30 April 2012
This week’s evidence at the Leveson inquiry has not been good for News Corp, exemplified by Rupert Murdoch’s concession (if not confession) that there was a cover up of phone hacking. Apparently journalists made more than 2000 requests to intercept the phones of at least 64 prominent people.
But disclosures about the relationship between the Special Adviser to the Minister of Culture – responsible for the BSkyB decision – and News Corp is likely to have more fundamental impact. The Special Adviser promptly resigned regretting that he fed information to a News Corp lobbyist. He admitted flying too close to the Sun! But Jeremy Hunt the Minister, hasn’t (yet?) accepted responsibility for the actions of his staff.
The volume will be turned up on the debate about Ministerial responsibility. Is a Minister deceitful or incompetent when he claims he doesn’t know what his advisers are doing. Some would suggest that resignation is the remedy either way.   But he may have  made misleading statements to Parliament on several occasions. If proven, he will not have  must choice!
The start of the constitutional fallout is an inquiry into the Ministerial responsibility announced in the House of Lords on Thursday. What is the constitutional accountability of the civil service?
Ironically this arises in the year New Zealand celebrates the centenary of the Public Service Act which imposed process for a permanent non political public service in place of the former, politically led, civil service. Our law specifies that departmental chief executives are responsible to the Minister – although the relationship between a chief executives and a select committee may be more ambivalent.  The UK only gave statutory recognition to its civil service in 2010, and the effect on many well recognised conventions is uncertain.
The Constitutional Committee “…will examine the convention of individual ministerial responsibility under which civil servants are responsible to ministers, who in turn are responsible to Parliament. They will also consider the position of civil servants in non-ministerial departments such as HM Revenue and Customs and the Office of Fair Trading, where government ministers do not have day-to-day control.”
What will excite the media more will be the Committee’s consideration of the role of special advisors to Ministers, who are exempt from the duties of other civil servants to act with impartiality and objectivity. These advisors are not appointed on merit, and are seen to exercise increasing influence within government. Is there an inclination by Ministers to revert to the 19th century model?