Ministers who mislead House 'should resign'

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The Independent Online
It is impossible to distinguish between ministerial accountability and responsibility, said a powerful all-party group of MPs yesterday, in an implied rebuke to government ministers who argued the opposite at the Scott arms to Iraq inquiry.

In a reaffirmation of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, the Commons Public Service Select Committee, said: "It is not composed of two elements with a clear break between the two."

The committee was examining the issues raised by the Scott report and the lack of candour shown by ministers in telling Parliament that the guidelines on exports to Iraq had been changed. "Ministers have an obligation to Parliament which consists in ensuring that government explains its actions," the MPs said. They "have an obligation to respond to criticism in Parliament in a way that seems likely to satisfy it - which may include resignation". Any minister "who has been found to have knowingly misled Parliament should resign".

Other recommendations included: allowing MPs to complain to the parliamentary ombudsman about their treatment by a Whitehall department; it should be standard practice for ministers, when refusing to answer a parliamentary question, to give the grounds for withholding information; civil servants should be brought within the same rules that govern disclosure to MPs by ministers; and the Osmotherly Rules, covering evidence to select committees by civil servants, should be amended to allow chief executives of government agencies to appear before MPs.

The recommendations on executive agencies stem from the row last year over the departure of Derek Lewis, head of the Prisons Service. Mr Lewis, and not the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, took the blame for the operational failings which led to the break-out from Parkhurst jail.

Giles Radice, the Labour chairman of the committee, said it was vital the relationship between minister and chief executive was "defined more closely". He believed the setting out of ministerial accountability was a crucial reform.

The Government has three months in which to respond.