HC Deb 16 November 2001 vol 374 cc1077-125

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

9.33 am
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to set out the Government's policy on the important issue of public bodies, their work and composition, and the challenges that lie ahead. The debate has been initiated by the Government precisely because we are keen to report on the situation to date, enter into dialogue on developments and elaborate on our policies and intentions for the future.

We choose as a society to deliver services to meet the needs of individuals through the collective organisation of government at local, regional and national level. Ministers are ultimately accountable to Parliament and the electorate for the quality and efficiency of service delivery. Yet the processes by which services are delivered have evolved greatly in recent years, and the classic model of direct departmental implementation has been supplemented by a variety of other effective and appropriate organisational systems.

The term "public bodies" covers a wide range of organisations. The quango, or quasi-non-governmental organisation, is now known by the equally illuminating term, NDPB, or non-departmental public body, which perhaps better describes the position of those units in the overall government framework. There are four types of NDPB. Those based on the executive model, of which the Environment Agency is an example, carry out a wide variety of administrative, regulatory and commercial functions, and operate under statutory provisions. They employ their own staff and have responsibility for their own budgets. Advisory public bodies, such as the boundary commissions and the Historic Buildings Council, are generally set up by Ministers to advise on matters within their departmental sphere of interest.

Tribunal NDPBs, such as NHS or employment tribunals, are bodies with jurisdiction in a specialised field of law. Tribunals generally operate under statutory provisions and, independently of the Executive, decide the rights and obligations of private citizens towards a Government Department or other public authority. Finally, boards of visitors, such as prison visitors and visiting committees in Northern Ireland, are also classed as NDPBs.

Not all public bodies fit neatly in one of those four categories—for example, English Nature has both an executive and an advisory function—but the models provide the most comprehensive definition of the wide variety of quangos serving the nation.

The Government are committed to keeping the number of public bodies to a minimum. There are now fewer in the UK than at any time in the past 20 years. As at 31 March 2000, there were 1,035 public bodies in the United Kingdom, with approximately 20 per cent. operating in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland under the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. The total number of public bodies in the UK has fallen by around 10 per cent. since 1997, down from 1,128. I intend shortly to publish the updated figures setting out the position at the end of the last financial year.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I am interested in the Minister's definition because clearly there are many local public bodies, such as governing bodies of schools, which are, as far as I can see, executive bodies. They are non-departmental, public and fulfil all the criteria that he set out, but they do not appear in either of the figures that he quoted.

Mr. Leslie

There are several different classifications of statutory bodies, but the issue is which of them are defined as NDPBs, and I shall elaborate on those classifications. Certainly, there are local statutory bodies with which we all work on a constituency basis and are familiar.

NDPB expenditure was about £24 billion in the last year for which records have been compiled, so these bodies are an extremely important component of the public sector. The vast majority of that sum was programme expenditure: the awarding of grants, legal aid and funding for further and higher education. However, only £18 billion was from the Exchequer, the remainder being raised through a combination of statutory levies and other charges. I shall endeavour to publish greater detail and financial information in the next edition of "Public Bodies", which is published by the Cabinet Office annually.

Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the grant in aid given to NDPBs, and it is right that Parliament should scrutinise, on the Floor of the House and through the Select Committee system, how well that money is spent. Ministers set performance targets to drive forward improvements in the quality of services, and are keen to see policies implemented in the most effective way. The process of review and accountability undertaken by both Houses of Parliament is important and greatly valued.

The Government are keen to ensure that those who sit on the boards of public bodies are appointed on merit. It is also important that public appointments increasingly reflect the composition of the nation as a whole, and that we achieve an equal representation of men and women, and, as closely as possible, a pro rata representation of ethnic minorities and a greater proportion of disabled people. It is also a priority of mine to increase the national diversity of those appointed to public bodies, so that all parts of the country have an equal voice about the public services that they need and expect.

The Government are looking to encourage applications to public bodies from people with the skills and qualities that we seek, but who might not be aware that opportunities exist, or might not at first consider themselves suitable for a place in public life.

Gradual steps are being made in the direction of a more diverse pool of public appointments. Of the 30,000 individuals who serve as board members, 33 per cent. are women and 4.4 per cent. are from an ethnic minority. However, greater effort needs to be made to speed up progress in that respect. In particular, I want greater attention to be paid to appointing disabled people to NDPBs, so I aim for the first time to give more information on those numbers in the next edition of the snappily titled, "Public Bodies 2001". 1 hope that that will establish a baseline from which the Government's commitment to increased participation can be assessed.

It is crucial that people appointed to public bodies should be of the highest quality and the best available for the tasks required. That is why the Government take considerable care in how the posts are filled. Ultimately, appointments are made by Ministers, and Ministers are held accountable for those decisions and for the performance of the bodies concerned.

To ensure that the process is properly carried out in each case, a Commissioner for Public Appointments is now in place to ensure that appointments are made on the basis of merit and in accordance with the code of practice. I pay tribute to Dame Rennie Fritchie, the current Commissioner for Public Appointments, for all her hard work and energy in fulfilling that important role. The code of practice seeks to promote appointment on merit, equal opportunities, probity, openness, transparency and proportionality. The commissioner's efforts have helped to secure an increasingly high quality of individual on the boards of those important organisations.

Once a public body has been established, it is important that Ministers and Parliament continue to monitor and review its performance and structure, and do not regard them as set in concrete. All NDPBs are subject to regular and thorough review every five years, but where it makes sense, that formal review can be brought forward or rescheduled, especially if its results can be linked with simultaneous changes in government. Public bodies do not exist in isolation from the rest of Government, but contribute to wider departmental and governmental objectives, and consequently form a key element of our programme for reform of public services.

In seeking to increase the accountability of NDPBs, the Government are keen for Select Committees to take a more active role in scrutinising the work of larger bodies, and Departments are required to inform the relevant Select Committee when the quinquennial review begins so that its views might inform the process. Fundamentally challenging questions are asked, such as whether the public body is required at all, whether it could be abolished, or whether it should be altered to achieve its objectives more effectively. If, at the first stage of the review, a decision is taken to remain as a non-departmental public body, the review will go on to examine the scope for future improvements, such as how new technology or closer co-operation with the private sector might be incorporated into its work.

I take this opportunity to thank the thousands of individuals who, through appointment to public bodies, give their time serving the public in pursuit of better services. There are some excellent examples of good practice, and I hope that the House will have an opportunity to consider some of them today. Many of the key quangos set up by the Government, such as the Low Pay Unit, the Disability Rights Commission and the new deal taskforce, are a response to specific manifesto commitments.

In my short time at the Cabinet Office, I have worked closely with the Better Regulation Task Force, which provides the Government with independent advice to help ensure that our regulatory programme is necessary, fair and does not impose unreasonable burdens on business and the public sector. To date, it has published 20 substantive reports containing 337 recommendations. Of those, 19 are still under consideration, and all but nine of the remainder have been accepted in whole or in part. That is a classic example of an effective advisory body that makes a significant contribution to the regulatory debate. The best public bodies are those that listen to the needs of the people they serve, and respond swiftly and efficiently.

During the substantive debate on this subject last year, the House spent some time discussing the taskforces set up by the Government since 1997. Taskforces, ad hoc advisory groups and review teams provide independent, expert advice to the Government on a wide range of important issues, including health, education, transport and crime. They are an effective means of securing high-quality advice on matters of public concern.

However, taskforces are not a new phenomenon. Previous Administrations have created their own taskforces and equivalent bodies, but it was this Government who made available for the first time detailed information on the number of such bodies in existence, their remit and membership.

Today, I announce the publication of the first annual report on taskforces, advisory groups and reviews. By producing in the form of an annual report information on details of the composition, names and background of the chair and membership, and dates when those bodies have been wound up, I hope that greater transparency and accountability can be achieved.

The number of taskforces is steadily decreasing. Of the 359 bodies in existence during the last financial year, 12 taskforces have been wound up, 28 reviews have concluded their work, and 86 advisory groups have ceased to exist. A further 22 bodies are due to be terminated imminently.

The House will be familiar with the development of Government agencies, which although not quangos in the traditional sense, are clearly public service bodies that exist outside the classic departmental model. The agency concept came into being in the mid-1980s in a very different political climate, and the next steps reviews have had a major impact on the organisation of the public sector.

The Government now believe that it is a good time to review the work of the agencies at large, both to define best practice and to share it. while recognising some of the difficulties that have been faced—and in some cases still remain—in the agency model. That review is being led by Pam Alexander, the former chief executive of English Heritage, with the support of a small team in the new Office of Public Services Reform.

The review has been designed to make sure that it takes account of the perspectives not just of Departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies, but of service users. It will investigate relationships between Departments, Ministers and agencies, the extent to which operational freedoms have been devolved, and the impact on front-line delivery and innovation. The review puts a strong emphasis on consultation—so far, the review team has carried out 70 visits and meetings. I anticipate that the review will be in a position to report around the turn of the year.

While the existing system of public bodies and public appointments works well, I am keen to develop a number of improvements. First, I want to look at new methods of improving and extending the way in which appointment opportunities are publicised, and raise awareness generally about posts that arise. While specific appointment opportunities are, of course, already publicised in accordance with rules set out by the commissioner, the Government believe that more can be done to broaden the range of applications, so that not only insiders or those with privileged access are aware of potential vacancies in advance. The Cabinet Office will restructure the existing website on which information on public bodies is made available, and that should be launched next year. It must include key facts about public bodies and details of who holds what appointment at present.

Secondly, the Government believe that the development of regional governance will change the terms of debate on the accountability of regional and local quangos. Directly elected regional government would precipitate a review of how those public bodies should be held accountable to new structures, or subject to their scrutiny, and what future relationships might exist. Clearly, those matters are at a very early stage, and although it is too soon to consider specific arrangements, I am determined to promote wider awareness of the regional dimension in the formation of future public bodies. Specifically, I am keen to ensure that the membership of NDPBs increasingly reflects the regional breadth of all parts of the United Kingdom, and that boards and trusts are not dominated by any particular corner of the nation.

Thirdly, the Government must keep a close eye on the proliferation of public bodies, and check the number and growth of quangos. That is often more easily said than done, but it is important for Ministers to send to officials the message that we must always bear down on bureaucracy and layers of organisation where they are superfluous or can be replaced by more efficient and simple structures.

The topic of public bodies may seem dry and esoteric, but beneath the complexity and theory lie practical and relevant questions that are at the heart of public service delivery. Both the Government and Parliament have a duty constantly to scrutinise and improve the public sector, and I sincerely hope that today's debate will contribute to that process.

9.50 am
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

It is my happy duty to congratulate the Minister on his promotion to his ministerial role. As a result of a recent minor reshuffle in the Cabinet Office, he is now in receipt of a ministerial salary. Some of us in opposition were, slightly more belatedly than others, converts to the doctrine of the minimum wage, and perhaps it becomes us to congratulate the Minister on the fact that he is now receiving due remuneration for the task that he has been performing. I am sure that he shares my pleasure at the fact that that change occurred as a result of British Petroleum's benevolence towards the Government. It is a mark of the triumph of new Labour that British Petroleum's happiness with the Government has resulted in not one but two pillars of the new Labour establishment enjoying an increase in their take-home pay.

I must begin with a small apology. I am afraid that a commitment outside the House will require me to be absent for about half an hour from approximately 10.30 am, and I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to the House, particularly if that means that I miss one or two of the speeches that follow mine. I shall of course return as soon as I can.

In his helpful and constructive introduction to the debate, the Minister set out the role of quangos—or non-departmental public bodies as we are now supposed to call them, as he rightly said, although I am not sure that that greatly illuminates matters. However, what does clarify the issue is a series of excellent reports by the Select Committee on Public Administration. I commend to all hon. Members the reports that it produced during this and the previous Parliament, because they contain much useful information.

