Nolan calls for greater openness

Click to follow
Indy Politics
A direct and defiant challenge to the Government to make some civil servants openly accountable to Parliament was made by Lord Nolan last night.

The chairman of the official Committee on Standards in Public Life suggested in a lecture at Warwick University that the hive-off of Whitehall work to agencies had blurred lines of accountability that were already weak.

Concerned about that problem, the Commons Public Service Committee recently announced: "The obligation to provide full information and to explain the actions of Government to Parliament means that ministers should allow civil servants to give an account to Parliament through select committees where appropriate - particularly where ministers have formed delegated functions to them."

But the Government replied a fortnight ago that it was not prepared "to breach the long-standing basic principle that civil servants, including the chief executives of Next Steps agencies, give an account to Parliament on behalf of the ministers whom they serve."

Summing up the Government position, Lord Nolan said it was retaining complete control over the concept of accountability - even though the accountability of ministers to Parliament was geared to the Government majority.

"It is like the Lilliputians trying to tie down Gulliver," Lord Nolan said. "We would be better off acknowledging that ministerial accountability is interpreted in the light of prevailing political circumstances and avoid disappointing ourselves with its application."

But in a direct and pointed attack on the "very centralist" nature of the Government position, Lord Nolan said: "If accountability is only through ministers, in respect of an agency with hundreds of offices and thousands of clients, the chain is too long."

He continued: "The person who should be answerable - perhaps at local level - remains shielded from public view, and true accountability is weakened."

Lord Nolan said that the weakening of accountability was being aggravated by the removal of powers from local authorities and the devolution of Whitehall work into quangos, in addition to the creation of official Next Steps agencies.