Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.17 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The title of this evening's debate is extremely broad, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on securing parliamentary time on the subject of maladministration in the civil service—a big area to investigate. I welcome the opportunity to present the Government's views to the House.

The process of scrutiny of public service delivery often involves criticism of policy, and the assertion of different opinions and views. However, it is important at the outset to distinguish between a debate on the merits or otherwise of a particular policy, and the examination of whether a given policy has been effectively executed and administered.

Parliament has a long tradition of holding the Executive to account for administrative shortcomings, and in many ways this is as valuable as scrutinising changes in policy. Maladministration, whenever it occurs, can not only tarnish the reputation of public services in general, but cause harm and disadvantage to individual consumers, taxpayers and citizens. It is therefore vital that administrative systems are sufficiently robust and well conceived to prevent, or lessen the likelihood of, failures.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 981

I shall touch on the existing methods by which complaints of administrative failings can be pursued, and also briefly on how the Government are working to improve both complaints procedures and the capabilities of the civil service in general.

First, however, the hon. Gentleman may find it helpful if I address specifically the points that he raised, focusing primarily on Equitable Life. I would like to express my sympathy for all the Equitable Life policyholders who have been affected by recent events. My colleagues in government and I fully understand the distress and anger that they feel. Equitable Life raises important issues that deserve consideration by a full independent inquiry, and that is why, as hon. Members will know, my hon. friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury announced on 31 August that such an inquiry had been set up under Lord Penrose.

The inquiry will consider what lessons can be drawn for the conduct, administration and regulation of the life assurance industry. We recognise that it is important that lessons are learned from what has happened. The inquiry will allow us to do that, and Lord Penrose's terms of reference will enable him to consider events from all angles. They are:

It is clear that the problems at Equitable date back many years. By virtue of its wide-ranging remit, Lord Penrose's inquiry will be able to look back as far as necessary to ascertain the origin of the problems and investigate those issues that he thinks have a bearing on the subject regardless of where and when they arose. In particular, he will be able to look carefully into the actions of Equitable itself, the regulators and other key players over the years. We expect Lord Penrose to report in the second half of next year.

I understand that the investigation that the parliamentary ombudsman has announced will be limited to looking at the actions of the Financial Services Authority between 1 January 1999, when the FSA took over responsibility for regulation, and 8 December 2000, when Equitable closed to new business. The Government and the FSA will, of course, co-operate fully with the parliamentary ombudsman's investigation into the regulation of Equitable Life. I shall have more to say later about the parliamentary ombudsman, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will have the resources at his disposal to conduct an efficient and effective inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of compensation following any conclusions by the ombudsman. It does not make any sense to anticipate the findings of the investigation, but if the ombudsman were to make such a recommendation the Government would consider it carefully. The hon. Gentleman raised several other specific issues connected with Equitable Life and the FSA which I shall certainly draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary.

Mr. Chope: Does the Minister understand that the Penrose inquiry has a remit to consider issues of maladministration by the regulator and issues of compensation and redress? The Economic Secretary

31 Oct 2001 : Column 982

yesterday was ambivalent on those points. If there is doubt about whether the terms of reference go that far, will he put pressure on the Economic Secretary to ensure that Lord Penrose has a specific remit to include those issues in his inquiry?

Mr. Leslie: As the hon. Gentleman knows, those are primarily matters for my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, but my understanding is that Lord Penrose's remit is broad and he will be able to consider several specific issues. In the course of his inquiry, I am sure that he will address many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the specific case of a constituent of his. I am grateful for the notice of that issue that he was able to give me earlier today. It is a complicated case and I shall try to give a brief outline. I understand that an appeal was due to have been heard by the War Pensions Appeal Tribunal on 6 October 1998, but that that hearing was adjourned because the pensioner concerned had presented several new pieces of evidence and the chairman wished to give the War Pensions Agency the opportunity to consider them.