It is important to stress, as the Minister did, that quangos or NDPBs, however we choose to call them, can fulfil a constructive and valuable role. They can bring into public service a range of independent-minded people, and they can provide greater expertise, wider experience and more flexibility than the hands-on model of Departments in central or local government.

It is important to stress at the outset that no Government are wholly virtuous in their approach to quangos. All of us in opposition mount great campaigns about the evils of quangos. We argue that they must all be put to the sword, and that public service would be advanced greatly if 99 per cent. of them were wiped away. However, when we come to office, we all suddenly find that they are rather convenient and a good model for delivering public service. Before we know where we are, a new set of Ministers is busily appointing members to quangos and creating new ones.

It is perfectly true to say—I volunteer this insight before Labour Members are tempted to challenge me on it—that all Governments are, from time to time, inclined to appoint more of their friends and supporters than their opponents. It is also important to stress that no Government are wholly sinful. All Governments, including the present one, appoint people from a range of backgrounds and political beliefs, and all Governments face the sometimes difficult consequences of appointees, once in place, turning round and biting the hand of those who feed them. That certainly occurred under the Conservative Government, and I suspect one or two people may be wondering how Tom Winsor managed to get appointed by the present Administration.

There have also been some increases in arm's length administration. I am not sure whether the Government would define the increased independence of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee as the creation of a quango, but it has been universally regarded as a success and is supported by my party. That shows that there has been a shift in the way in which we are governed, and we support that. In my view, it is not an indefensible crime for a Government who have received a mandate from the electorate to give power and responsibility to those who share a ministerial commitment to carrying out the policies on which the Government sought election. As ever, it is the detail that can cause problems. Many measures that are sensible in moderation can cause problems if they are carried to excess.

The BBC is an organisation that is listed in the Cabinet Office publication on public bodies. Many of us believe that it is perfectly acceptable for either the chairman or the director general of the BBC to be a known supporter of the governing party, but problems arise when, as now, they are both known to be supporters of the governing party, which is wholly unprecedented, as far as I know.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

The hon. Gentleman has been frank about the Conservative Government's policy of putting Conservative party placemen and placewomen into quangos because they had a mandate from the electorate. During the 1980s, the Conservative party never had a mandate to govern Scotland. Did not its enthusiasm for putting Conservative party spokesmen on health boards and various quangos in Scotland lead to its present position, with only one Conservative MP out of 72?

Mr. Collins

I am grateful for that invitation to comment on the existence of a mandate in Scotland. I was under the impression that the Labour party at senior level, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had said that theirs is the party of the Union in Scotland. If there is a Union and a United Kingdom, it follows that the mandate applied to this place and to Ministers answerable to it is a mandate across the entire United Kingdom. That is the mandate that Conservative Governments received between 1979 and 1997, and it is the mandate that Labour Governments have received since 1997. I could point out that in Westmorland and Lonsdale the Labour party received 10 per cent. of the vote, yet I do not question its right to take decisions at Executive level that affect my constituents. I invite the hon. Gentleman to be a little more careful before arguing that the Government do not have a mandate in certain parts of the United Kingdom.

We all understand that Prime Ministers have the right to make appointments to the House of Lords, but some of us would question the present position, as almost a third of its Members have been appointed by the incumbent Prime Minister.

It is important to examine the trend of quangos. The Minister, with characteristic charm, attempted to convince the House that the number of quangos is falling. I think he said that it is the lowest number for 20 years. The impression was created that the quango state—if that is the phrase—is in retreat, that the virtuous armies of new Labour are vanquishing quangos even as we speak, and that if we give the present Administration a few more years, the role of quangos will be far smaller than ever before.

That is not the view taken by the Local Government Information Unit, which in the past 15 or 20 years has not been renowned for being a front for the Conservative party, as I suspect Labour Members recognise. It has recently produced a study called "The Advance of the Quango State", which refers to the fact that since 1997 new quangos have been created to lead, and police, national policy initiatives in almost every policy area. It says that Ministers are adding a wide range of indeterminate appointed and self-appointed bodies right across the field.

If we are to make the numbers comparison, it is important to note that even the Government's document "Public Bodies 2000" recognises that there was a sharp reduction in the number of people who work for quangos, or NDPBs, during the Conservative years. In 1979, 217,000 people worked for quangos, and that was reduced almost every year after 1979. There was a small blip in the 1980s.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Jobs everywhere were being reduced.

Mr. Collins

The hon. Lady says that there were reductions across the board. Indeed, there were reductions in the numbers of bureaucrats and others working for the state. That was one of our commitments in every election from 1979 onwards, and I am delighted that, as the hon. Lady accurately points out, we kept that commitment.

As I was saying, the total number of public servants working for quangos was reduced from 217.000 in 1979 to 106,000 in 1997, a reduction of more than 50 per cent. Since 1997, the number has gone up to 112,000, which is about a 5 per cent. rise. The trend has therefore not only halted but been reversed.

Fiona Mactaggart

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood my point, which was that, while his party was in government, employment of every kind reduced. Since Labour has been in government, employment in all fields has increased. Do not the figures that he has cited reflect that, rather than some ideological difference?

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who as ever makes a delightful contribution to our debates. I think that she will find that she is wrong. It would be true to say, had she wished to make the point, that unemployment was higher in 1997 than in 1979, but employment was also higher in 1997 than in 1979. Far from employment in all sectors having increased since the present Government came to power, employment in manufacturing has fallen by 112,000 and is in free fall, so I caution Labour Members not to go down that particular route.

It is important to stress that the Minister made a welcome announcement that there would now be an annual report on taskforces, but we learn from the Select Committee reports that about 303 taskforces exist. I think he said that a couple of dozen are being wound up. It would be helpful to know whether he will be able to give the House an undertaking that fewer taskforces will be set up in the second Parliament of the present Administration than in the first, when a very large number were established.

Mr. Tom Harris

I shall try to restrict my interventions. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is now the policy of the Conservative party not to set up any new taskforces if it wins the next general election?

Mr. Collins

I am always delighted to have a conversation with Labour Members about what we will do when we return to power. but in common with most Oppositions in the first six months of a Parliament—it was certainly a characteristic of the Labour party when it was in opposition for four Parliaments in a row—we do not enter into firm policy commitments this early. All those things are being considered by our policy review, but I take his submission to that policy review in the constructive spirit in which it is offered, and it will be given due consideration in time.

I wanted to put some specific questions to the Minister. He referred to the document "Public Bodies". As he knows, that was most recently published in December last year. I am sure that he will know that a number of hon. Members would have found it helpful if it had been possible for the 2001 edition to be published before, rather than after, this debate. It would be useful if, in the discussions that he has with the Government business managers, it could be suggested that it would help if such a debate took place after, rather than before, publication of the annual report.

Has the Minister a view yet on the format of that document? He will remember that some two years ago in its sixth report the Select Committee on Public Administration said: We recommend that the Government brings together information about the range of organisations carrying out its policy in a single directory, combining the information given at present in "Public Bodies" with other, summary information about departmental roles... Such a digest could replace "Public Bodies", and be published in tandem with the Government's annual report. We all know what has happened to the Government's annual report. It became such an embarrassment that it appears to have been buried without trace. None the less, it would be helpful if the Minister indicated whether he thinks that, from now on, perhaps for this or next year's edition, "Public Bodies" can be modified in the way the Select Committee recommended, to become something nearer the map of the quango state for which it described the need.

It would also be helpful to learn the Minister's thinking on the Select Committee's recommendation that there should be some form of confirmation hearings, although not necessarily on exactly the model in the United States. It recommended that, for the most senior appointments to the most powerful and independent-minded of non-departmental public bodies, there should be the possibility at least for the relevant departmental Select Committee to have a hearing at which the Minister's nominee appeared before their formal appointment.

It would be helpful to know whether the Government have reached a settled view on that recommendation, just as it would he to know what the Minister makes of the Committee's recommendation, which seems quite sensible, that there may need to be clear, universally applicable guidelines on when a function should be implemented by a quango and when it should be implemented by either central or local government. We all understand that there must be some flexibility at the margin. However, there seems to be some confusion about whether a function should automatically be best implemented through an NDPB or through an elected tier of government.

I had an exchange with the Minister earlier about the number of taskforces and whether there would be fewer of them in this Parliament than in the previous one. Does he specifically accept the recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that taskforces should last for a maximum of two years? He will recall that the Committee reached that conclusion because it was said that taskforces should not be counted in the total number of NDPBs since they were temporary structures. The Committee thought that a temporary structure should by definition wind itself up within two years. Is that the Government's view? If not, many of us say that at least a number of those 300 or so taskforces should be counted as quangos and as a bit more than temporary.

On a slightly more constructive and less challenging note to the Minister, may I say how strongly I welcome what he said about wishing to see more people with disabilities appointed to public bodies of all sorts? I am a strong supporter of the creation of the Disability Rights Commission. Before Labour Members come to it, I am well aware that that was not the view of the last Conservative Government, but I think that the present Government were right to establish the commission. Their view on that has been entirely vindicated by events.

The commission has conducted itself admirably. I hope that the Minister will feel that he can take advice where appropriate from the commission on how best to take forward his strong commitment that there should be a greater number and diversity of people with disabilities on a range of public bodies.

I endorse what the Minister said about the many people who work very hard, either as board members or as employees for public bodies. We should recognise that public service can take a range of different forms, and we are very lucky in this country in the quality of many our public servants. None of them, any more us, is perfect, but they work extremely hard. Many of them do so not for a huge amount of money but with a strong commitment to their community. That should be welcomed.

As we have established, there is a valuable, long-term role for quangos, but there are a number of principles that it would be helpful to establish in relation to their running and the way they are organised. The first is greater openness about who is appointed to run them, how those people are appointed, and what and when decisions are taken.

The Minister outlined various ways in which the Government hoped to take that forward. He did not say much about the idea of having at least some meetings of the boards in public. We all understand that some discussions of commercial and other sensitivities cannot take place in public, but it would be helpful for the Government to say that, unless there are reasons to the contrary, it is useful to have meetings at least from time to time in public.

We need to know whether there will be a strong view about the auditing of those public bodies. The Select Committee recommended that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee should have a greater role in auditing them. There seems to be a strong case for that. Again, that cannot apply in all circumstances, but as the Minister said, according to the most recent available figures, about £24 billion is spent by these public bodies, of which about £18 billion comes from central Government; the other sums come from fees and other charges that they levy. A large sum of public money is involved. It would be useful if the principle were established that the National Audit Office should have a wide rather than a narrow remit.

It is important that we put down a marker as a Parliament that arm's length relationships have a valuable role and that virtues can come out of them, but I am not a fan of the proposition that distancing Ministers, parliamentarians and politicians from accountability for decisions is always and invariably a good thing. Often, people will say that it is important that political considerations should be taken out of a particular decision-making process, when what they are really saying is that under no circumstances should the electorate be listened to. That is a dangerous principle.

All of us—I suspect that this is true of Labour Members too—when out of office, and sometimes when in office, may, in criticising the other side, have contributed to the creation of a climate in which the process of election has resulted in some people thinking that those who are elected are disqualified from making decisions, rather than qualified to do so. That is dangerous.

Mr. Andrew Turner

Is that not especially conspicuous when judges enter into the making of law, superseding the decisions of Members and the Government? That extends to decisions about the Home Secretary's powers in respect of sentencing.

Mr. Collins

I agree, but I will not go far down that route, as I suspect I would be rebuked by the Chair if I did. I merely say that the Home Secretary's remarks about the need for the primacy of Parliament and elected politicians in that respect are admirable, and that I hope they will be translated into action.

Consequently, I am afraid I do not agree with the recent conclusions of The Democratic Audit, a body that has conducted otherwise very useful research: Ministers and Parliament provide only a narrow, though valuably focused, route for accountability". That comes dangerously close to being rather patronising about the role of the House. I feel that Ministers and Parliament should be the primary focus of accountability in the case of non-departmental public bodies. As the supreme elected body in these islands, the House should make it clear, on a collective basis, that nothing less than primacy of accountability will do. There may be other forums in which accountability can be exercised, but public bodies in the United Kingdom must be principally and primarily accountable to Ministers and, through Ministers, to Parliament.

