Foreign Affairs Committee - Eleventh Report
Departmental Annual Report 2010-11 The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 20 March 2012
In our Report, published on 2 February 2011, and produced in the immediate aftermath of the Spending Review, we concluded that the FCO was a “major departmental loser” in the Spending Review and that the spending cuts demanded by the Spending Review had the potential to do serious harm to the FCO’s ability to promote the UK’s interests overseas. This inquiry, dealing chiefly with the immediate implementation of the spending cuts demanded by the Spending Review 2010, indicates that our initial conclusions were correct.
Home Affairs Committee - Twenty-First Report
Work of the UK Border Agency (August-December 2011) The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 27 March 2012.
The Committee has long suggested that the terminology and figures used by the UK Border “Agency” can be, at best, described as confusing and at worst, misleading. It would seem that, on this occasion, even their Chief Executive had difficulty in following the data provided to the Committee. The work of the “Agency” and any discussion on immigration will necessarily involve the use of statistics. It is vital that, when providing, figures, especially to a Committee of the House, that the information is consistent, clear and accurate. The Committee expects this to be the case in future. It is difficult to see how senior management and ministers can be confident that they know what is going on if the “Agency” cannot be precise in the information it provides to this committee. As The Committee has pointed out on a number of occasions, the “Agency” is an integral part of the Home Office and is not a separate “Agency” with separate systems of accountability. This is therefore a matter for the Permanent Secretary, and as well as receiving reports from the head of the “Agency”. The Committee will expect to hear from the Permanent Secretary how she intends to clean up the use of statistics within the Department.
21. Figures provided to the Committee are unclear. The Government response indicates the Case Assurance and Audit Unit is dealing with 17,000 live cases despite having concluded 7,700 of the 18,000 referred to in the “Agency’s” update to the Committee in September 2011. Parliament was originally told that the backlog was a maximum of 450,000 in 2006 yet the numbers given to this Committee suggest that it has now reached 502,000. The “Agency” is providing inconsistent information. The Committee suggests that if the categories within the data differ from those previously supplied to the Committee, an explanation be given in order to avoid any confusion. The “Agency” must rid itself of its bunker mentality and focus on ensuring that Parliament and the public understands its work. Confusion over figures only risks suspicion that the “Agency” is attempting to mislead Parliament and the public over its performance and effectiveness. The only way the Home Office can allay and remove these fears is to clean up and clarify all the figures that are used in these reports.
45. The “Agency” is still losing almost half of the appeals brought against it, despite its previous assertions that a change in the rules regarding evidence would lead to an improvement. It indicates that the “Agency” is not obeying the law or sticking to its own rules, this is unacceptable and systems must be put in place to improve the “Agency’s” appeal figures.
48. The Chief Inspector of the UK Border “Agency” recently found a difference of 50% between the locally-held and centrally-held data on the “Agency’s” representation rate at appeals in Glasgow. The reason for the discrepancy between locally and centrally-recorded figures must be investigated and the Committee requests a full explanation for the difference when the “Agency” next gives evidence.
81. Once again, the UK Border “Agency” were initially obstructive when asked to provide essential information to us, this is unacceptable. Given the criticisms the Committee has made previously about the “Agency’s” refusal to provide information to this Committee and the undertakings by Mr Whiteman to work with us, it is also highly disappointing. The Committee takes our scrutiny of the UK Border “Agency” very seriously and will not be deterred by the “Agency’s” attempt to circumvent our requests for information. It is in the public interest that this “Agency”, charged with implementing the Government’s immigration policy, is held to account by Parliament. When Mr Whiteman first appeared before us, he pledged to be to be transparent and work with us on the basis of trust. We welcome those pledges and look forward to them being fulfilled.
Human Rights Joint Committee - Twenty-Fourth Report
The Justice and Security Green Paper. The published report was ordered by the House of Lords and the House of Commons to be printed 27 March 2012.
45. We welcome the Secretary of State’s reassurance about the intended narrowness of the Green Paper’s application. However, we note that this is clearly a change of position as there is no doubt that the proposals in the Green Paper are very broad in scope. We recommend that the Government now demonstrate their narrower intentions by confining the scope of its proposals to national security-sensitive material, that is, material the disclosure of which carries a real risk of harm to national security.
47. The Green Paper should have been more focused on the narrow and specific reasons for legislative change provided by the ministers in their oral evidence, rather than the much broader proposals it contains.
We reiterate our and our predecessor Committee’s recommendations that legislation to provide for the admissibility of intercept as evidence be brought forward as a matter of urgency.
61. We accept that under the current law it is theoretically possible for there to be some cases in which a fair trial of a civil claim cannot proceed because of the amount of material which cannot be disclosed on Public Interest Immunity grounds.
62. However, we have found it very hard to reach an evidence-based view as to the likelihood of this theoretical possibility materialising, and therefore of the scale of the problem to which this part of the Green Paper is said to be a response.
