Select Committee on Liaison First Report


APPENDIX M

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION COMMITTEE

Memorandum to the Liaison Committee

Introduction

1.  The Public Administration Select Committee met for the first time in Session 2001-02, on 18 July 2001. We first took oral evidence, on the New Centre of government, on 18 October 2001. During the Summer Recess, we held a planning Seminar at which experts in the field of public administration exchanged views with Members on issues likely to be of interest to the Committee during this Parliament.

2.  The Government sent us some very late, and in some cases inadequate, Responses to Reports published by the Committee in the last Session; one reached us 11 months after publication of the Committee's Report. Because there had been major developments in that period, we adopted the unusual approach of publishing a substantive Report along with the Government Response. This enabled us to hold the Government more fully to account and to engage Ministers in debate on issues of real topical importance. This is an approach which we believe other committees could usefully adopt as standard practice.

3.  The first of these cases was the First Report : 'Public Participation: Issues and Innovations: The Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2000-01'. We were concerned that since the Committee published the report last Session, the crisis in public participation had deepened , as shown by the low turnout in the June 2001 General Election. The Government's Response contained few targets and timetables for delivery. Our short Report stressed the urgency and seriousness that was required from the Government in tackling the issue of public participation. One interesting and helpful development in the original inquiry also attracted attention during the year - the running of an online consultation to gather views on issues related to public participation.

4.  The Second Report was on 'The Ministerial Code: Improving the Rule Book: The Government Response to the Committee's Third Report of Session 2000-01'. We welcomed the Government's Response, and we were pleased that it incorporated a number of our recommendations, especially on the responsibility of the Prime Minister for ensuring that the Code is upheld by Ministers. We were however concerned that since the General Election, the Prime Minister had taken responsibility for the Office of Public Services Reform and the Forward Strategy Unit, without there being a select committee that could hold him to account. We also re-iterated our view that the non-appearance of the Prime Minister before select committees was a gap in parliamentary accountability that had to be closed.

5.  The Third Report was on 'Special Advisers: Boon or Bane: The Government Response to the Committee's Fourth Report of Session 2000-01'. We re-iterated our original conclusion that there was value in the employment of these advisers, and our recommendation that the Government should advertise special adviser posts publicly. The use of a more transparent appointment process would, we believed, greatly strengthen public confidence in the propriety of Government. The Report on the other hand praised the Government for its recent progress on the regulation of special advisers. For the first time ever, there is now a specific code of conduct for advisers, containing an explicit requirement to uphold the impartiality of civil servants and guidance on contacts with the media. The Government rejected the Committee's recommendation that a separate fund should be established for the money spent on Special Advisers, and financial assistance given to opposition parties to conduct parliamentary business (known as Short Money). This is an issue that we will keep under review.

6.  The Fourth Report was on 'Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions: The Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2000-01'. The Report emphasised the need for openness and accuracy in answering Questions as a crucial element in ministerial accountability. We will be monitoring departmental performance and will publish a full report later this year.

7.  One technical issue continued to cause some difficulties: the IT-related problems which arise when select committees attempt to incorporate large amounts of material from external sources into their reports. This had caused particular difficulty in the previous Session with the Fifth Report of 2000-01, 'Mapping the Quango State'.

8.  We have taken evidence on two separate occasions for an inquiry into The New Centre of Government - the growing apparatus based in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. We took evidence from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of State for the Cabinet Office and Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary, Head of the Home Civil Service. We are not producing a report on this inquiry at present, but will return to it later this year.

9.  We have so far held six evidence sessions in our current inquiry into Public Service Reform. We are currently preparing a report for the first part of the inquiry, which we expect to publish in March. This examines the concept of the public service ethos and the implications for this of private sector involvement in public services. The second part of the inquiry is likely to be held in the autumn, when we will take further oral evidence on public service reform.

10.  For the first time, we produced an 'Issues and Questions Paper' setting out the main themes of the public service reform inquiry, offering an opportunity for the public to contribute views on the main themes. This attracted many very useful and well-focussed responses and will prove very helpful when we come to frame our reports. We intend to make this a regular feature of future inquiries.

11.  Following the publication in November of the Government's White Paper 'The House of Lords: Completing the Reform', we are currently taking evidence from a wide range of Parliamentarians, including, the Leader of the House of Commons, the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords and the Lord Chancellor. We expect to publish a report immediately after completion of oral evidence, at the end of January, to meet the Government's consultation deadline. This inquiry is part of a wider inquiry into Public Appointments and Patronage.

12.  We will also be taking oral evidence when we look at the matters arising from the Reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the Health Service Ombudsman. This is an annual inquiry, and we will also hear oral evidence from the Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office who is responsible for ministerial oversight of the Ombudsman. Evidence will be taken in three sessions, and it is not yet known if we will produce a report at the end of the inquiry.

13.  Also this spring we will be conducting a single evidence session with the Commissioner for Public Appointments; this is an annual inquiry into the work of the Commissioner and her office.

14.  We also expect in the near future to take evidence on a Government consultation paper on the long-promised Civil Service Bill.

January 2002


 
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Prepared 7 February 2002