My party has made it clear, both before and since the last election, that we are interested in the development of a range of means to strengthen the role, prestige and powers of this place. I very much hope that greater control of NDPBs, and a greater sense of their accountability to the House and its Committees, will form part of that agenda. I also hope that it will be possible to build some cross-party consensus on that.

I agree with the Minister about the role of public bodies, although I would tweak him slightly for one or two of the appointments that the Government have made. I hope that many of those involved in such bodies will interpret what is said today as both a strong indication of parliamentary support for their hard work and public service, and as a demonstration of the strong feeling on— I hope—both sides of the House that they should regard themselves principally and primarily as being accountable to this place.

10.13 am
Mr. David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), and noted particularly his acknowledgement of the work of the Public Administration Committee. I shall return to that later.

This is my first opportunity to speak in the House, and I am especially pleased to be able to do so on a subject in which I claim a special interest, dry though some may think it.

Before I came to the House, much of my working life was spent with public bodies. I spent more than 25 years in local government, for example. I want to make some comments about the Minister's speech, which I welcomed, but first—according to the tradition of maiden speakers—I want to pay tribute to my predecessors in Ashton-under-Lyne.

That is not as straightforward as it may appear, because the constituency boundaries have been revised in every review that has taken place in modern times. From time to time, parts of the constituency have lain in the former constituencies of Manchester, Openshaw and Oldham, West. Among my illustrious predecessors are Charles Morris and, indeed, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who represented a third of my constituency for many years.

Since a by-election immediately after the war, however, the core of the Ashton-under-Lyne constituency has been served by just two Members—two men who, while being very different characters, had in common a passionate dedication to their constituents and the communities that they represented. Hervey Rhodes, later Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth, is still remembered with great affection and gratitude by many of my elderly constituents. His political work at local, regional and national level continued for many years after his retirement from the House.

I want to pay special tribute to my immediate predecessor, Robert Sheldon, now Lord Sheldon of Ashton-under-Lyne. Bob Sheldon achieved that distinction so rare among politicians: he was acknowledged as a true statesman. Although he achieved ministerial rank in the 1970s, his true potential, which was to rise to the highest ministerial office, was not to be realised as his prime years were spent in opposition. Nevertheless, his contribution has been enormous, most notably his chairmanship for many years of the Public Accounts Committee. Under his wise leadership, the Committee came to be the most powerful and respected in the House. I understand that in his day a summons from the Committee was enough to strike fear in to the heart of the wiliest Sir Humphrey. Indeed, it still is.

In more recent times, Bob's leadership and wisdom found another valued outlet in the work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which he led through some difficult encounters. His resilience and determination were proved again only last year. when he brushed aside the effects of a serious heart attack to make an amazing and rapid recovery after his life was saved in a famous incident. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was provided by none other than Olympic champion Duncan Goodhew. If you are going to collapse in the street with a heart attack, you need a very powerful pair of lungs to resuscitate you. Bob was certainly extremely lucky that day.

My fondest memories of Bob, however, will always be memories of his role as a hard-working constituency Member. The support and wise counsel that he has offered me in recent times has stood me in good stead as I have tackled the massive task of trying to emulate his achievements for his constituents.

I still receive letters from my constituents addressed to Bob, usually thanking him for the solving of some past problem and seeking his help with a new one—and, embarrassingly for me, confirming their undying support for him as their Member of Parliament, reassuring him that they voted for him in the last election, and promising to vote for him again in the next. Too often, I have had the unenviable task of explaining that Bob is no longer the MP, and that I am the unworthy replacement. The usual response, in the honest but dour Ashton style, is "Well, lad, if you do half as well as Bob Sheldon you'll do for me."

The fact that he commanded the undying and universal respect of his former constituents is the best tribute that could be paid to Lord Sheldon. He will indeed be a hard act to follow.

The Ashton-under-Lyne constituency has existed in its present form only since 1997, and Ashton-under-Lyne itself does not in fact lie at the heart of my constituency. The core of it, four to six miles from inner-city Manchester, is—surprisingly—open countryside, farmland and country parkland built around the Medlock valley. Historic Daisy Nook was made famous by local dialect poet Ben Brierley, and immortalised by L. S. Lowry in one of his finest paintings, depicting the Easter fair—which is still going strong after many generations.

Daisy Nook is part of Failsworth, my home town where I am proud to have lived for more than 30 years and brought up my family. The town is having something of an identity crisis. For nearly 100 years, it was a proudly independent urban district; then local government reorganisation placed it in the new metropolitan borough of Oldham. Despite that, the GPO has steadfastly refused to change Failsworth's postal address from Manchester. The boundary commission's decision to place Failsworth in the Ashton-under-Lyne constituency added to the confusion, and has caused much consternation locally.

Change is on the way, however. Thanks to a millennium lottery grant, the trans-Pennine Rochdale canal is being restored to full navigation, more than 50 years after falling into disuse. It has the potential to turn Failsworth, with its long-awaited new district centre, into a tourist mecca.

There are many fine schools in my constituency, but I am particularly proud to be associated with Failsworth school, nowadays a sports college and a magnificent community asset. A huge and growing range of sporting facilities are available there, not just for the students but for the benefit of the whole community. In fact, my first public duty as a newly elected MP was to open the college's new tennis courts.

The adjacent township of Hollinwood has suffered greatly in the past 20 years from the effects of blight, as the community awaited the go-ahead for the construction of the Manchester outer ring road. Despite that, Hollinwood has seen much innovation, with the huge Limehurst estate being one of the first in the country to be placed in the hands of a tenant-led management team. Investment in refurbishing homes and the rest of the built environment has transformed the quality of people's lives.

Limehurst school, re-built on a new site thanks to an imaginative local authority initiative, has been transformed and has now achieved beacon status. It is giving local youngsters a sound start in life. The area is also benefiting from a thriving sure start scheme, and the single regeneration budget has enabled the building of a new district centre. Hopes are high that a new community centre is on the way, too.

A metrolink—a light rapid transit line—is due to pass through Failsworth and Hollinwood, and construction should get under way in the next couple of years. That will boost the quality of our public transport and holds the promise of our achieving a truly integrated local transport network.

Above all else, we have the M60—the Manchester outer ring road—which was completed just over a year ago. Completion was at least 20 years behind schedule, but the motorway for the first time links disparate parts of my constituency. Failsworth and Hollinwood are now within easy reach of Droylsden and Ashton-under-Lyne. Although there has been a slow start, hopes are high locally that that vital link to the national motorway network will bring with it the industry, jobs and economic prosperity for which local people have waited for far too long. Local authorities, the business community and development agencies are making a tremendous effort to ensure that we seize such opportunities.

Droylsden, too, is to benefit from a metrolink line, which will run from Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne. Droylsden is another proudly independent community, sitting astride the Ashton canal, with a bustling shopping centre and market. The township is to benefit soon from a new sports and leisure centre, which should give a new focus for youth activity. Droylsden is blessed with many excellent voluntary youth organisations. For example, only last week, I was privileged to attend the annual meeting of the Droylsden branch of the Air Cadets to present awards to some high-achieving young people. Such representatives of that generation give me great hope for the future.

This Cook's tour of my constituency ends with Ashton-under-Lyne itself. The heart of the town surrounds the famous traditional marketplace, with its daily indoor and outdoor markets drawing visitors from across the north-west. The newly extended shopping precinct makes Ashton the key retail destination in Tameside and east Manchester.

Ashton has also felt the benefits of canal restoration. Ashton canal, with its link to the Peak forest, has formed a section of the Cheshire ring for many years. With the restored Huddersfield narrow canal and one of the finest and most successful museums at the Portland basin where the canals converge, we have a fine resource, where young people can learn about a proud but often harsh industrial history and older folk can enjoy a nostalgic day out.

Some tremendous work is being carried out by the Ashton renewal team—a fine example of partnership that is helping to revitalise the urban core of the town. At one extreme, there is some ambitious house clearance and rebuilding, although some of the most impressive work is on a much smaller scale. For example, the alley gating scheme is transforming the quality of people's lives by creating a secure environment around their homes. Such work has revived a once flagging community spirit.

As a Member whose constituency straddles the adjacent boroughs of Oldham and Tameside, I cannot avoid mention of the violent events that have troubled us in recent times. I do not want to go into detail, but the outcome of the independent review is awaited with interest. It will be vital that its recommendations are given serious consideration by local, regional and national agencies and Government. Above all else, it is vital that all people of good will give a clear lead in rejecting and countering the malignant efforts of extremist groups and individuals wherever they try to stoke the fires of race hatred.

My constituency has a rich ethnic mix. For many generations, people from all over the world have put down roots in Oldham and Tameside. The Muslim people of Ashton are here to stay, and their contribution to a culturally and socially diverse community is to be celebrated and valued. Those in the Indian community of Ashton have worked hard to play an active and constructive role in civic life. It was a great pleasure to play a small part in opening their magnificent new community centre recently.

I hope that it is apparent that I am very proud of my constituency. We stand on the brink of real opportunities to boost the life chances of local people. Much has been done in recent years, but we still need better housing, better education, better health care, better transport and less crime and disorder. The people of my constituency need good-quality, well-paid jobs and a decent income in retirement. Working towards those goals will be my priority in the years ahead.

I should like to turn briefly to the subject under debate. In the spirit of a maiden speech, I shall avoid controversial comment. I should declare an interest as a new and still greenhorn member of the Public Administration Committee. I am a member by choice; public administration is something I know a little of, if only as a result of many years' employment and active trade unionism in the public sector.

I know that the matter of quangos and public bodies has occupied the Committee greatly in recent years, and has resulted in comprehensive recommendations on their composition, scrutiny and accountability. I am pleased that reference has been made to the work of the Committee and its important role and contribution. I particularly look forward to reading the report on the work of the taskforces. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will share my wish and that of the Chairman and members of the Select Committee that its recommendations should continue to inform and help to shape Government policy in this important area.

10.26 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) on his maiden speech. He spoke passionately about his predecessor. I was amused by his comments; I am sure that letters will be addressed to him in the years ahead. He also spoke passionately about his constituency. It seems an enormously diverse area and I am deeply envious of its leisure and transport initiatives. Many things are happening in the hon. Gentleman's area. I only hope that he breaks the tradition and avoids a boundary review.

I welcome the fact that we are debating public bodies, because there is genuine concern about their role. We have heard from the Minister and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), the Conservative spokesman, about debates on the increase in their number, although there is no doubt that they represent a large part of the work of government. A considerable amount of money is spent by public bodies—£24 million—but mystery surrounds much of their work.

All Governments want to demonstrate that they are controlling the growth of public bodies, and we heard an interesting exchange between Conservative and Labour spokesmen each trying to demonstrate that they are more determined than the other to control such growth. We should put it on record, however, that the present Government have gone some way in tackling the issue. Although there are still many weaknesses in the system, posts such as the Commissioner for Public Appointments are helping to provide more information about what goes on in public bodies and to oversee some of the appointments and the concerns that many of us share.

I shall set aside some of the detail to raise a general concern about public bodies and the way in which the Government are able to engage the public and explain the work done. More than ever before, there is apathy about the Government and public bodies, a misunderstanding of their activities and a disengagement of the public from Government and the mechanisms by which they deliver services to ordinary people. The election saw the lowest turnout for many years. Although I am pleased to say that the highest turnout was in my constituency, the figure was down there, too.

As a result of such disengagement and misunderstanding, the public do not seem to want to get involved in either the process of electing politicians to take decisions on expenditure or the various local or national organisations in which they could have a direct say about how public money is spent.

