely independent while reliant for pay and rations on the Government whose activities they are required to regulate.
The inquiry will include examination of the non-statutory standards-setting bodies for which the Cabinet Office has responsibility and its conclusion will be an important contribution to the debate generally on this subject. Can the Minister therefore kindly assure noble Lords that the Government will give serious consideration to the committees recommendations and take them fully into account?
There are some fundamental points which we may expect the committee to make, and they include the following. The first, as my noble friend emphasised, is that the bodies in question must be, and must be seen to be, independent of the Executive arm of government. This assumes an ever greater importance as the Executive arm becomes seemingly increasingly distrusted by the public. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, referred to concerns that the whole system might become tarred with the same brush. Secondly, and closely related to the importance of their independence, is the bodies accountability, logically to the public through Parliament, perhaps in a similar way to the Comptroller and Auditor-General.
Thirdly, as my noble friend also mentioned, transparency is crucial in addressing those aspects. By that we mean transparency in their reporting and their more general openness and receptiveness to public scrutiny. Good indicators of this would be through regular, full, clear and accurate reporting to Parliament, and thereby the public, subject to standards and levels of disclosure stipulated in statute and subject also to independent verification. Lastly, they must have clear and simple structures and properly cover the relevant concerns. As we know, the Public Administration Select Committee is including among its considerations whether the current, often overlapping structures should be reorganised to do this more effectively.
As my noble friend Lord Norton explained, each of these aspects could be significantly enhanced if the bodies in question were to be given the protection of
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As my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, said, there is a rumour that a sort of super standards-setting body may be set up. Whether or not this happens, my noble friends point is that it is much more important that the existing ones are put on a statutory footing.
In closing, I reiterate my specific questions for the Minister. First, will he kindly give us his views on the appropriateness of the fact that board members of the public bodies for which the Cabinet Office has direct responsibility, which exist to call Ministers to account, should be appointed by those same Ministers? Secondly, as I referred to in Questions on Tuesday and in todays debate, Sir Alistair Graham has clearly voiced concern that the failure to appoint his successor risks the perception that the Government place a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life. I have suggested that the Minister might again try to give a careful explanation of his assurance about why that is an inaccurate perception. Lastly, can the Minister kindly assure noble Lords that the Government will give serious consideration to the recommendations of the Public Administration Select Committee when it reports on its stocktake of the ethical regulation of government and take those fully into account?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing the debate and presenting a most interesting and challenging case. It is not one to which I am able to respond positively in all respects, nor would he expect that, but he certainly identified crucial advantages that might derive from placing the bodies for which the Cabinet Office is responsible on a statutory basis. We have had a lively debate, largely concentrated on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not least because noble Lords who have served on that committee attested to the nature and value of their work, as did the noble Lord, Lord Neill, so assertively and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. We have had an interesting debate in terms of perspectives on this issue.
Specific questions were addressed to me, not least by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is in a favoured position; namely, having asked a Question earlier in the week to which he considered that he did not receive a satisfactory Answer, he gets a second shot at it today. Would that we were all so lucky to get such second chances. I hope that I shall satisfy him today, at least more than I appear to have done earlier in the week.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. It was bound to be given that the bodies which were clearly enumeratedthe Civil Service Commissioners, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Lifeare very important bodies which cover a wide range of extremely important issues.
I recognise criticism about certain aspects of behaviour. The public are increasingly sceptical about all matters political, and we recognise the nature of our times and the change in our political culture. We have all sorts of explanations for that. There is an extremely questioning public, but whether that questioning relates to specific criticisms of particular bodies is an altogether different matter. I maintain that, on the whole, those bodies have operated effectively and with considerable success without a statutory footing. They are independent of the Government. It cannot be maintained that somehow, once distinguished individuals are appointed to such committees with clear terms of reference, they then lose their independence. One of the main issues of contention in this debate, advanced particularly by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, relates to Sir Alistair Graham. I cannot think that anyone is suggesting that the body that he chairs, or he as its chairman, has lacked independence and a spirit of challenge over the period in which he has been in office.
Before we suggest that we need dramatic changes to these bodies, we have to put them in the context of the quality of the work that they do. The media will, from time to time, express enormous interest in these issues, and for a short period the public may feel that,
and be enormously concerned. However, more substantial surveys do not bear out the impression that the whole of public life in Britain is held in disrepute. Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life commissioned a national survey from the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute of public attitudes towards the standards of conduct of public office-holders in the United Kingdom. The results of that survey make for interesting reading: 74 per cent of those questioned thought that standards of public office-holders in the United Kingdom were higher than or about average compared with those elsewhere in Europe; 64 per cent thought that standards of public office-holders had either improved or stayed the same compared to a few years ago: and only 13 per cent rated the standard of conduct of public office-holders as low.
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