63. In our view, the hypothetical possibility of Public Interest Immunity preventing the fair determination of an issue clearly exists, but the critical question is whether evidence shows that this is a real, practical problem at all, or one that exists on the scale suggested in the Green Paper, or on a scale sufficiently significant to warrant legislation.
72. After hearing the ministers’ evidence on this question we were therefore inclined to the view that the Government had not demonstrated by reference to evidence that the fairness concern on which it relies in this part of the Green Paper is in fact a real and practical problem. If it were, it seemed to us that the Government ought to be able to identify some examples of actual cases in which it could demonstrate, or at the very least plausibly argue, that it had been forced to settle the case because the PII exercise would result in so much material being withheld that it would be impossible for the Government to defend the case. It seemed to us that, in the absence of such specific evidence, the Government had fallen back on vague predictions about the likelihood of more cases being brought in future in which intelligence material will be relevant, and spurious assertions about the catastrophic consequences of information being wrongly disclosed (spurious because outside of the Norwich Pharmacal context there is no risk of such disclosure because the disclosure cannot be ordered by a court). These do not in our view come anywhere close to the sort of compelling evidence required to demonstrate the strict necessity of introducing Closed Material Procedures in civil proceedings in place of Public Interest Immunity.
80. However, we believe that the special advocates are right to caution against treating the views of the Independent Reviewer, after reviewing the material in the three damages claims, as evidence that the issues in those cases are incapable of being determined at all without resort to a closed material procedure. In our view, that question can only be reliably answered after a full and proper, judicially conducted Public Interest Immunity exercise, in which the balance between the public interest in the administration of justice and the public interest in avoiding harmful disclosure is struck in relation to each piece of evidence, with the possibility of applying to each piece of material one of the range of options which constitute less than full disclosure. We therefore remain of the view that we reached after hearing evidence from the Ministers that the Government has still not demonstrated by reference to evidence that the fairness concern on which it relies in this part of the Green Paper is in fact a real and practical problem.
86. We do not agree with the Government’s claim in its Green Paper that the extension of closed material procedures will enhance procedural fairness. We agree with the evidence of the special advocates that closed material procedures are inherently unfair. We also agree with Lord Kerr in Al Rawi, that evidence which has been insulated from challenge may positively mislead the court.
103. In our view, whether or not closed material procedures are introduced into civil proceedings, there should always be full judicial balancing of the public interests in play, both when deciding the appropriate procedure and when deciding whether a particular piece of evidence should or should not be disclosed. The Government’s position in the Al Rawi litigation was that it should be for the courts to make the determination and the Green Paper does not explain what has changed the Government’s position since that case.
109. For the reasons we have already explained we do not accept that the need to make closed material procedures available in all civil proceedings has been convincingly made out by the Government. Even if we were persuaded of the need, however, we would not be in favour of the model proposed by the Government in the Green Paper.
138. We do not consider that the Government has produced any evidence to demonstrate the need to introduce fundamental changes to the way in which inquests are conducted. There is no evidence of cases in which a coroner’s investigation has been less thorough and effective because sensitive material has had to be excluded, and there appears to be only one case in which a coroner has been unable to conclude the investigation, and that appears to have been due to the inadmissibility of intercept evidence. In our view, the burden of the evidence is clear that coroners have proved resourceful in devising ways of ensuring that full and effective investigations can take place notwithstanding the relevance of sensitive material to central issues in the case.
144. We do not accept that the Government has made out the case for extending closed material procedures to inquests, for the reasons given above. We have serious doubts about whether such a change could be introduced compatibly with the positive obligations on the State in Article 2 ECHR, in particular the requirements that the family will be sufficiently involved and that there be sufficient public scrutiny. Such a fundamental departure from the way in which inquests are currently conducted requires compelling justification. Yet the Government has not produced any evidence to substantiate its claims in the Green Paper that in some cases coroners have concluded that the exclusion of material has left them unable to complete their investigation.
165. The Government says in the Green Paper that it “seeks to find solutions that improve the current arrangements while upholding the Government’s commitment to the rule of law. In our view, a proposal to legislate to make the control principle absolute is not consistent with that commitment.
217. It is regrettable that the Green Paper overlooks the very considerable impact of its proposals on the freedom and ability of the media to report on matters of public interest and concern. This is a serious omission. The role of the media in holding the government to account and upholding the rule of law is a vital aspect of the principle of open justice, as has been amply demonstrated in the decade since 9/11. We are also concerned about the impact of the proposals on public trust and confidence in the courts. We recommend that the Government expressly recognises these considerations in its framework of “key principles” guiding the development of policy in this area. We also expect the human rights memorandum accompanying the forthcoming Bill to include a thorough assessment of its impact on media freedom and on continuing public confidence in the administration of justice.
