Inquiry 'has failed to provide the machinery for openness'

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The Independent Online

Public Policy Editor

The Scott inquiry has made the case for more openness and accountability in government but failed to provide the machinery to achieve it, civil service unions and MPs said yesterday.

In addition, Sir Richard has endorsed the controversial view of Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, that there is a distinction between ministerial "accountability" and ministerial "responsibility".

That distinction was vigorously rejected 18 months ago by the cross-party Treasury and Civil Service committee - and Sir Richard's apparent support for it has left "a black hole" over who is responsible when Parliament is misled or things go wrong, according to Elizabeth Symons, general secretary of the First Division Association, the top civil servants' union.

Urgent clarification is now needed, she said, a view echoed by Giles Radice, chairman of the new Commons Public Services Committee, which has taken over the Treasury committee's responsibility for the Civil Service. The situation, he said, was now "a mess". He said he would be recommending that the committee should launch a fresh series of hearings into ministerial accountability in the wake of the report and that Sir Peter himself should be called as a witness.

"It is all very well to say that more openness and accountability are needed," Mr Radice said. "But we clearly need mechanisms to deliver that." The Scott report had not provided those, he said.

Ms Symons said: "Sir Richard states that some ministers deliberately misled the House of Commons, but does not hold them responsible for doing so." If that ambiguity was not clarified, civil servants would be left in "an exposed and impossible position".

Sir Richard has also said that he "finds it difficult to disagree" with Sir Robin's view that the conduct of government has become so complex that while a minister is accountable for his department, he is not "responsible" for errors or failures unless he had some personal involvement in them. Sir Richard argues that the distinction underlines the need for ministers to provide full and accurate information to Parliament.

But critics questioned yesterday how that was to be achieved, and Ms Symons said that if the distinction was accepted it left "a serious gap in defining responsibility in government. Many civil servants have felt for some time that government ministers claim credit when things go well, and blame civil servants, either directly or indirectly, when they go badly".

Richard Shepherd, the Conservative MP for Aldridge Brownhills, said that the only mechanism likely to ensure greater openness would be a Freedom of Information Act, under which individuals would be able to appeal to a commissioner if they believed information was being unreasonably withheld. "Without that," he asked, "how do you make greater openness meaningful?"

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that Sir Richard provided a powerful critique of secrecy in government and the failure to provide MPs with accurate and complete information. "He poses the questions very powerfully - but if you try to answer them, you are led to a reform like a Freedom of Information Act."