In many cases, the honest truth is that all three parties have a battle in finding individuals to stand for local elections. There is a similar battle in many public bodies, particularly local ones. On most of the occasions on which I have seen the work of public bodies at meetings in the regions and communities, just a handful of members of the public have been present in the village hall, and not all that engaged in the process. I am not suggesting that the way in which public bodies operate is completely to blame, but I should like the Minister to step back from the detailed initiatives that he has talked about today and let us know the Government's thinking about our use of public bodies. We should think about them in a radical way and reform them so that they can bridge the disengagement between Westminster and local communities. They have an important role to play.

I spent last night and last Thursday night in discussion with my constituents. Last Thursday, 350 people turned up to discuss noise on a motorway and last night about 200 people turned up to discuss the impact of mobile phone masts. We know that when people get involved in issues, they want to join the debate and have a say in what affects them. We need to bridge the gap so that people recognise the need to get involved in the public bodies and organisations that set the agenda that affects how much noise there is on motorways and where mobile phone masts are sited. There is a gap between people's interest in issues that affect them and their willingness to get involved in the agencies that may help them address those issues. The Government need to tackle that problem.

Having engaged people in some of those bodies, we need to consider the lack of representation. I was pleased to hear that the Minister is determined that people on public bodies should reflect the make-up of society, but it is hard to find good people to get involved in the process. Of course, some positions are sought after and there have been concerns about certain political appointments.

I welcome the work of the Public Administration Committee, of which the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is a member. I was a member of that Committee previously and its Chairman is passionately committed to tackling these issues. I also welcome the work of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in trying to make sure that sought-after appointments are made on merit rather than on the basis of favouritism. However, in her most recent report, the commissioner said that there had been an increase of 4.2 per cent. in the number of those appointed who had declared some form of political activity. I would welcome the Minister's view on that. It may be a blip; it may not mean that there has been an increase in political appointments, but I am concerned that the figure has increased from 14.8 per cent. to 19 per cent.

Mr. Tom Harris

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, rather than suspecting some evil conspiracy behind the figures, we should consider whether the Government have not done what all Governments do and simply appointed people who are willing to serve on these bodies? More often than not, those people already have an interest in public service, which usually means that they are engaged in some form of political activity. Perhaps what happens has more to do with playing to people's strengths and interests than with some kind of political conspiracy.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. We need to expand the process so that it does not always involve the same group of people but includes individuals who are not necessarily involved in politics. The hon. Gentleman's point has held good for a number of years, but I am concerned with the increase in the past year. It is a small increase, but it is worth the Minister commenting on it.

I am also concerned about the role of women in public bodies. The Minister rightly said that 33 per cent. of public bodies include women, but that figure has not changed since the Labour Government were elected. It is a pity that progress has not been as fast as we all would have liked it to be. In fact, some Departments which are involved in nominations have seen a decrease in the number of women appointed. The Treasury and the former Department of Social Security have reported such decreases. The latter has had to reduce its targets, and that is disappointing. I would welcome the Minister's view on how we can turn things around.

The Minister and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned the inclusion of disabled people. The Select Committee reported a slight dip in the number of disabled people appointed to public bodies. Similarly there has been a dip in the appointment of people from ethnic minorities.

Two other barriers to achieving the Minister's aim of getting a broad range of individuals on to these bodies have not been mentioned this morning. The first is the lack of involvement of young people. The Minister is a shining example, as he has achieved a great deal at a young age. I think I am correct in saying that he is the youngest Minister in the Government. However, young people are not getting involved in public bodies. It is difficult to make that a target and I accept that it is not one of the Government's indicators, but I hope that the Minister will give some thought to how we can encourage more people under 40 to get involved. Perhaps because of the time commitment involved or the times at which public bodies meet, the tendency is for individuals to become involved when they are in their 50s and 60s, have already brought up their families and do not have pressing commitments. If public bodies are to be representative, particularly given the decisions that some of them take, it would be good to get some younger people involved.

Perhaps it is more controversial to say that most public bodies involve middle-class professional people. If we really want to include a more diverse range of people, we should encourage people from different professional networks. In a sense this picks up on the point that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made in his intervention. We have to look at how people get involved in these organisations. We are part of a cosy network. That may be because we are politicians or because of our professional lives. That is where the chats take place and people say, "There is a position coming up. Would you be interested?" As long as that is how appointments are made, we will continue to exclude people from other parts of society. I do not know whether we can change that by looking at how positions are advertised. If the proposed solution is to advertise in The Guardian, it will not be good enough. We need to go out and seek good people who are getting involved in issues on estates and in communities and persuade them to step up their activities. We need to give them financial support so that they can get involved in public bodies.

My next concern relates to the lack of accountability in public bodies. The Public Administration Committee reported that 95 per cent. of non-departmental public bodies were under no requirement to produce an annual report. I find that as bizarre as the fact that Members of Parliament are not required to produce annual reports. Perhaps it is hypocritical of us to criticise other organisations. I produce an annual report and I believe that there should be a requirement for all hon. Members to do the same. However, the fact that 95 per cent. of public bodies do not produce an annual report cannot be contributing to accountability or explaining the work that they do.

Only 1.8 per cent. of advisory quangos release the minutes of their meetings. Although I quite understand why some of them may not want to do that, what is stopping such organisations as the Sustainable Development Education Panel, the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee making the minutes of their meetings accessible? Perhaps the Minister could comment, as I believe that there is a need for action and for a requirement on those organisations.

My final concern relates to the Government's ability to slow down the increase in the number of public bodies. I have no doubt that nearly all of them are set up with good intentions. When an issue needs tackling, the Government nearly always respond by setting something up. The Government and the nanny state rarely step back and do nothing. That is the nature of politics. It is also the nature of politics that responding to a situation often involves bringing expert advisers in to help. There is nothing wrong with that, but we need to make more progress in trying to analyse whether we need all the bodies that exist. With so many bodies in place, how can they co-ordinate among themselves? There must be crossover, and the more non-government bodies there are, the more likely it is that the Government's ability to achieve joined-up government will be hampered.

Worse still, there has been a growth in the number of bodies being set up which fall outside the remit of this debate—organisations that are not described as public bodies or quangos. Appointments are being made, particularly by the Cabinet Office, to taskforces, ad hoc advisory groups and internal reviews. My concern is that these bodies fall outside our remit. They are described as temporary bodies, which means that they do not have to fall within the commissioner's remit. Of the 300 or so that exist, 52 have been in operation for more than the two-year limit that is recommended for a body to be regarded as temporary.

The Neill Committee said that after two years the Government should decide whether a temporary body is to be abolished or turned into a permanent organisation that would fall under the commissioner's remit and be included in the figures that the Minister gave. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can specifically address that concern and give a commitment to review the status of those 52 organisations so that they can either be abolished or can fall within the remit of the Neill Committee.

I welcome the debate. The Minister has been open about his ideas for making progress on this issue. I have raised specific concerns about the ability to include quangos in the figures and the importance of accountability. We can tweak the figures, but unless we tackle the problem of apathy in public engagement and find a way in which public bodies can engage with the public, the subject will remain mysterious, which does nothing to make the Government more accountable to the people whom we represent.

10.41 am
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I begin with an apology. I may have to leave before the final speeches because of constituency commitments, some of which I have cancelled because I am keen to participate in the debate.

Much can be said about the work of public bodies, but I intend to address a narrow point. Sport is a classic example of British administration in which independent public bodies are charged with implementing policy. What exercises me is how Ministers can deliver what is expected of them. We have not yet squared that circle.

I am concerned about appointments to public bodies. I want to consider whether the system of appointments is satisfactory and whether all sections of the community are properly included. The answer, as the Minister admitted, is not yet. Things are not improving, which is of great public concern. Although it is clear from his welcome remarks that efforts are being made to improve the system, my report on the work that is being done is that things are not good enough yet. I hope that we do better.

The Minister said that 33 per cent. of appointments to public bodies have been women, but Dame Rennie Fritchie's report makes it clear that this year there has been a decrease—admittedly marginal—in the number of female appointments, from 39 to 38 per cent. Although there has been a marginal increase in the number of women who chair bodies, there has also been a slight decrease in the number of appointments of people from ethnic minorities and a small decrease in the number of appointments of young people and disabled people. The record reflects a marginal backwards movement in our attempts to ensure that people are properly represented on public bodies. I expect better under a Labour Government. There is a will to do better, and we need to focus on how we can deliver on it in practice.

There are lessons to be learned. It will not surprise anyone who is interested in equal opportunities that although there has been a marginal increase in women chairs, the bodies with the most impact are dominated by men. For example, those executive non-departmental public bodies that pay more than £50,000 have a ratio of men to women of 6:1; for those that pay between £20,000 and £50,000, it is 4.5:1; and for those that pay between £10,000 and £19,000, it is 4:1. It is only in the lowest paid bodies that women are in a majority.

There is a problem with the level of authority and appointments, but what can we do about it? We need to address how people navigate their way into such appointments at any level, from local governing bodies—many people start on school governing bodies—to a dynamic executive NDPB. Finding a road in—the initial navigation—confuses most people. There are welcome initiatives, such as mentoring and shadowing schemes and the public service week, but I have the strong impression that the main route in for most people is via a network of which they are a part.

We know that such networks reproduce themselves. That is their nature. There is an urgent need to construct different types of networks. Public appointments reproduce a middle-aged-plus, middle-class, white male network. The Government's first job is to put substantial energy into creating different networks. We do not want one network to provide the motorway into public appointments. In addition to alleyways, byways and country lanes, we need to create different networks in every Department, to link and plug into voluntary action in communities and in those networks that are led by people who do not represent the classic appointees.

The network may provide a route to a system, but we need to confront the criteria that are used to determine many appointments. Every Department should be required to conduct an equality audit of the criteria that they use for public appointment. In my experience, such an audit can radically transform the types of people who are appointed. For example, a proper criterion for making an appointment to a body that deals with health or education should be experience of using those services. A person may not have extensive boardroom experience, but extensive experience at the school gate should allow him or her to match the criteria and be appointed.

Mr. Andrew Turner

I sympathise with the hon. Lady's argument, especially in relation to people who are not used to sitting on committees and have not absorbed the committee culture. What concerns me is that having got on to the committee, they find the culture so hostile that it is impossible for them to make their point.

Fiona Mactaggart

That is an admission of failure on the part of our public bodies. We also need to audit properly the practices of those bodies that silence voices. I remember vividly being a very young member—it was a long time ago—of the governing body of a further education college. In those days, I did not have the confidence to call any of the other members by their first names. I called them Mr. So-and-so and Mrs. So-and-so, but they all called each other by their first names. Because I was so much younger, I did not feel that I had the authority to do that. It took courage—hon. Members will know that I am not short of that—to bust through that feeling and challenge a culture that, accidentally, had excluded me by its way of working.

As well as experience of public services, another appropriate addition to the appointment criteria might be commitment to a public service ethos. Many women and members of the ethnic minorities are or have been employed in the public service, but that is not counted as relevant experience for appointment. We also undervalue voluntary activity, especially if it is informal, when appointments to public bodies are considered. Many people have, for example, voluntarily organised school runs and child care circles, but those activities do not significantly contribute to their CVs, unless they have had clever training in how to present them. As a result, a set of major management skills are simply not recognised in appointment criteria.

The first task is to perform an equality audit of the criteria. The second is to make it easier for people who would like to know how to put themselves forward for public appointments. One problem that inhibits the under-represented groups in even applying is a form of self-censorship. I vividly remember a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) about how the discrimination that she had faced in life because she is a woman was often self-created, but that the discrimination that she had faced because she is in a wheelchair was often physically in front of her. We need to make it easier for people to see their way in. I recommend the creation of a single website—it would improve access only for people with access to the web, but more people will have such access in future—that explains what bodies exist and gives information about appointments.

Mr. Tom Harris

My hon. Friend's points about accessibility to quangos have a parallel in the debate about encouraging women to enter Parliament, and I know that she has been involved in efforts to encourage women to stand as candidates. Those efforts have failed to the extent that we have had to change the law to make all-women shortlists legal. Is not what she suggests simply the same old method that has failed in our party?

