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Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


1. In 2003 the Public Administration Select Committee has continued to pursue the two central themes which underpin its work: reform in public services and machinery of government developments.

2. This is the second report of the Committee following the guidance set out by the Liaison Committee, which aims to establish a common set of objectives and tasks for all departmental Committees. This Committee is not strictly a departmental committee, but rather takes a broad policy perspective on developments concerning public administration. During this year the Committee held a session with the Cabinet Secretary based upon the Cabinet Office Annual Report. We intend to continue to monitor the reports and estimates laid before the House by the Cabinet Office, and to hold officials to account for their performance.

3. While one of the core tasks for Select Committees is to scrutinise draft legislation from the Government, the Committee went one step further by committing itself to producing draft legislation of its own. Task 2 of the Committee core tasks calls for Committees to "identify and examine areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals." The Committee has identified two areas where it believes legislation would improve our public administration.

4. Firstly, the Committee has recently published a draft Bill on the Civil Service.[1] Such a Bill was first mooted in the middle of the nineteenth century, and is the current policy of the Government, but, as yet, has failed to reach the Statute book. We held a number of private seminars with expert advisers to ensure that our draft Bill is as complete and technically correct as possible. A number of public evidence sessions have also been held, including one with the last three former holders of the post of Cabinet Secretary. Production of draft legislation by a Select Committee in this way is a major parliamentary innovation.

5. In addition, the Committee co-hosted a major public conference to highlight the issues surrounding civil service reform. Organised jointly with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Office of the Civil Service Commissioners, Constitution Unit at University College, London and FDA (the union for senior civil servants), the conference was very well attended, attracting nearly 200 people. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, Baroness Prashar, the First Civil Service Commissioner, and Sir Nigel Wicks, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life were among a number of senior figures to make presentations and answer questions.

6. The Committee also conducted an inquiry into Ministerial Powers and the Royal Prerogative. Some of the major executive powers emanate from the monarchy, but have been transferred through historical precedent and are now effectively wielded by the Prime Minister. In many instances prerogative powers are exercised without any reference to Parliament. Some of the powers are very necessary if the Executive is to govern effectively. However, some prerogative powers are merely useful to an Executive which already has much in the way of power in order to get its own way.

7. As part of this inquiry, the Committee organised a number of private seminars with expert advisers and has held public evidence sessions with senior Parliamentarians including Rt Hon Tony Benn, Rt Hon William Hague MP and Rt Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell, and other interested parties, including Sir Hayden Phillips GCB, Permanent Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs. At the Committee's request, Sir Hayden provided the first Government statement on Prerogative powers and, subsequently, submitted the Committee the papers which resulted from the Wilson Review on the honours system. Both sets of papers have now been published[2]. We intend to hold a separate inquiry into the honours system in the coming Session.

8. In line with its desire for greater transparency and accountability, the Committee will publish a draft Bill setting out those prerogative powers which it believes Ministers need in order to carry out their executive functions, and will propose an enhanced role for Parliamentary oversight.

9. In the last Session the Committee conducted an inquiry into the 'unfortunate events' which arose in the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), which ultimately led to the Secretary of State, his special adviser and the DTLR's head of communication losing their jobs. One of the main recommendations of our report was the establishment of a "radical review of Government communications".[3] In February 2003 the Government accepted this recommendation in its response, and set up an independent review to be chaired by Mr Robert Phillis.[4] Mr Phillis published an interim report on 27 August 2003. The full report is due to be published very soon and we will take evidence on its findings. The Committee's report, along with the Government's Response, were the subject of a debate in Westminster Hall on 8 May 2003.[5]

10. The Committee also undertook during the year the first major Parliamentary examination of the system of public appointments. It held 13 evidence sessions with witnesses ranging from Ministers and the Commissioner for Public Appointments to members of the public serving on National Lottery boards and other bodies.

11. The report contained 36 recommendations which aimed to limit ministerial patronage, while strengthening the role of Parliament over major appointments and opening up the system in order to encourage greater diversity and innovation. Among the recommendations were; a central review of public bodies, an extension of the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, changes in benefits and processes, experiments in direct and indirect election for public bodies, and the creation of an independent Public Appointments Commission accountable directly to Parliament.[6] For the first time the full list of appointments which involve the Prime Minister was published as an annex to the report.