Public Accounts Committee - Seventy-Eighth Report
The Care Quality Commission: Regulating the quality and safety of health and adult social care The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 12 March 2012.
1. The Department is ultimately responsible for the effective regulation of health and adult social care but has not had a grip on what the Commission has been doing.
2. The Commission has been poorly governed and led
3. The Commission’s role is unclear and it does not measure the quality or impact of its own work
4. The information provided to the public on the quality of care is inadequate and does not engender confidence in the care system.
Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee - Fifty-Eighth Report
Public Bodies Orders and Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules ordered by the House of Lords to be printed 27 March 2012.
THE GOVERNMENT HAS PROVIDED VERY LITTLE EXPLANATION FOR THE CHANGES IN THE EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM; AND THE COMMITTEE NOTES THAT SIGNIFICANT CONCERNS WERE RAISED IN THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY ABOUT SOME OF THE GOVERNMENT’S INITIAL SETTLEMENT PROPOSALS. THREE KEY IMPACT ASSESSMENTS HAVE BEEN PRODUCED IN SUPPORT OF THE PACKAGE OF CHANGES. THESE ESTIMATE A TOTAL COST OF £2,438 MILLION OVER 4 YEARS AS A RESULT OF THE BROADER PACKAGE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDENT CHANGES, A TOTAL COST OF £288 MILLION OVER 10 YEARS AS A RESULT OF THE SKILLED MIGRANT SETTLEMENT CHANGES, AND A TOTAL BENEFIT OF £100 MILLION OVER 10 YEARS AS A RESULT OF THE CHANGES TO YOUTH MOBILITY, TEMPORARY WORKERS AND OVERSEAS DOMESTIC WORKERS ROUTES OF ENTRY.
Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) (Amendment) Order 2012 (SI 2012/646): Correspondence
12. The Committee reported on this instrument in its 57th Report on the basis that the supporting documentation lacked clear information to explain the effect of the changed approach to setting the Local Housing Allowance. The Chairman also wrote to the Minister to ask for an explanation and the relevant information. The Minister has replied and now included an Impact Assessment (the correspondence is published in Appendix 2).
13. The Minister’s letter gave two reasons for the omission:
- first he explains that the information was withheld because they felt that the House had been given sufficient information on this point during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill; and
- second because of the timing, some figures were subject to Budget restrictions and the Impact Assessment was being revised to update it for Royal Assent.
14. In response to the first point the instructions for Explanatory Memoranda are very clear that they should be self-contained. In response to the second, particularly in the light of the Merits Committee’s past interest in the subject, we take the view that the Minister should not have laid the instrument at a time when he knew he could not provide appropriate information.
SOCIAL SECURITY (MISCELLANEOUS AMENDMENTS) REGULATIONS 2012 (SI 2012/757)
19. This instrument is in the main a medley of clarifications and consequential changes, with a few minor amendments to ensure that the original policy intention is maintained, for example on the second chance learning initiative or winter fuel payments. However the “Simple Payments” element (EM paragraphs 7.26-7.31) will remove the option for benefit claimants to be paid by cheque by the end of the year. Claimants will be able to have benefits paid into bank account or obtain them from PayPoint machines using a card and no other option will be available. Although the policy has been in development for some time, its implementation is a significant step which we would expect to have been given greater prominence by the Department.
Public Administration Committee - Twenty-Third Report
Leadership of change: new arrangements for the roles of the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 26 March 2012.
2. We recommended in our Report that “in July 2012 the Government conduct a full review of the working of the Head of the Civil Service position in practice to consider whether a full-time Head of the Civil Service is required to provide the Civil Service with the necessary organisational leadership”. The Government response “acknowledge[s]” our recommendation and states that “how the roles are operating will be kept under review by the Prime Minister” but claims that “six months may be insufficient to fully assess the success of the current arrangements”. The Government does not explain what would be learned by waiting nine or twelve months to conduct a review, that could not be learned after six months. We reiterate our recommendation that the Government should conduct a six-month review of the role. Such a review would be valuable, even as an interim measure.
We suggest that, in the interests of good and transparent government, a discussion with PASC ahead of the decision to divide Sir Gus O’Donnell’s role as Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service would have been beneficial. (paragraph 17)
Public Accounts Committee - Seventy-Sixth Report
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: reducing bureaucracy in further education in England. The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 12 March 2012.