Fiona Mactaggart

My hon. Friend anticipates the final point of my remarks. It has always been my view that when trying to make a horse drink, we should offer encouragement before dunking its head in. We need single gateways and simpler sources of information. When I have encouraged constituents who are appropriate candidates for appointment to public bodies, I have found it difficult to give them sensible information about what opportunities exist in suitable areas. For example, I know someone who works in public service, has much experience in building up ethnic minority businesses and is fanatical about cricket. He could contribute substantially in several areas—such as sport and business—but I could not direct him to a single website or publication that would give him information about what opportunities might exist. We need to simplify such information.

The third task is to form a clear policy for advertisements for jobs. I remember when the Greater London council took a policy decision to advertise posts in ethnic minority newspapers. Just that decision changed the nature of the people who were appointed to posts at all levels in that public authority. We are not as rigorous in public appointments now, and it is wrong that the main ethnic minority newspapers and publications aimed at women who are seeking employment are not used as a matter of course for advertising public appointments. Those who look in The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph are a peculiar minority bunch, and we need to ensure that those who are not in that class of people can find out about public appointments that might give them an opportunity to serve.

More work needs to be done to build on the shadowing and training initiatives. Dame Rennie Fritchie's report describes some impressive work in that area, but individual public bodies need to mount their own efforts to build on that. I also recommend that those who make appointments to public bodies take some risks, especially with young people. In many ways, it was a risk appointing me as a teenager to the board of an FE college, but I was a good governor and stayed on the governing body for a long time. Those who appoint people to public bodies should be given an opportunity to take a risk with one appointment—a wild card—and perhaps appoint a young person. Some of those appointments will fail, inevitably, and I do not suggest that risks are taken with appointments to chairs or with people who lack a broad enough range of experience. However, unless we take some risks, we will continue to reproduce the old pattern. There are places that we can look for appropriate young people, such as those who are attempting the Duke of Edinburgh award or who are involved in their student unions. They are not considered by those looking to recruit to our public bodies, but such young people have much to offer.

We must also consider using force to deal with the problem. We should consider imposing a quota on appointments to public bodies that have an especially poor record of appointing women, members of the ethnic minorities and disabled people. Let us be honest and admit that there are some constant recidivists. Unless we target them, they will not change. I asked for an information sheet from the Cabinet Office on appointment statistics, and I received some figures for 1999.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that 92 per cent. of those appointed—more than 1,000—by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were men. However, we all know how involved women are in food and food preparation in the family, and in managing and coping with the farm when the husband is out on his tractor. The second-worst was the Ministry of Defence, where the figure was 84 per cent., followed by financial institutions such as the Inland Revenue, the Royal Mint, the Export Credits Guarantee Department and the Treasury. They were in relative contrast to the Department of Health and the Home Office, but not one Department had a majority of women appointees.

The best was the Department of Health, where 44 per cent. of the appointments were women. However, we all know that the largest group of employees in the health service are women and that, very often, it is women who negotiate entry into the service. Within the family, women often manage the connection between the family and the health service. However, not even in the Department of Health were the majority of appointees women.

We have had enough of the voluntary approach. The Minister should force those Departments with the worst inclusivity records to become more interested. Until we use some stick, the carrot will continue to fail. This is not just a mad feminist ranting from the Back Benches. I have looked carefully at our public service and it is not serving people like me properly. Until the voice of women is heard in the Treasury, the Bank of England and other financial institutions, we will miss out on a different perspective and, as a result, we will do the job worse.

Women need representation. Without it, institutions fail because they ignore not half of the population, but more than half. My remarks about women apply also to disabled people, who are physically excluded from many of the services provided or supervised by public bodies, and who are not counted in policy making. They apply also to those in ethnic minorities who, in many ways, have been the worst victims of the kind of networks that I have described.

Our record on this is just not good enough. I want to praise the Minister for calling the debate and for having the courage to admit that not enough progress has been made. But those of us who support him might start not only to encourage him, but to shove him forward, because it is not enough to make good statements or to have good intentions. We must have a strategic plan that delivers.

Labour has been in power for five years and has not made a sufficiently substantial impact on appointments to public bodies. There has been good will, but there have not been enough powerful instruments to ensure that that good will is implemented. I suspect that, in many cases, the usual channels and the usual networks have produced lists of chaps for Ministers to approve. Ministers have been busy and have had neither the energy nor the time to say, "Let's have some chapesses. We are bored with this." So the chaps have carried on getting through, and many of them are very good chaps. However, they cannot do all the work on their own. Until we get proper representation of currently excluded groups, we will fail our communities.

Non-departmental public bodies have huge responsibilities in terms of public service. They cannot properly serve the public unless they include all sections of the public in decision making. At present, they are failing to do that.

11.5 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) on his election and on his maiden speech. I was particularly interested to hear about the frequent boundary changes that seem to have afflicted his constituency. I am pleased to say that the boundaries of my constituency have not changed since 1832, except where the sea has eaten bits away: something that is not a danger to the hon. Gentleman.

The Minister adopted a narrow definition of public bodies and never got beyond it. Obviously, we recognise the importance of the non-departmental public bodies to which he referred, and I recognise among them some local examples, such as the boards of visitors which do such sterling work in the three prisons on the island.

By definition, if there are non-departmental public bodies, there are also departmental public bodies. The Government need to adopt a rational definition that looks at all public bodies and all appointments to those public bodies, not simply those that happen to be non-departmental. These include the governing bodies of schools, harbour authorities, primary care trusts, learning and skills councils—both national and local—and the many local bodies that build up and sustain the fabric of our communities. Many of these are voluntary and wholly extra-statutory, although some are public bodies in the sense that they are publicly appointed and statutory in origin.

The biggest public body of all in this country is the one of which this House is a part; the body that makes the legislation by which all our citizens live. The other place is an important component of this Parliament, and I would like to refer to the reforms to the other place introduced by the Government. I should start by saying that if I were going to reform the House of Lords, I would not be starting from here. Indeed, were I back in 1997, I am not sure that I would have reformed the House of Lords in the first place. It did a good job under past Governments of all political complexions. and it has continued to do a very good job under the current Government in both the manifestations that the Government have introduced.

Mr. Tom Harris

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that, at the beginning of the 21st century, his preference would be for a wholly or largely hereditary second Chamber? I find that an amazing statement.

Mr. Turner

I was saying merely that, until 1997, the House of Lords—on a hereditary basis—had done an excellent job. As Gilbert and Sullivan put it, the House of Lords Did nothing in particular, And did it very well. I am not talking about where we go from here, because we no longer have that fortunate composition of the House of Lords which the Government inherited and then decided to destroy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) pointed out, the Government have substituted a House of Lords with a significant composition made up of Tony's cronies.

Fiona Mactaggart

The hon. Gentleman's words are carefully chosen and very significant, although I reject the label "Tony's cronies". Does he accept that, even with life peers, a minority are Labour?

Mr. Turner

I accept that the Prime Minister does not always nominate for ennoblement people who will accept the Labour Whip in the other place. More to the point, the right hon. Gentleman has nominated for ennoblement more people in the four and a half years he has held office than Baroness Thatcher did in the 11 years we were fortunate enough to have her as Prime Minister.

Labour Members need to understand how much patronage the Prime Minister has exercised. It has been exercised not to improve the representation of Labour Members or Labour ideas, let alone socialist ideas, in the House of Lords, but to improve the representation of a certain small metropolitan class, of which the Prime Minister is the greatest exponent and advocate. If Labour Members want evidence for that statement, I will provide it.

The Prime Minister said earlier this year that 267 people had been elevated to the peerage on his recommendation. Of those, 20 per cent. live in London, within the M25. Not even the constituency of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is included. Of course, fewer than 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's population live in London. Significantly more than 1.5 per cent. live in the east midlands, but the Prime Minister has felt it necessary to nominate for ennoblement only three people who live there. The Prime Minister's nominations are "Tony's cronies" in terms of composition, friendship and networks as well as being a highly unrepresentative, metropolitan, chattering-class elite.

Mr. Tom Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how a more fair distribution of seats in the other place could be achieved through the hereditary principle?

Mr. Harris

It is a fact that more hereditary peers live outside London, in proportionate terms, than those whom the Prime Minister has recommended for ennoblement in the past four years. The President of the Council, in bringing forward the Government's proposals for reform of the House of Lords, has looked for regional representation, by election as well as nomination, and I congratulate him on that. He is aiming for proper representation of the regions. For far too long, as I think the hon. Member for Slough might have said, our public bodies have been dominated by people nominated from and living in London. That is no way to represent a country as diverse as the United Kingdom.

The President of the Council confirmed that it was his intention that future nominations to the other place should be regionally balanced. He also recommended a certain balance in terms of gender, and hoped for balance in representation of the ethnic minorities. I do not recall him mentioning disabled people, but I am prepared to be corrected. He felt that 30 per cent. was the minimum appropriate representation of women in the other place, and that 30 per cent. was the minimum appropriate representation of men. However, the right hon. Gentleman was unable to say whether the Government were expecting a rebalancing exercise to take place in the early stages of the life of his proposed new House. In my view, and I am sure that many people outside London would agree, it is appropriate to have a rebalancing exercise among the nominated Members of the reformed upper House at a very early stage, if that reform should ever come to fruition.

I wish to consider some of the other proposals that the President of the Council made for the reform of one of the most important public bodies in the country. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is on the Front Bench, to close his ears for a moment. The Conservative party has not yet come to a final view on the future of the House of Lords, but I would like to put forward some suggestions in a friendly way.

The most obvious and representative way to appoint people to the other place is by lot. That method has been used in other legislatures in the past but I do not propose using it at the moment, not least because I fear that many people would not wish to accept nomination by lot. Being willing to accept nomination by lot would in itself make people unrepresentative.

I welcome the Government's proposal that the number of elected Members of the House of Lords should be severely restricted. Again, it is a curious kind of person who is willing to put himself up for election at any level in society. One has only to look around the House to be clear about that. We achieve more effective representation if we allow the nominated element to be larger than the elected element. The quality of those putting themselves forward for election to the new National Assemblies for Wales and for Northern Ireland and for the Scottish Parliament appears, from the point of view of someone representing a southern English constituency, not to be as high as that of those putting themselves forward for election to this place. However, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can have their say on that—I should be tactful and remain silent.

I welcome the Government's proposal to make the office fairly long term. A period of seven to 15 years—although, ideally, it would be for life—is much more appropriate than a short one. Then those people retain independence from the nominating body. One of the great virtues of the life peers, not to mention the hereditary peers, whose nominating body is rather higher than ours, is that they are independent once appointed. Their strings cannot be pulled by No. 10 or by Ministers. So a long period of office makes for greater independence.

I also welcome the suggestion that the nominations should be proportionate to the votes cast at the preceding election. That seems a sensible way of reaching a compromise between a proportional representation election, which I think none of us would seriously welcome, and a system in which the Government nominate as many people of their complexion as they wish.

I have an additional change to suggest. The proportion of those not voting in the most recent general election should also be represented. The best way to do that is by giving those nominations to the appointing body. If 45 per cent. of the electorate choose not to vote for any of the political parties that have put themselves forward for election, clearly they are looking for a more independent form of representation. I believe that if 45 per cent. abstained in the 2001 general election, 45 per cent. of nominees to the upper House should be appointed by the independent appointing body and should be expected to take an independent, Cross-Bench position when they sit in the House of Lords. The number of nominations would vary with the electors' confidence in the programmes that the various political parties put forward at the election.

Fiona Mactaggart

Earlier in his speech, the hon. Gentleman welcomed the proposal for longer appointments. Although I disagree with him on the issue of proportional appointments, I agree with him that longer-term appointments would encourage independence. However, may I invite him to read carefully paragraph 57 of the White Paper—which suggests that the options for appointment length are five, 10 and 15 years, and that the Government are tempted to opt for five or 10 years? Perhaps he would like to encourage them to accept the longer-term option, to obtain the type of independence that he seeks.

