In the end, who is responsible?

Giles Radice's report on the Scott inquiry finds a system of ministeria l unaccountability supported by supine MPs on both sides
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For more than three years the dark shadow of Sir Richard Scott's arms-to-Iraq inquiry loomed ominously over the Major administration. At times the effort of rebutting Sir Richard's most menacing accusations paralysed the government machine. For weeks before its publication in February, the inquiry utterly consumed what one of its potential victims, William Waldegrave, once aptly called the "media-political complex".

Six months later, it is not easy to remember what all the fuss was about. Partly, of course, it is our fault in the media half of Mr Waldegrave's complex. There was high-grade parliamentary theatre, but no resignations, despite the devastating eloquence of Robin Cook in the Commons, and we rather lost interest. But it is also a tribute to the resilience of the governing classes that they absorbed with such efficiency the shock of Sir Richard's complaints that Parliament was not given the truth by ministers about the waiving of export guidelines in the sale of equipment to Saddam Hussein. The dogs barked, then the caravan moved on.

Since then, the wheels of government have ground exceeding slow and small. No minister resigned. No civil servant criticised in the report has been disciplined. Instead, this week, with MPs safely on holiday, we see the first detailed official response. It is a splendidly innocuous and bureaucratic DTI consultation paper answering Sir Richard's demand for a comprehensive review of government export controls. No firm proposals are made, and we are assured, just in case there was any fear that ministers might do something hasty, that when the consultation period is over, there may be further "detailed consultation ... as proposals for change are worked up in detail". In other words, don't expect anything this side of an election.

In sharp contrast, the Commons public services select committee, chaired by the Labour MP Giles Radice, in a report this week at least attempts to grapple with the most far-reaching questions raised by Scott: what are the limits of ministerial responsibility, and how to hold the executive to account? In particular, it seeks to update the doctrine unambiguously set out by Gladstone in 1879: "In every free state, for every public act, someone must be responsible; and the question is, who shall it be? The British constitution answers: `The minister and the minister exclusively'."

It is a commonplace among most modern politicians that this no longer works quite literally. In today's system of government, after all, a minister simply can't know everything that goes on in his department. And that was part of the ministers' defence in the case of arms to Iraq: they didn't tell Parliament the truth because they didn't always know what their civil servants were doing. But this leaves an accountability black hole, lucidly identified by the Radice report: "If when things go wrong, it is held that ministers are not to blame because they did not (knowingly) mislead Parliament and civil servants are not to blame because they acted as servants of ministers, then the unsatisfactory outcome is that nobody is to blame."

The inescapable subtext of the Radice report is that MPs have been almost wilfully supine in dealing with this problem. Scott accepted that ministers couldn't be held responsible for matters they knew nothing about; but added that the quid pro quo was that they had to disclose fully the information that Parliament needs to decide who was responsible. And this, of course, ministers are unwilling to do, especially if full disclosure would suggest that they are not quite as blameless as they claim. Which makes the idea that the executive is fully accountable to Parliament one of the bigger lies at the heart of our political system.

The Radice committee has at least tried to pose the question of how to change that within the British constitution. Here, unlike the United States, there is no clear separation between the executive and the legislature, and the government has a built-in parliamentary majority.

Potentially, as the report recognises, the sharpest instruments for holding the executive to account are select committees. But the committees are themselves closely under the patronage of party managers. It is not just that the governing party has a majority on all the most important ones; it is also that the whips have the most influence in determining who sits on them. The history of the select committees is littered with examples of government obstruction.

Take as a recent example the trade and industry committee's investigation into whether Jonathan Aitken, the Tory MP and BMARC director, knew whether the company was selling naval cannon to Iran. The committee was denied access to classified intelligence documents. It remarked on this in its final report, but it didn't bother to complain publicly at the time, when it might have made a difference. It found no evidence against Mr Aitken.

Nor should one assume that Labour-dominated committees would behave any differently. Indeed, any temptation among Labour MPs to agitate for reform now is bound to be tempered by the prospect of a Blair government. The truth is that Parliament as a watchdog has been muzzled by a conspiracy between ministers and wannabe ministers, which together means the large majority of MPs on both sides of the House. Mr Radice's committee makes some limited but sensible suggestions, including greater powers for select committees. But will they happen? Backbench MPs collectively, and across party boundaries, have proven themselves jolly good at mass revolts over their own pay packets. They have shown precious little desire to act in the same way to strengthen their powers over the executive.

Unless MPs, like the movers and shakers on US Congressional committees, start to regard a backbench career as at least as worthwhile as that of the junior minister for paper clips and widgets, that is unlikely to change. And until it does, the modern answer to Gladstone's question of 1879 will continue to be a resounding: "Not me, Guv."