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Cabinet Office: Standards-setting Bodies

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:19 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland, Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Cabinet Office 12:19 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I join those who have spoken in expressing appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this topic in a very timely way. We are awaiting the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration of the House of Commons; it has been deliberating for some time and has taken wide-ranging evidence from a number of those involved in the bodies that the noble Lord brought within his purview. I can bring only limited experience to the debate—I served on the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—although the constitutional issues it raises have been of great interest to me and many in this House for some time.

I agree with one of the noble Lord's conclusions about the possible restructuring of these bodies. The option has been considered and, in some cases, supported by commentators and those involved in the debate that the bodies should be pooled in a gigantic organisation, for reasons of modernisation—dare I use that ugly, modern word?—and effectiveness, or to give a higher profile to the work done by these regulatory committees. I believe that the nature of the work done by all of them is quite different, each from the other. Even if one were to establish an over-riding body, it would necessarily have to operate in discrete panels. All that would be achieved would be the creation of a hierarchy of decision-making, leaving the chairman with less immediate grip on the precise issues which were being dealt with by the panel and more responsibility for, frankly, bureaucratic consideration.

I do not see that as a sensible way ahead. I notice that it was alluded to by the new First Civil Service Commissioner with particular regard to the work of her body, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and perhaps the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments on the tidy ground that it would be looking to the appointment and perhaps the promotion of civil servants as well as their conduct after leaving office. I think that very different considerations apply to each of those roles. We should avoid the argument with regard to tidiness.

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 to her embarrassment about carrying out her work in a building which was part of the Cabinet Office and about her being the head of a body which was funded by the Cabinet Office, reported to the Cabinet Office and whose members were essentially appointed as a result of consultations with the Cabinet Office. She had a point: more could and should be done to strengthen the apparent independence of these bodies.

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 arm's 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 Executive's 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 initiative—which, as has been suggested, is an important role of, for example, the Committee on Standards in Public Life—or 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 report—notwithstanding 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 touch—very closely in touch—with 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 which are expressed in our democratic system through Parliament. There is a strong case for Parliament having an element of influence over the direction of such regulation, not just a theoretical one that is ex post facto when reports are published and there is an opportunity to ask Ministers about them but that influences the direction of the work of such bodies. There is much to be said for appointments being considered by Parliament or one House of Parliament; it need not be by both Houses. A process of advice and consent might help. Furthermore, it is not totally unprecedented in our system of democratic governance to seek some such independent role.

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, alluded—the 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.