§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
I beg to move,
This Bill seeks to make two changes in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. The first change relates to the method of appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner, without in any way derogating from the rights of the Sovereign. Simply stated, the power to appoint the Parliamentary Commissioner—a power under Section 1(2) of the 1967 Act—is vested in the Prime Minister of the day. There is no obligation on the Prime Minister, before making the appointment. to consult the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner or Parliament itself. It must be remembered that this is an appointment that is crucial to this House, to which the Parliamentary Commissioner is responsible.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend the 1967 Act so that future appointments to the important position of Parliamentary Commissioner should be made only after the Prime Minister of the day has consulted the Chairman of the Select Committee and after both Houses of Parliament have approved appropriate resolutions.
I must make it clear that my Bill neither suggests nor implies any criticism whatever of either of the two distinguished past holders of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner, or of Sir Idwal Pugh, the new Parliamentary Commissioner who takes over the office on the first day of next month. He is a former civil servant, immensely distinguished and with a high reputation.
However, it is right that this House should have an opportunity, before the appointment is made, of expressing its view and indeed of expressing an opinion whether it is appropriate for a civil servant, however distinguished, to be appointed to that rôle of investigating complaints which so often affect the conduct of the Civil Service.
I have been authorised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke), who is the present 1117 Chairman of the Select Committee, to quote a letter which he wrote to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House on this subject. Part of that letter said:This is to record the grave concern of the whole of the Select Committee that this announcement has been made before the House of Commons has been consulted in any form.My hon. and learned Friend was there referring to the appointment of Sir Idwal. The letter continued:We appreciated that this had been the practice in the past, but we felt that the time was overdue for a change. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is a servant of the House of Commons and it seems extraordinary that the House of Commons is not consulted at all about his appointment.My Bill gives effect to the concern expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen, but it will also seek to assert once again the supremacy of this House over the Executive.
The second change envisaged by the Bill relates to the right of the Parliamentary Commissioner to obtain access to the minutes of Cabinet meetings and of Cabinet Committees. In his Report on the Court Line affair last July, the Ombudsman reported that he had not seen the whole of the 12 documents and passages from two other documents relating to the proceedings of a committee of the Cabinet. This Bill would require the production to the Ombudsman, when investigating complaints of maladministration as a result of which a citizen has suffered an injustice, of Cabinet documents, except—and I emhpasise this exception—in those cases where the Attorney-General of the day certifies that such disclosure would be prejudicial to the security of the State. It is not right that the Executive should be able to shelter behind the doctrine of Cabinet secrecy where a citizen is complaining that because of the Executive's conduct he has suffered an injustice as a result of maladministration.
It is only right that I should tell the House that I wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner on this suggestion contained in my Bill. He replied on 23rd March as follows: 1118My experience is that it is rare indeed that complaints I have investigated have raised issues that have engaged the attention of the Cabinet or a Cabinet Committee. And in the particular Court Line case …. I saw no reason to think that, if I had seen the papers relating to Cabinet or Cabinet Committee proceedings, I would have reached different conclusions.We all accept that assurance, but the Parliamentary Commissioner can never be certain until he sees those Cabinet papers whether he might have reached a different conclusion.
I have spoken to several of my right hon. and hon. Friends about this second proposal. In the early expectation of a move to the Government Benches, they have told me of their anxieties that proceedings at Cabinet meetings and before Cabinet Committees might be made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner. In the light of that anxiety, it is timely to remind the House that under Section 11 of the 1967 Act it is possible for Ministers of the Crown to give notice that the disclosure of any such documentwould be prejudicial to the safety of the State …".For these reasons I believe that it would be right and in the interest of the citizen in seeking redress of any grievance against the Executive for those two changes to be made in the existing Act.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Gow, Mr. Leon Brittan, Mr. Eldon Griffiths, Mr. Antony Buck, Mr. Tim Renton, Mr. Michael Marshall, Mr. Nick Budgen, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Iain Sproat, Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn, Mr. Tim Rathbone, and Dr. Rhodes Boyson.