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Cabinet Office: Standards-setting Bodies

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:52 am on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 11:52 am, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I give sincere thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing a very interesting and important debate. I am only sorry that more Members of your Lordships' House have not put down their names to speak.

I agree almost entirely with what the noble Lord has said. The debate raises a particularly important issue in relation to what is loosely called the royal prerogative but is in fact the Prime Minister's prerogative. The Prime Minister's prerogative covers an enormous field. It covers any decision to go to war, almost all aspects of the Civil Service, the ministerial code of conduct, appointments to your Lordships' House, almost all public appointments and treaty-making powers.

There is a widely held belief that the Prime Minister's prerogative powers are excessive and should be diminished. In particular, there is a very strong belief that the Civil Service should become a statutory body, and, as part of that, the Civil Service Commissioners should become a statutory commission. There is a long history behind this. A Civil Service Act was included in the Cook-Maclennan report negotiated before the 1997 election between the late Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who of course will be winding up for these Benches.

The Government confirmed their commitment to a Civil Service Act in response to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Public Service in July 1998. They confirmed it again to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I was then a member, in July 2000 in response to the committee's sixth report. The Civil Service Act was recommended once again by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its ninth report in April 2003. That in turn was followed by the publication of a report and draft Bill by the Select Committee on Public Administration of the House of Commons in December 2003, and then by an Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill as a Private Member's Bill. That Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 5 March 2004. It inspired a three-hour debate in which a Civil Service Bill was supported by, among other speakers, the noble Lords, Lord Sheldon and Lord Wakeham, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who was and still is the First Civil Service Commissioner, and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, who was then the immediate ex-Cabinet Secretary, as well as by many others. From the government Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, confirmed the Government's intention to introduce a Civil Service Bill in his response to the debate. The Government then published a draft Bill as part of a consultation paper in November 2004. However, since then, the whole scene seems to have fallen alarmingly quiet. It is absolutely clear from the history that the Government's attitude to a Civil Service Bill is the same as St Augustine's attitude to chastity: not yet.

Of the other four bodies in addition to the Civil Service Commissioners mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, two should unquestionably become statutory bodies. Those are the House Of Lords Appointments Commission and the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In both of those, the independence of the commission from the Executive is essential. That is obvious and beyond any doubt in the case of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It must be as impartial as possible in selecting the independent Members of your Lordships' House and in vetting party nominees. That is recognised on all sides and it seems clear that any Act for the further reform of your Lordships' House is more than likely to give a statutory basis to the Appointments Commission.

The position of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, OCPA, is perhaps not quite so obvious. OCPA does not make or recommend individual appointments. It lays down rules of practice for the appointment process and for monitoring the working of the appointments system. There is of course the long-standing problem that all Governments, although perhaps especially that of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, have tried to stuff public offices with people who are committed party supporters.

OCPA was created as a result of the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and it has done a great deal of good. The public appointments system is now, I think one can say, less partisan than for a long time past, but there is some way still to go and it is essential that public appointments should, as far as possible, be made on merit without regard to party allegiance. OCPA is vulnerable as long as it remains within the remit of the Cabinet Office. Its independence needs to be protected by making it a statutory body.

That leaves two bodies: the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, known as ACBA. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, did not mention ACBA during his speech. ACBA can impose restrictions on civil servants wishing to take up outside appointments for a limited period after their retirement from office and it can make recommendations to outgoing Ministers to the same effect, although recommendations to Ministers, unlike those to the Civil Service, are not binding. It performs a useful service, but it is concerned mainly with advising on individual cases, and a case is not made out for setting it up as an independent statutory body.

Finally, I served on the Committee on Standards in Public Life for six years under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, who I am glad to see follows me as a speaker, and Sir Nigel Wicks. Since the committee was set up in 1994 by John Major, it has performed very valuable services to the country. It is, of course, a purely advisory committee without powers, and it is arguable that, as a purely advisory committee that gives advice mainly to the Government, it is appropriate for it to remain within the remit of the Cabinet Office and answerable directly to the Prime Minister. I understand that this is the view of Sir Alistair Graham, as expressed by him in response to a journalist's question at Tuesday morning's meeting, at which I was present, on the publication of the committee's annual report.

I do not agree with Sir Alistair on that point; I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The scope of the committee's work goes beyond that of the Government and the Executive, as demonstrated by our seventh report on standards of conduct in your Lordships' House and our eighth report on standards of conduct in the House of Commons. The committee should be an independent body, with the power to select its own targets for investigation. It does not have that power at present. It proposes subjects, but it is required to obtain clearance from the Cabinet Office as to whether it is to take them up. Broadly speaking, it should be to ethics in public life what the National Audit Office is to public finances. A statutory basis would also give the committee greater security. There was always a worry at the back of the minds of its members that the committee might be abolished altogether, or perhaps, more likely, that its funds would be cut to a level that would make it ineffective.

Sir Alistair seems to have annoyed the Government by his outspokenness. It is true that he has departed from the practice of his predecessors, who all acted on the basis that they should, as chair of the committee, speak only on its behalf and not express their own views on controversial issues. I do not complain about the fact that Sir Alistair's appointment was not renewed for a three-year term, given that no predecessor has been reappointed for a second term. It was, however, seriously wrong to refuse to extend Sir Alistair's appointment for the few months until his successor can be appointed. The delay in making the appointment shows that the Cabinet Office is not an appropriate body to sponsor the committee. This is the third successive occasion on which the search for the successor to the current holder of the office started too late to be able to appoint the successor at the end of the term of the existing chair. On both occasions, however, the term of office of the existing chair was extended until a new chair could be appointed. The refusal to extend Sir Alistair's term for a few months seems vindictive. I have high regard for Rita Donaghy, the senior committee member who has been asked to act as an interim chair. Inevitably, however, the committee will be marking time during this period.

To sum up, the case for giving three of the five bodies listed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, a statutory basis is unanswerable. The three bodies are the Civil Service Commissioners, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The case, although perhaps not unanswerable, is very strong in the case of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is only in the case of ACBA that I believe that it would be inappropriate to set up an independent statutory body.