Because of the complexity of the associated medical issues, the agency took some time to consider the new evidence carefully. In parallel, the appeal hearing was rearranged for 27 October 1999, but was postponed at the request of the pensioner concerned. A new date was set but the hearing had to be adjourned, again at the request of the pensioner concerned. In the interim, the pensioner lodged a separate appeal, on different grounds, but the hearing on that had to be adjourned because the War Pensions Agency had not provided full documentation to the tribunal. I understand that the agency's chief executive has apologised for that omission. He did, however, take steps to ensure that full documentation was available to the tribunal when it heard both of the appeals on 10 July 2001. The tribunal's decision was reserved, but the pensioner concerned has now been sent a copy of its decision.

I have been assured that the hon. Gentleman will receive a direct response in the near future to the particular points he raised with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

I come now to the wider issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. Most public services have well developed complaints procedures, through which members of the public can pursue a grievance of maladministration and seek redress. Increasing numbers of organisations follow consumer-oriented policies, and the Government must be no exception to this.

Progressively, many more public services consult their users and publish the standards of service that they aim to achieve. By accepting the principle that people who use services have a right to information and a right to complain, the public sector is endeavouring to focus on achieving greater consumer satisfaction.

It is clear that more work needs to be done, but proper handling of complaints is central to the Government's programme to modernise and improve public services, and greater responsiveness to people's needs is a key objective. There are also a number of statutory bodies through which the public may raise complaints even if internal departmental complaints processes have been exhausted without satisfaction. The Parliamentary

31 Oct 2001 : Column 983

Commissioner for Administration—normally known as the parliamentary ombudsman—is such a body, and assesses claims from members of the public who complain that they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by Government Departments or certain other public bodies. The ombudsman also deals with complaints about problems in obtaining access to official information.

The ombudsman is independent of Government and is not a civil servant. He is an Officer of the House of Commons, appointed by Her Majesty, and reports directly to Parliament. Complaints to him are confidential. His investigations are private, and he does not charge for his services. At present, complaints to the parliamentary ombudsman must be made through a Member of Parliament.

In general, the term "maladministration" is taken to mean poor administration, or the incorrect application of rules. For example, maladministration can usually include avoidable delay, faulty procedures or failing to follow correct procedures, and the term can also include the failure to tell individuals about any rights of appeal that they might have. It can cover unfairness, bias or prejudice, the giving of advice that is misleading or inadequate, and the refusal to answer reasonable questions. Covered too by the term are discourtesy, the failure to apologise properly for errors and mistakes in handling claims, and not offering an adequate remedy where one is due.

The ombudsman does not investigate complaints that are about Government policy or the content of legislation. Policy is for the Government to determine, and legislation is for Parliament to decide. Criminal investigations, the decisions of courts and public service personnel matters are also outside the remit of the ombudsman

In 1999, following representations from the members of the ombudsman's office, we announced a review to determine whether the present arrangements were in the best interest of complainants and others. That was against a background of moves towards more integrated public services, and an increasing focus on the needs of the people and organisations that use these services.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 984

The review team consulted widely and its report was published in April 2000. We published a consultation paper on the report a few months later. In July this year, I announced that the Government's conclusions would respond to the consultation paper. We were satisfied that there was broad support for the review's main conclusions, and that we would therefore replace the existing arrangements with a more unified and flexible ombudsman body for central Government, local government and the national health service, other than NHS pensions. In due course, we will publish proposals for the precise powers and accountability of the new body—to which the public will have direct access—and on whether its jurisdiction should be extended beyond the bodies subject to the jurisdiction of the existing ombudsmen.

The effective design and specification of administrative systems to deliver Government policies is crucial, and there is a constant process of learning the lessons from the mistakes of the past. Clearly, Ministers have always relied heavily on the capabilities of the civil service to ensure that policies are implemented effectively, efficiently, transparently and fairly. In order to improve the capacity of the civil service to deliver improved outcomes for the public at large, a reform programme is under way, building on the firm foundations of the impartial and competent service that has served the nation so well for so long.

Under-achievement and poor performance can be tackled in a number of ways and it is clear that the parliamentary ombudsman, Parliament and the Government's reform programme all have a part to play. There have been many examples of maladministration in the past. Although we all strive to ensure that the machinery of service delivery is as perfect as possible, there will no doubt be problems in the future as well. The best that we can do is to try as hard as possible to improve our systems, learn from the past, and reform and modernise public services so that they match as closely as possible the aspirations and needs of the people whom we all represent.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page