1 May 2012
The inquiry into Ministerial responsibility (and Ministers’ special advisors) announced last week by the the House of Lords Constitutional Committee should produce some helpful conclusions about the obligations of ministerial advisers in New Zealand.
Questions being asked about Ministerial responsibility include;
  • Is the convention on Ministerial responsibility still appropriate?
  • Do codes of conduct need to change and to be put into statute?
  • What influence, if any, should Ministers be able to exercise over civil service appointments?
  • Should the Civil Service act as a constitutional check on the actions of Ministers?
  • Are there any circumstances where civil servants should be directly accountable to Parliament?
  • Do the rules covering the relationship between civil servants and Select Committees require change?
The focus on special advisors will include questioning
  • the influence special advisors exercise both in theory and in practice
  • the current accountability mechanisms for special advisors
  • the case for increasing the accountability to Parliament for activities of special advisors
The Constitutional Committee will also inquire into accountability mechanisms for non-ministerial departments. The primary example is HM Revenue and Customs, where independence is assured by not appointing a portfolio Minister with day to day control (unlike New Zealand where legislation provides the framework for excluding the Minister from individual cases handled by IRD.) A collateral matter is the resignation of the Chair of HM Revenue and Customs – who has been subject to harsh criticism by the Public Accounts Committee regarding sweetheart deals with large corporates to substantially reduce their tax liability.
Media reports suggest that the Minister of Culture is going to be hung out to dry before the Constitutional Committee meets to explore Ministerial responsibility issues. The former chairman of the BBC Trust has criticised the closeness of the Minister to News Corp. He didn’t think the Minister “…. had a very high regard for his civil servants or a strong belief that a Minister needed to be particularly bounded by the contribution that the civil servants might make. So he did things very personally …”
A pertinent post on the Whitehall Watch blog suggests that civil servants must take some blame for recurring incidents of this type, resulting from deluded mandarins. “… the culture of ‘Whitehall knows best’ is so ingrained in the whole culture of the Civil Service, and the oft repeated claims that we have a ‘Rolls Royce’ Civil Service that is the envy of the world simply reinforces this sense of superiority. This is replicated inside Whitehall with the Treasury seeing itself as inherently superior to everyone else …”
Suggested solutions – a number of which are already in place in New Zealand – include
  • regionalised agencies
  • separating economic development from the Treasury
  • setting up a coordinating Prime Minister’s Office to which Treasury is subordinate
  • requiring broader experience of entrants to the senior civil service
  • increasing the accountability of civil servants to Parliament for policy advice and implementing that policy
  • giving the National Audit Office the role of supporting select committee oversight of value for money issues
  • opening up the public finance process, akin to US practices, to provide truly independent and non-partisan analysis of spending