Leading Article: Hostile questions, scripted answers

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AT FIRST it sounds quite innocent. In a video used to train civil servants for five years, but only now made public, Sir Brian Hayes, the former head of the Department of Trade and Industry, hints that rambling answers are better than crisp ones when facing difficult questions by a select committee of the House of Commons. Nobody would defend such a tactic; but it is almost universal practice among politicians (as witnessed daily on television and radio). If civil servants are adopting it, perhaps this is a reassuring sign that at last the old fiction that ministers alone make all the decisions in departments is being abandoned. Civil servants, by contrast, are supposed to be merely faithful retainers who do their masters' bidding.

Examined more closely, the video paints a disturbing picture of an organisation continuing to do what it has done for decades. Once again the Civil Service is trying to minimise the quality - and quantity - of information allowed to escape through the select committees. Its targeting is exemplary: in the past decade, making use of their powers to call for people and papers, the committees have grown to be a valuable outside check on the machinery of government. Yet ministers and senior civil servants are evidently far from happy with the new openness thus forced on them.

Officials are already told by the 'Osmotherly rules', drawn up by a senior mandarin of that name, not to answer questions on national security, on advice they give to ministers, and on rows between departments. But the Civil Service has gone farther: without the knowledge of committee members, government departments have established liaison officers to oversee the information that flows to the committees. Without MPs' knowledge, civil servants have been given advance copies of questions they have been summoned to answer.

When the matter at issue is detailed, there could be a case for telling witnesses what papers they will be expected to bring with them. But there is no justification for warning civil servants of a possible line of hostile questioning - especially since internal rules already dictate that officials must take orders from their ministers on how to answer. If select committee sessions become mere scripted exchanges, much of the accountability in British government will be no more than a charade.

For the committees to work effectively, Parliament may have to give them the sort of money and power their equivalents have in Washington. Extra staff would help with independent investigations. Legal counsel permanently attached to each committee could probe witnesses more effectively. In the meantime, however, the select committee charged with oversight of the Civil Service should use the investigation due to start later this month to look closely at the abuses to which the video appears to point. If it finds itself obstructed - as it may - the committee should go straight to the House of Commons for support.