Letter: How to make ministers and civil servants accountable

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From Mr Andrew Puddephatt

Sir: In the wake of the Scott report, Nicholas Timmins is right to identify the shortcomings of non-statutory codes of conduct governing the conduct of civil servants ("How free can we get with their information?", 19 February). Scott makes it clear that civil servants were party to the deception of Parliament - indeed, to describe answers to Parliamentary Questions as more akin to "an art form than a means of communication", as did one senior civil servant, is an obvious case of deliberate deception by any standards.

The Scott report demonstrates the inadequacy of the doctrine of ministerial accountability to Parliament; in the absence of more formal checks and balances, there is little constraint on power. As well as being a powerful argument for a Freedom of Information Act that places a greater onus on the Government to disclose information it possesses (and which does not allow the withholding of information to avoid political embarrassment), it shows that relying on voluntary codes, on internal systems alone, is not enough. We need a Civil Service Act that places the Civil Service on a statutory basis and makes it accountable to Parliament - and through Parliament to the people of this country. Such an Act could also define more clearly the concept of public interest and protect civil servants' right of conscience, giving them a wholly independent channel of appeal if asked to deceive those to whom they are ultimately accountable.

Yours faithfully,

Andrew Puddephatt


Charter 88

London, EC1

19 February