Ministerial accountability 'overdue for reform'

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The Independent Online

A series of failures by ministers to discharge their obligations to give the public full information about Government policies and actions leads Sir Richard Scott to recommend an overhaul of the system of ministerial accountability.

Sir Richard cites seven examples of lack of disclosure and of misleading answers since 1985, which he says suggests that ministers have not fulfilled their duty towards Parliament or the public at large. He recommends that the "justification for a refusal to answer Parliamentary Questions on sales of arms or defence-related equipment to other countries requires, in my opinion, ... be re-examined."

In particular, he wants ministers to inform the public of which countries are the recipients of British weapons. He asks, rhetorically, "Is it any longer satisfactory that Parliament and the British public are not entitled to be told to which countries and in what quantities goods such as artillery shells, land mines and cluster bombs have been licensed for export?"

Sir Richard says that the excuse used by ministers of information not being in the "public interest" should no longer be used so casually. He says that "the limitations that the public interest requires to be placed on the obligations of accountability owed by ministers need ... to be urgently rethought".

On the question of the use of Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificates to prevent the disclosure to the defence of Government papers, Sir Richard says that the whole approach to their use in criminal trials should be reassessed. He says that the Government should no longer seek to use the certificates "on a class basis", in other words, to prevent whole types of document from being disclosed. Instead, applications for PIIs should be made on the basis of specific documents and consideration should be given to the use of "redactions" (edited versions).

Applications for PIIs should not be made if "the responsible minister forms the opinion that notwithstanding the sensitivity of the documents, the public interest requires that the documents should be disclosed". This would have allowed Michael Heseltine not to sign the PII over which he expressed doubts.

Sir Richard also recommends that ministers should be given time when considering whether to sign a PII "to reflect upon the weight of the public interest factors alleged to require that the documents in question be not disclosed or on the relevance, so far as it is known, of the documents to the defence" in a criminal trial.

Sir Richard argues that the form of the PII certificates used in the Matrix Churchill and Ordtec cases were not "satisfactory" as they did not allow the defence to understand the type of information that was being withheld. Therefore, he suggests that PIIs should clearly state exactly what documents they cover and an explanation of the function of the documents.

On the power of government to control exports, Sir Richard says that "a comprehensive review is, in my opinion, required and long overdue of the power of Government to impose controls on exports from the UK. He says that the legislation governing such controls is based on the Import, Export and Customs Powers Act of 1939, which lacks "the provisions for Parliamentary supervision and control that would be expected and are requisite in a modern Parliamentary democracy".

On export licensing procedures, Sir Richard says the legislation should be reviewed to ensure that licences can be issued quickly and the decision to issue them or not is made with fairness in relation to exporters. The inquiry had sent out a consultation paper on the subject and Sir Richard says that "the need for prescribed procedures was accepted by the majority of those" who responded.