Mr. Turner

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. In the light of it, perhaps I should say that the word "welcome" was overgenerous. I should have said that I note the Government's proposals and urge them to move in the direction of appointments for seven to 15 years or possibly for life.

I also believe the letters ML—Member of the Lords—are wholly inappropriate because there will be many Lords outside Parliament, and we are not even clear that the other place will be called the House of Lords. I was thinking of PPs, for Peers of Parliament, but then I thought that that might result in people being called "Peeps". I think that LPs, for Lords of Parliament, would be appropriate post-nominal initials for those appointed or elected to the other place.

The general point on public bodies is that their job is to implement policies made by those who are elected by the people. It is for elected government, at whatever level, to determine policy. One practice that I rather deprecate is the tendency to hand over to public bodies policy-making responsibilities rather than merely policy-implementation responsibilities.

There is also a danger of our passing policy-making responsibility to supranational bodies such as the European Community, in treaties, and into the realm of judge-made law. It is fine of course for judges to determine specifically what the law was intended to mean, but I deprecate the current tendency for judges to enter into pre-legislative debate on what the law ought to be. If judges set down what the law ought to be, there is danger that, once the House has made law that does not conform with what the judges think it should be, they will go on to make it what they had said it should be in the first place. Consequently, we would lose confidence in the judiciary's independence.

I also deprecate the type of job creation scheme for human rights lawyers that we have seen with the incorporation of the European convention on human rights in British law.

The question is whether we as Members of Parliament—I speak for both hon. Members and Members of the other place—have the power to put right the wrongs that are felt by our constituents. I have absolutely no doubt that the House and the other place are the greatest public bodies in our land. We should as far as possible seize back the policy-making power, and certainly the legislative power, from the onward march of judge-made and foreign law, not for ourselves but for those whom we represent.

Local government is another important category of public body, although we have failed so far to recognise it in this debate. I am speaking of local councils at county, district and town level. I should also like briefly to illustrate the possibility, indeed the actuality in my own constituency, of achieving greater representation of young people and ethnic minorities than ever before. In the past four years the Conservative party has achieved that goal in my constituency. Although I do not claim that my party is alone in achieving it, I nevertheless congratulate Drew Mellor, 21, on being recently elected to the Isle of Wight county council. He not only sits on the education committee, most unusually for a student, but has won a ward that was held by another party for more years than most of us can remember.

I also congratulate Cliff Huggins on being elected to the county council in 1998. He is the first non-white member of the Isle of Wight county council. I congratulate, too, Abdul Mateen on his election, in 1999, to Cowes town council. He is the first non-white member of that council. It is possible for local government to encourage the membership of ethnic minorities, women and young people. However, we have to encourage that to happen, and I do not think that we will do it through the appointments process.

I also do not think that we will encourage the representation of a wider cross-section of people by establishing more regional bodies, which by their very nature are distant. Unless one is unfortunate enough to live in Guildford, one will not think that the south-eastern regional assembly is very close. My electors find it difficult enough to have their police authority run from Winchester; they certainly do not want to be run from Guildford. Nor do we wish to see a greater range of regional bodies. Indeed, some of us would ask about the boundaries on which the Government are relying to create the regional bodies. There is no rhyme or reason to connect Hampshire with Milton Keynes and Kent rather than with Dorset, and there is certainly little rhyme or reason to connect the Isle of Wight with any authority on the mainland besides, perhaps, Hampshire.

Southern Arts and SouthEastern Arts are public bodies that do a very good job in their respective areas, but the Government are proposing to amalgamate them for no better reason than to achieve coterminosity with the wholly artificial south-east region. As I said, it is the truly local bodies, both public and private, that constitute the warp and weft of the fabric of our local society.

Earlier, I mentioned the danger of the Isle of Wight being run from Winchester. Brading is a town with a population of about 1,200, and St. Helens is a village with a slightly smaller population. They have not seen eye to eye since the Napoleonic wars, when a French raiding party came to St. Helens and the townspeople of Brading quite generously left them to get on with it. Although they feel it very unfortunate that they have the same county councillor, I am pleased to say that he is a Conservative councillor and manages to represent both disparate communities very well. Nevertheless, if two adjoining places on the Isle of Wight do not see eye to eye, it is hard to see how we can have regional government.

We want bodies, both public and private, that have an agenda that attracts the interest and involvement of local people, rather than asking how on earth we can get people involved in those bodies. The bodies have to do what the people want—give them the power and let them get on with it. Governing bodies of grant-maintained schools are a perfect example of that. I had a small part in creating many of those bodies, and they did such an excellent job that the Government, in "abolishing" them, have done their best to adapt the experiences of grant-maintained schools to Government education policy by giving as many schools as possible the same type of powers and responsibilities. The Government have of course not achieved that as well as the Conservative Government did, but they have sought to give as many schools as possible the same types of powers and responsibilities.

Mr. Oaten

There is a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman's argument. At the start of his speech he said that he disapproved of power and money being devolved to organisations and felt that Westminster should have more power; now he is arguing that those bodies will be effective only if they can take policy decisions, for which they will require money.

Mr. Turner

The hon. Gentleman misheard me. I did not say that I disapprove of devolving power and money. I said that it was fine to devolve power over policy implementation, but that the power to make policy should he held in this place. It is the duty of the elected representatives of the people to determine policy.

I welcome and I recognise, as I hope that the Government recognise—I am sure they do—the very important role of the many men and women who serve on governing bodies, town and parish councils, health authorities, primary care trusts and NHS trusts, harbour authorities and the whole host of local public bodies to which I fear the Minister hardly referred in his introductory remarks.

We must realise that not everything can or should be done by the Government or by the council. In his introductory remarks, the Minister said that we choose to meet through collective organisation, locally, regionally and nationally, many of the needs of our society. However, those local, regional and national organisations do not all need to be Government-inspired. For example, the Cowes Combined Clubs is a private association of three or four yacht clubs which organise Cowes week. In one week of the year alone, those who come to the island by yacht bring £60 million to the island's economy. That is a huge contribution, made with minimal Government interference, I am pleased to say, and certainly with little Government involvement either locally or nationally. That has been achieved by a private arrangement between private organisations.

I do not question the motives of the hon. Member for Slough in complaining about the unfair male, middle-age—although sometimes that applies to people of all ages and both sexes—dominated appointment process. I acknowledge that the people she described—the mums who can organise school runs and child care circles—need to be represented. I do not believe that we should have to adapt to a committee culture when we are appointed to public bodies; many of us have been able to do that, but many others find it difficult. However, I question whether any system—however detailed or robust—will ever represent people effectively through the nomination process to public bodies.

Perhaps the hon. Lady is an optimist and I am a pessimist; perhaps we approach the matter by different routes. I believe that the fewer public bodies that act between people and the services they require, the better; because then those bodies, however good, will not—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally—form an obstacle to access to those services.

Do we really need all these public bodies? We should give as much power as possible back to the individual voter and the individual consumer of public services. We should always be on the lookout for ways to reduce—although we shall never eliminate—the number of public bodies.

11.33 am
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) on his maiden speech. He referred, in a self-effacing way, to not being a worthy successor to Bob Sheldon. I assure him that any of his constituents who heard his speech will consider him a very worthy successor. Without wishing to sound complacent, may I express the belief that, unlike his predecessor, my hon. Friend will spend most of his prime years in the House on the Government rather than the Opposition Benches?

I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for broadening the debate beyond the definition of a quango to discuss public bodies as a whole. Later in my speech, I shall refer to my experiences working with public bodies that might not be strictly defined as quangos but would fall within the bounds of this debate.

When we talk about quangos, we usually focus on whether they are a good or a bad thing. In the past, the debate became quite sterile and polarised. People were either for quangos or against them. That is not helpful. Some of us may remember that in the 1980s such a debate was held in the Labour party. People came down on one side or the other—for or against health boards being directly elected or accountable to local councils. That is no longer helpful, as I shall explain later.

There is an element of public ignorance regarding what a quango is: it is not a soft drink. In Scotland, when people are appointed to public bodies, especially if the person has a record of political service, the call goes up, "You've been quangoed". That says something about the low esteem in which many of those organisations are held.

Before the 1997 general election, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now Lord Robertson, promised a bonfire of the quangos if Labour won the election. Much to the consternation of the chattering classes, that bonfire has not happened—certainly not in Scotland. I am not convinced that that is a bad thing. In retrospect, the "bonfire of the quangos" phrase was a hostage to fortune.

It is significant that the Labour Opposition were not the first Opposition to promise a dismantling of quangos. I note the comments of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the reduction in the number of people employed by quangos after the 1997 general election. However, despite a reduction in the number of people employed by quangos, there was a very modest reduction in the number of quangos. I accept that fewer people worked for them. In opposition, parties tend to count numbers and say that there will be a reduction when they are in government, but often it does not work out like that.

Criticism of the Government for creating extra quangos is misguided. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the number of NDPBs—a term that I shall not use again during this debate: quango is a much more friendly term—fell by 10 per cent. between 1997 and 2000. That spikes the gun of those Opposition Members who say that we are setting up taskforces instead of implementing policy. That is not the case.

However, it may be missing the point to focus on that statistic. Instead of counting quangos and worrying about how many there are and about how many people are appointed by them, we should be considering whether those organisations are doing the job for which they were established. Are they providing the services that we need to offer ordinary people? Are the services of a high quality? Are the members of the quangos accountable to Ministers?

To return to Labour party history, this debate is rather like the one we held on nationalisation. It was only when John Smith became the leader that we realised that ownership itself was not the point: regulation and control were what mattered. There is a similar point to be made about quangos. It is not the numbers that matter—they mean nothing to anyone—but the services they offer and their effect on the lives of ordinary people.

I do not conform to the view that quangos are by their nature unaccountable to the public. In my experience, I can think of a few quangos that have been more responsive to the public than certain Departments, although if I were pressed to give an example, those cases would all be before 1997.

In a debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) pointed out that the term "quango" is a bad word. He compared quangos to theme parks, call centres and breakfast television. That is rather unfair—especially to call centres, which provide many jobs in my constituency. Indeed, it is about time that the term "call centre" went through a rehabilitation. The point is that people may not be able to tell the difference between a quango and an elected local body. Perhaps we should not expect them to do so.

There was some discussion earlier of the difficulty of persuading people to stand for appointment to quangos. I take what may be a cynical view. When people elect Governments, they want us to get on with the job and leave them alone. Voters in Scotland went to the polls five times between May 1997 and June 2001. They completed seven ballot papers and we ended up with a total of 18 politicians representing every individual Scot. That is no doubt something to be celebrated. I rejoice at the expansion of democracy, but we have the prospect of even more elections. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight talked about putting a limit on the number of elected peers in any future reform. If only 55 per cent. of people turn out to vote in elections to the House of Commons, there is not a strong argument for expecting people to turn out and vote in an election to the House of Lords, which the hon. Gentleman said might be described as the greatest quango ever. I am not sure that that is an accurate description.

Mr. Oaten

Does the hon. Gentleman think that members of the public would be more likely to turn out and vote if they felt that they were voting for the whole House of Lords rather than just 20 per cent of it?

Mr. Harris

The simple answer is no. I accept, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we do not want to stray too far from the core issue, but the simple fact is that the statistics show that turnout at general elections, which are the most important elections, has steadily declined over the past 20 years. I am sceptical about how easy it will be to reverse that trend. The turnout at elections to the House of Lords on the same day as or, even worse, half way between general elections, could be so derisory that it would negate any beneficial effect. Time will tell. I do not believe that the public are straining at the leash for another election.

I have mentioned my time working for public bodies that are not quangos. We can take the House of Lords as one example, and local authorities as another. I worked for East Ayrshire council. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said how difficult it was to motivate local voters to become involved in a general way. If the water commissioner for Scotland holds a public meeting on a broad issue such as the standard of water services, the same half dozen people will come out every time. It is only when there is a specific problem that people come out in numbers.