12. The Government responded to this report in December 2003.[7] It accepted 20 of our 36 recommendations (and noted a number of others). It agreed to a review of the definition and scope of public bodies, which should make the system more transparent and less complicated. The remit, funding and staffing of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA) will be included as part of this review, which will also look at ways of improving the promotion of diversity. The Government also accepted a number of other recommendations designed to increase diversity of office holders. We regret that the Government rejected our call for an enhanced role for Parliament in the scrutiny of key public posts and the establishment of a Public Appointments Commission (based on the model of the independent NHS Appointments Commission). However, it agreed that the NHS Commission had been a success and agreed to look at ways of expanding the Commission's remit through legislation. We hold regular sessions with the Commissioner Dame Rennie Fritchie, at which she is held to account for the work of her office.

13. The Committee continued its major inquiry into Public Service Reform. Having previously examined the 'public service ethos', we conducted an inquiry into the targets regime set by Government for the public services. We took evidence from representatives from many public services, from private sector managers, and from Ministers from HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office. We visited Canada and Bristol in order to gain a different perspective on the issue of targets and delivery. We also conducted our own survey of government performance by assessing Public Service Agreements (PSA) across each of the Government's Spending Reviews.

14. The Committee's report applauded the Government's aspirations in using targets to promote common standards and their important role in improving public services. However, we identified a number of failings of the targets regime which, if ignored, would hamper any improvement. We called for fewer national targets with more focus placed upon local delivery and greater involvement of front line staff and for independent validation of the performance of government targets to reduce the extent to which targets had become a political and media football.

15. The Government welcomed the Committee's report as a recognition of the important role played by targets and performance measurement in improving public service delivery. The response added that many of our recommendations were in line with the Government's own thinking ahead of the 2004 Spending Review, especially concerning further devolution from the centre of government, improved reporting of performance, and greater transparency. However, the Government did not agree with some of the Committee's more critical points, and in particular, the need for independent validation of targets.

16. The Committee commented on the Government's Response, saying that the Government was moving in the right direction, but needed to increase the momentum. We agreed with the Government that it was an evolutionary process, but that more needed to be done in respect of devolving responsibility and increasing the involvement of local providers. The Committee has often made innovative use of the opportunity to comment on Government responses in this way

17. The Pre-Budget Report, published in December 2003, set out the Government's latest thinking on the role of targets.[8] In the document the Government announced that it would remove a whole tier of targets (Service Delivery Agreements) and replace them with local targets with more input from front line staff. The report also said that fewer key national targets would be announced as part of the 2004 Spending Review. These were key aspects of the Committee's original report and are warmly welcomed. The next stage of our Public Service Reform inquiry will consider the issue of choice and equity in public services.

18. In addition, the Committee has continued to monitor the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (or Ombudsman). In this Session Ms Ann Abraham was appointed as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Ombudsman. We held an early session with Ms Abraham to discuss her approach to the issues concerning the work of her office. We questioned her on a number of issues including the potential legislative changes to the work of the Ombudsman, the operation of the Code of Practice on Access to Official Information, and her inquiry into Equitable Life.

19. The Committee publishes a report into 'Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions' in relation to each session of Parliament. In the new year we will publish a report covering the sessions 2000-01 and 2001-02. A number of Members have contacted the Committee following our commitment (set out in Ninth Report 2001-02) to seek more adequate responses from Ministers. We will publish our initial findings in our forthcoming report and a debate was held on our report of Session 2001-02 in Westminster Hall on 8 January 2004 .[9]

20. The Committee will continue to follow the twin themes of machinery of government developments and public service reform. In the new year we will hold an inquiry into the implications for the civil service of the Hutton Inquiry (concerning the events surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly). We will also be examining the questions raised by inquiries into administrative failure.

1   First Report 2003-04 HC128-I Back

2   See press notices 19 and 22, Session 2002/03 Back

3   Eighth Report, 2001/02, HC 303 Back

4   Cm 5756 2003 Back

5   Official Report, Col 285-328 WH Back

6   Fourth Report 2002/03, HC 165-I Back

7   Cabinet Office, Cm 6056, December 2003 Back

8   HM Treasury Cm 6042, December 2003 Back

9   Official Report, 8 January 2004, Col 151-186WH Back

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Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 26 January 2004