Leading article: Whitehall back to bad habits

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The Independent Online
Until recently the present Government had a legitimate claim to be the most open administration since the First World War. Not much of a claim, perhaps. But one of John Major's most attractive instincts had been his wish to move away from that closed, anally-retentive Whitehall culture which, inherited from Labour, Margaret Thatcher made tighter still. Thanks to him, we know more about our secret administration, notably Cabinet committees; the flow of official information has widened and deepened. Even the Treasury now has a home page on the Internet. Most famously, the Prime Minister (perhaps he had little choice) gave Sir Richard Scott generous terms of reference for his investigation of the "arms to Iraq" imbroglio.

But before Sir Richard had got far, the skies above the Major government were clouding over. And since Sir Richard reported, it seems that British government is reverting to its nasty habit of attempting to rule in private. It is as if Sir Richard's report never was. After the Government won in the House of Commons and Sir Nicholas Lyell, William Waldegrave and accomplices escaped censure, the report has been buried. Sir Richard was summoned to answer MPs' questions yesterday. He might legitimately have turned tables and demanded of them: "What changes have you sought in the operations of the state that would guarantee you - legislators, custodians of the public interest - are not again going to be hoodwinked by slippery ministers and their morally unperturbed civil servants?"

Were there really no lessons from Scott for the conduct of government? Where is the committee of current and former permanent secretaries that Sir Robin Butler ought to have convened to consider the report's significance for officialdom? Where are the new Civil Service College courses on ethics, lying and parliamentary accountability? Where, indeed, are the orders and new legislation he recommended, the thoroughgoing reform of export licensing he asks for, the clarification of the legal powers of Customs and Excise, the Whitehall re-engineering he implicitly endorses?

The question is no sooner asked than answered. Do we really expect those MPs questioning Sir Richard to be shining knights of open and more honest governance when they cannot even muster themselves and hold to their own rules on declaring their outside interests? Their own regulator, Sir Gordon Downey, might as well resign, for all his effectiveness. The day a motion of censure condemns David Mellor, Sir Edward Heath and those other paladins of outside earnings, that'll be the day that the House of Commons gives in earnest of its intention to begin the process of parliamentary reform.

And if that is utopian, surely our parliamentarians can stand up against the executive arm of the state on behalf of one group who are among the most vulnerable to abuse of state power: prisoners in jails. Imprisonment, even justified committal to a harsh penal regime, does not rob individuals of elementary rights to care and due process. The Government itself accepted as much when it established, two years ago, the first ombudsman for prisoners. In that role, Sir Peter Woodhead has performed creditably. Yet he is now on the point of resignation because the Home Office and its prison administration obstructs him at every turn.

It is as if government ministers did not understand the meaning of the word "independent" - a notion that they all too ready to bandy around when it suits them. We are told that the regulators of the utilities and the lottery and the railways are independent. Yet it seems that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission works with one eye firmly fixed on its political masters, to second guess their intentions. We are assured that Lord Nolan's strictures on appointments to quangos will be followed because the Government too believes in merit and independence. Yet when the Government appoints ombudsmen, it seems to swiftly and skilfully marginalise them.

An open government has no fear of ombudsmen. It relishes the independence of its appointees. More open government was once one of John Major's proudest boasts. It could yet be a rallying cry for an anti-statist new Conservatism. Mr Major is turning his back on open government. He should look to his laurels.