I was public relations manager for East Ayrshire council between 1996 and 1998, during which period the council held quarterly community forums. I understand that that practice continues. A huge amount of effort and resources goes into organising those meetings so that members of the public can come and listen to their councillors spout forth about cleaning the streets, emptying bins or local education services. At every single meeting, the same six people turned up. Perhaps the public simply want politicians to get on with the job. Bizarrely enough, if turnout is very low at consultation meetings, there is an argument for saying that it shows that people are not unhappy with the service. They may not be enthusiastic about it, but if they were unhappy, they would turn out.

Mr. Oaten

I do not wish to extend the debate, but it may be that local communities should take ownership of some of the services. That would be a much better model, in which people would be engaged rather than going to meetings to hear individuals who run services on their behalf.

Mr. Harris

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a certain extent. The point goes back to the debate that we had about encouraging people to stand for election to public bodies. The average person on the street is not like us in the House. They could not care less about politics except once every four years at general elections. I have a similar view of football; I am not interested until it comes to the World cup. The average voter wants to stay in at night and watch television, to go out for a meal or go to the cinema. They do not want to sit in a dusty, cold hall listening to a lecture about democratic accountability in the local council.

I agree with the comments that have been made about the system of appointments to quangos. It is one of the strengths of the system. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Isle of Wight express concern that the geographical representation of the future House of Lords might not be equal. I accept that it is not equal now, but the hon. Gentleman did not mention the importance of balancing the sexes in the new House of Lords. He was more concerned about equal representation of Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland and Tyneside than about representation of ethnic minorities, disabled people and women. That is unfortunate. The system for appointing people to quangos has the potential—it may not always be used in this way—to redress the imbalance that exists in the House of Commons and almost every other elected body. That is a good thing. For that alone, quangos have performed a vital service to our country and its political culture.

When I express general support for quangos, I do not say that the principle of accountability is not important. It is extremely important. Apart from anything else, quangos have a huge amount of money to spend. Executive quangos—those concerned with administrative, regulatory and commercial functions—spent £24 billion in 1999–2000, although only 77 per cent. of that came from the Government. I am not sure where the rest of it came from, but perhaps charges and fees accounted for the balance.

The Government deserve some credit for opening up the culture of quangos, but an incredibly small proportion of quangos produce annual reports, allow the public into their meetings and produce reports of their meetings. They will not do so until the Government tell them to. That is a huge failing in public accountability. That attitude has led to the low esteem in which the public hold most quangos. The danger is that, if the public have a low opinion of quangos, publicly elected servants will suffer from that negative attitude, so it is in our interests to ensure that quangos are accountable and get their act together in terms of public accountability.

There is a crucial weakness which is becoming more obvious in Scotland but is not confined to Scotland. There is ignorance or perhaps apathy among the public as regards how they are governed. I have mentioned the number of elected representatives for each Scot, and that has not stopped the spread of confusion. Let me give the House an illustration of where we are going in Glasgow. We have nine parliamentary constituencies. I will not get on the wrong side of my hon. Friend the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household by including his constituency in Glasgow. Much to my disappointment, that number will go down shortly. If it does, it is likely that the number of constituencies returning Members of the Scottish Parliament will stay the same. So we already have a difference in the coterminosity—a dreadful word—of constituencies. That alone will cause confusion.

The Greater Glasgow health boards cover not only the city but the surrounding area, including Milngavie and Bearsden in the north, Eastwood in the south and Clydebank. In addition, we have the local NHS trusts. Glasgow and Clyde Valley tourist board covers a completely different geographical area. Then there are all the residual bodies left over from Strathclyde regional council—another body that I used to work for. When I left the employment of the Labour party in Scotland in 1992 to join Strathclyde regional council, one wag quipped, "You are going from one sinking ship to another." In the long term, however, that judgment was proved to be incorrect as regards the former.

The residual bodies from Strathclyde regional council are technically not quangos but executive bodies, and they add to the complicated pattern of public bodies. Although the Strathclyde passenger transport executive, by which I was employed until June this year, is a non-elected body, it is accountable to the Strathclyde passenger transport authority, and its remit is huge. It is responsible for funding the public transport system for 2 million people in west central Scotland, and its geographical boundary is completely different from those of any of the other bodies that I mentioned, as well as those of the West of Scotland water authority, the Strathclyde police board and the Strathclyde fire board.

I am sorry to see that the Conservative Benches are now almost vacant because I want to make a party political point. The previous Conservative Government contributed substantially to people's cynicism about public bodies because they played such an obviously partisan game with public bodies in Scotland. They got rid of Strathclyde regional council because they saw that as the only way to change the fact that people in west central Scotland had the cheek to keep electing Labour councillors. Even as they got rid of it, they confounded their own arguments for doing so by accepting that there had to be strategic authorities to provide water, fire, police and transport services.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale took exception to my suggestion that the Conservatives had misused their power in the 1980s by appointing many Conservative placemen to quangos in Scotland. I totally accept that, politically and legally, there was nothing to stop them doing that, and I have no objection to it. However, the Conservatives made a political misjudgment because of arrogance resulting from their strong electoral position in the UK. In the long term, that led to their complete elimination at the 1997 general election. We could have warned them that that would happen.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that we are a unionist party, and, unlike his party, we think that MPs from all parts of the country should have equal rights in this House. That is why we, rather than the Conservatives, are the unionist party. Arrogance in the use of appointments to quangos works against the party in government, and I am delighted to note that this Government are not guilty of making the same mistakes.

There are 82 national quangos in Scotland—a fact that I found out only last night—including the children's panel and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Minister for Education, Jack McConnell, on using his powers to sort out the dreadful mess that the SQA was in last year, which resulted in a great deal of confusion and personal distress for many parents and students in Scotland. The SQA is a good example of a quango accountable to a devolved Parliament which got out of control during the year of change-over from the Scottish Office to the Scottish Parliament and has now been brought back within the scope of ministerial accountability. It shows how a quango can work to the benefit of the people of Scotland now that it is being called to account by democratically elected Ministers.

I list all those examples merely to point out a great weakness in the structures of quangos. There is a dreadful misunderstanding by the public about how services are provided. It is difficult for members of the public to know who to contact when something goes wrong. As we all know, if they do not know who to approach, they come to us. I have no objection because that is our job, but the Government's impressive efforts to make quangos more open and accountable may come to nothing if they cannot sort out the structure of quangos on a UK-wide basis and, where appropriate, on a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland basis.

Three of the quangos listed in "Public Bodies 2000" are nationalised industries: CalMac, the Scottish Transport Group and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. I did not know that we still had nationalised industries in Scotland. The third of those quangos reminds me of the story of an American woman in Glasgow who went to visit the Western isles. She reported that as she was getting the bus from the Glasgow terminus out to the aeroplane, she was surprised and not a little panic-stricken to realise that the bus was taking off. I am always concerned when the crew start clapping after those planes have taken off. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. is obviously an important body in Scotland.

I came across a question and answer note prepared by the Cabinet Office. One question is: What is the Government's policy on quangos? The answer is: The Government is committed to keeping the number of quangos to an absolute minimum and to ensuring that those which remain are open, accountable and effective. I agree with the last part, and I do not think that we should get too hung up on the number of quangos. We should concentrate far more on the quality of service and the quality of the people who serve on quangos.

11.57 am
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. As someone whose day job is in the Opposition Whips Office, I do not know whether I should say this, but the House is at its best when there is, if not full cross-party agreement, agreement on so many issues. We certainly agree on what we want from public bodies, how they should be run, how accountable they should be and how people should be appointed to them.

I do not intend to summarise the debate; that is a task for my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), when he returns to the Chamber. We have heard excellent contributions not only from Front-Bench Members, but from everyone who has spoken, including the hon. Members for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes), for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne on his election and his maiden speech. I well remember when I made my maiden speech, and although I spoke on a Wednesday afternoon, when one might have expected more Members to be present than are here today, that was not the case. I look forward to hearing from him an awful lot more.

I do not think that I have to declare an interest for receiving hospitality from a public body, the Horserace Totalisator Board, but I mention it because I shall return to that organisation later.

The Minister made an excellent presentation, explaining what public bodies are and the categories into which they fall, but I was surprised to hear exactly how much money is spent on them—£24 billion, or perhaps £18 billion is a more relevant figure as that is what comes from the public purse. When such huge sums are spent, we must ask whether it is worth while and whether the public get from those public bodies the service that they have a right to expect.

What else could that money buy? Would it be better spent on more direct public services, such as the health service? Should it be left in taxpayers' pockets? Governments should always ask that question when taking money from the taxpayer. Do public bodies provide the quality of service that people need? Do they provide the constitutional administration on which the country depends?

The answer to those questions depends on which public body is concerned. The House was again at its best when it was discussing stem cell research, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is an extremely important public body. Indeed, it is probably one of the most important in existence, given the issues that it regulates. Before I entered the House, I dealt with homeless people and the Housing Corporation is an important public body that provides money to tackle homelessness. Thus some public bodies are very important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about grant-maintained schools. He played down his role in creating the system of grant-maintained schools, which has been a huge success. I pay tribute to his work. If grant-maintained schools can be described as public bodies, they are another example of bodies that can affect the communities in which they operate and the lives of so many people.

I wonder, however, whether the Apple and Pear Research Council is important. It may well be, and I stand corrected if it is. Some public bodies sound serious but I wonder whether they do the work that we want them to do. I know from my time on the Select Committee on Social Security that the benefits tribunal caused us great concern. Indeed, it was the subject of an inquiry at that time.

What about the National Lottery Charities Board? I have always defended the national lottery, but there have been problems in its operation. Organisations in Tewkesbury have made about 15 per cent. of the applications made from Gloucestershire, a proportion appropriate to its population, yet until recently Tewkesbury had received only 3 per cent. of the money that has come to the county.

I looked at a number of those applications and they were of good quality and very sensible, but they did not attract money. What can I, as a Member of Parliament, do about that? I went to see the then Minister, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who was extremely helpful, but she could do nothing either. It was obvious that my constituents were being treated unfairly. That is an example of a public body operating unfairly. I admit that it had its criteria, but I suggest that it was not operating fairly in the interests of everybody across the country.

Although there are some good and important public bodies, such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which has perhaps a frightening amount of power given the scale of its task, other public bodies are less important. Indeed, some public bodies should not exist at all.

I have already mentioned the Tote, which has been a public body since 1927. Three years ago, the then Home Secretary announced that the Tote was to be released from Government control, yet nothing has happened. I began by declaring an interest in the Tote, but I do not speak in its favour; I simply say that the Government have a clear opportunity to lose that quango. Linked to it is the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which distributes money through the horseracing industry. It is another body that could be returned to the private sector.

The Government have no need to be involved in either of those public bodies. They have recognised that, yet those of us who take an interest in the industry cannot get the Government to do something about it, despite the fact that little parliamentary time would be required.

I mentioned that I could not make any progress with lottery applications for Tewkesbury, and did not seem to make an impression on the National Lottery Charities Board or Sport England. In spite of having had long, boring meetings with them, there was no way forward. That leads me to accountability.

Many public bodies have a lot of power and responsibility but are not accountable to anyone. I suppose that they are ultimately accountable to Parliament and to Ministers, but what happens if things go wrong and they do not carry out their administrative role as we would expect? There can be recourse to the ombudsman, but he will investigate only if there is a clear case of maladministration and there can be direct redress for the person who has lost out. There may be serious maladministration, but it may not be possible to provide redress to an individual or a group of individuals, so there is a gap in the system.

It is important that public bodies are accountable. There is a growing lack of faith in politics, Parliament, public servants, public bodies and the democratic process itself. The hon. Member for Winchester made a thoughtful, interesting speech, and gave some figures. It worries me that the turnout at the general election was less than 60 per cent.

