Officials and Select Committees: General Principles

7 Officials appearing before select committees should be alert to the environment in which they operate, particularly the parliamentary environment. Parliament expects, and is entitled to receive, full and honest answers and evidence from those who appear before its select committees.

8 Public servants serve the Government of the day, within the framework of the law. Public Service chief executives are responsible to the Minister for carrying out the functions of their departments, advising their Minister and other Ministers, and for the general conduct and efficient, effective, and economical management of their Departments (State Sector Act 1988, s 32). Ministers, in turn, are accountable to the House for Government policy and the activity of departments for which they are responsible.

9 Officials appearing before a select committee on behalf of a State sector agency do so in support of Ministerial accountability. They are ultimately answerable to the Minister of the agency, who is in turn accountable to the House for the operations of the agency. Within this accountability framework, the precise relationship between the Minister and the official may vary depending on the type of State sector agency the official works in, and its enabling Act or constitution. 6

10 In the wider State sector, the most regular contact agencies have with committees is for financial reviews, inquiries, and occasionally as submitters on bills. The agency's specific obligations to its Minister may depend partly on its enabling legislation or constitution, and partly on convention. Some agencies may be legally responsible for carrying out the functions and powers, distinct from the Crown. In some cases they may be expressly required to carry out these independently of Ministers (eg, Independent Crown entities). Nevertheless, they are generally accountable to a Minister for their operations and performance.

11 Officials appearing before select committees have an obligation to manage risks and spring no surprises on the Minister. This is the case even when they appear on matters which do not involve Ministerial accountability, such as when they exercise an independent statutory responsibility or appear in a personal capacity.

12 Requests from select committees for officials to provide services, particularly when these fall outside the usual cycle of business between agencies and select committees, should be reported to the Minister, and undertaken only with the Minister's approval.

13 Officials must act responsibly and in good faith in relation to select committees, and answer questions truthfully and to the best of their ability. Officials should assist committees by providing complete and accurate information, although the provision of information may be subject to the restrictions discussed in more detail in paragraphs 24 to 34 below. Information should be provided in accordance with the Official Information Act 1982 principle that information shall be released unless there are good reasons for withholding it. However, the OIA does not formally constrain the powers of the House.

14 Officials are not ultimately responsible for the release of information to select committees - that is the Minister's responsibility. 7 Responsibility for justifying Government policy, explaining how it was developed, or commenting on alternative policy proposals, also ultimately rests with Ministers. Officials should not comment on these issues to a select committee unless they have explicit Ministerial approval to do so, or when making such comment clearly comes within their own specific statutory functions or role. In other circumstances, the committee's leave should be sought to obtain the Minister's permission to comment. If, however, a witness has made previous public statements on matters of Government policy, a committee may expect an answer to a question about such statements.

15 Officials may be called upon to appear before select committees as witnesses (in relation to the Estimates, financial review, petitions or inquiries), or as advisers (the usual position in relation to bills). Ministers expect that when a select committee is seeking the assistance of officials in relation to a bill it should seek them as advisers and not witnesses. Generally speaking, officials should not appear as both witnesses and advisers on the same matter.

16 All officials appearing before a select committee on behalf of a State sector agency must have sufficient experience and knowledge to satisfy the committee's requirements, within the boundaries set by Ministerial accountability, and must be thoroughly prepared for hearings.

17 Departments must also remember that they cannot make a submission on a bill without the specific approval of the Cabinet Legislation Committee. This requirement does not apply when departmental officials provide a report on a bill for which they have been advisers to a select committee. In that situation, officials should advise the Minister in advance of the content of the report. Nor does the requirement apply if an official is acting in a personal capacity (see para 67).

18 Representatives from agencies in the wider State sector who wish (or are invited) to make a submission to a select committee on a bill on behalf of their agency are expected to discuss the matter with their responsible Minister. 8

6 Under s 3 of the Crown Entities Act 2004, for example, accountability relationships "between Crown entities, their board members, their responsible Ministers on behalf of the Crown, and the House of Representatives" are recognised.

7 Note that, in the case of written answers to financial review questions which are addressed to a chairperson or chief executive of an agency, they should be responded to by that person.

8 Cabinet Manual 5.74.

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