1. There is no clear accountability for reducing bureaucracy in the further education sector
2. Data, funding and assurance requirements on the further education sector could still be better coordinated.
3. Different initiatives to reduce bureaucracy are not managed as a coherent programme with a clear goal.
Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee - Fifty-Seventh Report
Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions (Amendment) Order 2012 Here you can browse the report which was ordered by the House of Lords to be printed 20 March 2012
9. Shelter gave a very full response (attached at Appendix 2) expressing strong opposition to the reform. They take the view that by linking housing benefit to inflation the government is making a fundamental change to the way that it is calculated and argue that CPI is an inappropriate index. They add that as only 20 to 30% of renters claim housing benefit the change in LHA is unlikely to drive down rents in the way DWP anticipate. They state that their own research indicates that homes are already unaffordable for LHA claimants to rent in a third of local authorities and that there has been a 39% increase in the number of families made homeless due to the end of a private rented sector assured short hold tenancy. All of which argues that the consequences of this Order for tenants claiming LHA and on the Local Authorities dealing with them may be substantial. We also find it hard to recognise the moderate and supportive views of stakeholders expressed in DWP’s response compared to the comments we have received from them directly.
10. Given the admirable level of information provided with the instrument that introduced the 30th percentile, the DWP cannot argue that they are unaware of what the House expects in terms of evidence to support a policy proposal. We were surprised at the contrasting lack of material to explain the anticipated effects of the current modification to it. We have written to the Minister about the lack of clear information in the supporting documentation to explain the effect of the changed approach to setting the Local Housing Allowance. In the interim the House may wish to press DWP to provide a clearer statement of the specific effects of this change.
Public Administration Committee - Twenty-Second Report
The Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests: independent or not? Here you can browse the report together with the Proceedings of the Committee. The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 14 March 2012.
Lessons from Fox-Werritty
36. What we find less reasonable is that the independent adviser was apparently cut out of the loop altogether. The level of media and public interest in this case should have made the involvement of the independent adviser, more, not less important. He should at least have been consulted.
44. As PASC recommended in the last Parliament, we again recommend that the independent adviser should be empowered to instigate his own investigations. The Prime Minister could do this on his own initiative, without any need for legislation, but placing the post on a statutory footing would be preferable.
47. We believe there is a strong case for more structured co-ordination of the work of the various regulators of propriety in public life and will consider in our future work how this might best be achieved.
58. The title given to the role we have been considering is the ‘independent adviser on Ministers’ interests’, but the nature of this independence must be in doubt, since:
- the post is in the Prime Minister’s gift;
- the appointment by a closed recruitment process took place without the House or the public even being informed that the previous incumbent had retired or that a new appointment had been made; and
- the new appointee himself had only just retired from a senior role at the heart of Government.
59. The title of the role implies that the independence of the role is a key objective. PASC in the last Parliament recommended a “healthy distance” between the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and the Cabinet Office, and called for the holder to be appointed through a transparent open competition and subject to a pre-appointment hearing by a parliamentary select committee. We view the implementation of these recommendations as essential if this post is to be genuinely ‘independent’ and to inspire public confidence in the enforcement of the Ministerial Code.
60. For the role to be independent, the appointment process was flawed, and so, unfortunately, was the choice of individual to fill that post. Any successful candidate for a post requiring independence from Government must be able to demonstrate that independence. Sir Alex Allan, as a recently retired senior civil servant, was therefore never likely to be an appropriate choice, and his evidence to us did nothing to convince us otherwise. In fairness, it is unlikely that many retiring civil servants will have had the opportunity to demonstrate the necessary independence from government in their career to date.
Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee - Fifty-Sixth Report
Public Bodies Order Here you can browse the report which was ordered by the House of Lords to be printed 13 March 2012.
16. Given the importance of this issue, the Minister may wish to use the debate to set out exactly how the Government will ensure that the newly constituted committee will be able to, in the words of the Code of Practice “expect to operate free of influence from the sponsor department officials or Ministers, and remain clear that their function is wider than simply providing evidence just to support departmental policy.” As part of the Government’s argument for improved accountability and independence of advice hinges on the proposed new Terms of Reference, the Minister may also wish to say whether they have now been agreed in a form that would support this before the draft order is approved.
Treasury - Twenty-Ninth Report
Closing the Tax Gap: HMRC’s record at ensuring tax compliance The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 6 March 2012.
24. HM Treasury has not adequately explained the criteria it used to make decisions about the re-allocation of funds to tax compliance. This makes it very difficult to scrutinise these decisions. HM Treasury should explain more fully how it decided to accept or reject HMRC’s requests for additional funds and how it decided on the allocation of funds between functions.
57. The principle of the UK-Swiss agreement may turn out to be a step forward in reducing opportunities for individuals to avoid tax by concealing assets offshore. However, we are concerned that the rate of tax which will be withheld from anonymous Swiss bank accounts will be lower than the highest rate of income tax payable in the UK, and that the long delay before withholding begins will allow those with Swiss bank accounts to remove their assets before withholding is applied. We recommend that HMRC, when publicising the UK-Swiss tax agreement, explains clearly the reasons for the lower rates of tax being withheld from Swiss bank accounts. If there are to be similar agreements in future with other jurisdictions, the Government should seek agreement for the same effective tax rates that apply to UK taxpayers.