I used to tell people to look at what happens in America—a country that I greatly admire—where only 50 per cent. of the electorate vote, and only 50 per cent. of that 50 per cent. vote for the elected president. That is terrible, and I ask them to consider what happens in this country, where 78 per cent. turn out to vote, which is marvellous—or which was marvellous, because all of a sudden something went wrong at the last election. People may argue that there was not enough obvious difference between the two parties—[Interruption.]—between the three parties, I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. That perception is real, and in politics perception is all important, because people vote not according to reality, but according to their perceptions. When it comes to the ballot box, if people feel that something is the case, then it is the case.

I am not sure what the average turnout is for local and European elections, but it is very low. Why is that?

Mr. Andrew Turner

Could there not be an alternative and perhaps much more attractive explanation? Electors have rightly lost faith in politicians. They do not trust them to do what politicians in the past have given the impression they are able to do. Frankly, what was untrue then, is still untrue now. Society is becoming depoliticised, and that is a good thing.

Mr. Robertson

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a good intellectual point. There are many reasons for the low turnout, and I shall explore some of them. One reason why people do not vote in local and European elections is that they do not think voting matters. I have never been a fan of the European Union, and even less of the European Parliament, so I can well understand people who think that voting in those elections will not make a difference. Having sat on the Select Committee on European Scrutiny for two years, I sympathise with that view. Endless directives come through the House literally every day, and people are powerless to stop them. I can well understand people not wanting to vote in European elections. There is a strong constitutional argument for that.

However, it is worth voting in local elections. My wife was a county councillor for four years, and I often said to her that she had far more power and influence than I have. That is true. Proud though I am to be a Member of the House, that role is somewhat different. What happens in local government is important, but people are not persuaded of that and will not vote in local government elections. They cannot understand why planning applications that no one wants are accepted, either locally or at inspector level. They see a huge democratic deficit. We must deal with that. The creation of public bodies just for the sake of it does not deal with that problem but adds to it.

I have a constituency example that illustrates fully what I mean. It was the subject of my Adjournment debate last week, so I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for repeating it. Just over a year ago, a chemical reprocessing plant in my constituency was, for reasons best known to the county council at the time, built on a flood plain. Planning permission was given in 1978. It was a very dangerous plant that gave off lots of bad odours. Heavy lorries went into it at all times of night and day. It was a bad neighbour with scant regard for the environment or amenities. No one wanted to live near it.

For years, people not only complained about that site, but gave warnings about it to a number of agencies and public bodies: the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the county council. There was a lack of response from those bodies.

Just over 12 months ago, there was a very serious explosion at the site. Fortunately, it happened at night so no one was there. Two days later, the River Severn flooded the entire site. The fire and rescue service said that, if the explosion and the flood had coincided, it could not have accessed the site to tackle the fire. One can imagine the dangers inherent in that statement. People had to be evacuated. People from nearby villages were ill. People had to go into hospital. They are still complaining about feeling ill 12 months on.

The agencies and public bodies were warned that that was going to happen, yet took no action. They could have closed the site. The Environment Agency, the county council and indeed the Minister have powers under various legislation to close it. They have chosen not to do so, not because they do not recognise that it is dangerous—it is; we all recognise that—but because they are frightened of being taken to court by the company. That is an exercise not in democracy but in bullying and fear. People in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire have to live under the threat of that site reopening—it is on the brink of being reopened—and further dangers arising.

Furthermore, the Environment Agency, which was supposed to have been monitoring the site, is being allowed to produce reports on what happened on the site and on its monitoring of it. The agency has a distinct disincentive to investigate the site fully because the more it finds out about what happened, the worse it looks as the waste licensing authority.

I have pressed for the public inquiry that must be held into not only the explosion and the company but the performance of the agencies in monitoring the site. The Health and Safety Executive was well aware that an employee was sacked by the company for failing to carry out what he considered to be dangerous duties. He took his case to the industrial tribunal and won, yet the Health and Safety Executive, fully aware of that, took no further action.

The county council gave planning permission for the site in 1978 to treat oily wastes and waste oils, yet very dangerous chemicals were treated on the site, including carcinogenic chemicals and BSE drums, which were ordered by the Government from an agricultural area—the Government said, "Send them to Cleansing Services Group in Sandhurst." The company did not have planning permission for any of that.

The county council had discovered that huge breach of planning laws two years before the explosion. However—I have this in writing from the council—it did nothing to correct the position. The Environment Agency nevertheless issued operating licences to the company, which was so stupid as to be unbelievable. Earlier, someone—possibly the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart—mentioned agencies not speaking to each other, and not tying in their activities. That certainly applied in this instance.

I hope that the House will forgive me for taking so long to make a constituency point, but it shows why people are losing faith in public servants, whether elected or appointed.

I do not want to be party political, but I suppose that I am going to be when I talk about local councils. I regret the creation of cabinet or executive-style councils. Thanks to the good sense of the Gloucestershire electorate, the Conservatives form the largest group on the county council but are excluded from the executive, because in a post-election pact—not a pre-election pact, of course—Labour and the Liberal Democrats got together to exclude them. That is not illegal, but it is not terribly democratic, and it certainly does not serve the best interests of the electorate. It could happen only because the Government had changed local government rules, and I think it regrettable.

Many back-bench councillors across the country have received increases in their allowances but, along with those, large decreases in responsibility. They now consider council membership worthless. I mentioned that my wife was a county councillor. One of the reasons for her failure to stand in the most recent elections was the fact that she had to make a decision. Either she would join the executive and work almost as a full-time councillor, which is what is now required—in fact, she could not have, for the reasons I gave, but the facts were not known then—or she would become a back bencher, and not be involved at all.

My wife did not want to be a full-time councillor, for two reasons. First, she did not have time to commit herself to that; secondly, that is not what council work is supposed to be about. Council work is supposed to be about living in the community, whether as a housewife or an executive, and bringing that experience to the council a couple of nights a week. That is how things used to be when local government operated far better than it does now.

We seem to have created a two-tier system in local councils rather like that in the House of Commons, in which the executive—or, perhaps, one, two or three members of the executive—are all-powerful, while the rest are almost impotent unless they are determined to do something different. Moreover, the executive-and-back-bench style will not encourage people to stand for council membership. It is all very well for MPs to say they want to encourage better candidates, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, we must show that these organisations are doing a good job and that it is worthwhile joining them. That would be far more likely to attract candidates of the kind that we want—women, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, for instance—than a search for candidates from different backgrounds. In that respect, I depart slightly from the otherwise excellent speech of the hon. Member for Slough.

What kind of people can we hope to attract to serve on councils when we create a set-up where it is all or nothing and one is either a back bencher with no influence or a member of the executive and required almost full-time? We can attract either people who rather like the idea of the word "councillor" before their name even though it does not entail much, or those who have an interest in dragging out meetings all day because they have nothing else to do, when we do not want to attract either. The Government have made it almost impossible to attract the sort of people we want, which is regrettable.

I have never served in local government; I do not have a vested interest in it. However, from experience in Gloucestershire and Tewkesbury, I can see what has happened. It bothers me that we shall miss out on many good people serving not only on councils but on other public bodies. I shall not go into the matter of appointments to public bodies; suffice it to say that we are not reaching out to the sort of people to whom we need to reach out.

I mentioned that I had a slight difference of opinion with the hon. Member for Slough on such appointments, although she pointed out that all the Government's efforts and determination to be politically correct have failed to change things for the better. She said that more women, people with disabilities and people from ethnic communities had not been attracted to undertake such roles. If that is so, we must ask why.

Mr. Tom Harris

In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), I would point out that she simply stated that in the past year the number of women and of people from ethnic minorities appointed to quangos had reduced very slightly. Under this Government generally, far more women and members of ethnic minorities have been appointed to quangos.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening. If that is so, I fully accept it. I recognise that the hon. Lady made a good speech, and I agreed with virtually all of it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, we should make public bodies appear relevant to ordinary people. That would attract them to serve. People always follow success and do not normally jump on a sinking ship. They see success and are led by it. They will be led by the relevance of public bodies and whether they are worth while. We should seek out not somebody from one group or another—it is demeaning to those groups to do so—but the right people, who will of course include women, people from ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities.

I say that as somebody who argued strongly in favour of women priests during the debate in the General Synod some years ago—1992, I think. Although I might be considered to be from a more traditional background, I did so because I thought it right that people should be allowed to do whatever job they want regardless of their sex, marital status, background or whatever. However, I do not believe that it is advantageous to go down the route of positive discrimination. I was therefore concerned this week—I am stretching beyond my pay grade by suggesting this—about the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill. It is inconsistent with other legislation because it legalises discrimination. It suggests that it is all right for politicians to discriminate but that nobody else in society can do so. The Bill is very curious, but as my party did not oppose it, and given my day job as a Whip, I better move on swiftly.

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said about the House of Lords. There has been a transfer of power from the House of Commons to the Executive and to other anonymous bodies that most people have not heard of. Although this may contradict what I have said already, I would not welcome changes in the make-up of the House of Lords. I shall make some brief comments now because my party has not yet determined its policy and I would like to make this point before it is too late.

I can live with the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords as long as it has no power. That relates to what I said about quangos, although some hon. Members may find it contradictory. The fact that the House of Lords is not democratic adds to its quality as its members can say what they feel is right and, unless they are Ministers, nobody can sack them or reduce their pay. That is a useful addition to Parliament.

I would always defend parliamentary democracy and the power of the House of Commons because it is democratically elected and that is why I am concerned by the Government's proposals for the House of Lords. Other people have gone much further and proposed an elected element. I would not want the House of Commons to be replicated as it would be a waste of resources and because it would pose a challenge to the House of Commons that would weaken rather than strengthen parliamentary democracy. It could also result in gridlock, as has happened in the United States. The system of government there produces a presidential election turnout of about 50 per cent. so it has not done them much good.

Some people would say that a Government as powerful as ours with a majority of more than 170 should be challenged by a stronger Chamber that could produce gridlock. I understand that point, but the most damaging and irreversible measures put through by the present Government have been constitutional ones, such as the changes to the House of Lords, devolution and the introduction of alien voting systems in European and regional elections. Those measures were passed by the House of Lords because its members felt unable to resist them. I understand those who say that gridlock might be better, but I do not agree.

If we take the wrong decisions in respect of the House of Lords, we shall lose the tremendous wisdom that exists among its members, who include people who have served in the House, on other public bodies and succeeded in other walks of life, including business. Inviting such people to sit in a Chamber that does not necessarily reward them for that service, but allows the country to draw on their experience is an excellent system and I do not want to lose it.

Anyone who reads the House of Lords Hansard, as I occasionally do when I am researching an issue, will be startled by the quality of debate there. The upper House also provides quality legal services. Some hon. Members would describe it as the worst public body, but I think that it is the best.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said that if he were to come up with a new system for the House of Lords, he would not start from the same place. If one were to design a brand new constitution for a country, one perhaps would not have started by drawing up a system in which some peers inherit their titles and others gain theirs through appointment, but we do not live in an ideal world. The fact that the House of Lords worked is good enough reason to keep it, and the fact that many of the public bodies to which I referred do not, is good enough reason to get rid of them.

12.30 pm
Mr. Collins

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to the debate.

I begin with an apology: unforeseen circumstances meant that I was away from the Chamber for longer than I had hoped or anticipated. I was able to be present for a wholly admirable maiden speech by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes). It was filled with knowledge of and love for his constituency. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House remember his predecessor, Bob Sheldon, with affection. Should the hon. Gentleman meet Duncan Goodhew, I trust that he will do so in less dramatic circumstances than those he described. I congratulate him on making a good maiden speech and look forward to debating with him for years to come, certainly throughout this Parliament.

I am sorry to have missed what I gather was a good speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), with whom I had an interesting exchange earlier. I believe that he made an important point, which I hope the Minister will address, on the importance of public bodies co-operating with each other, having the same agenda and moving in the same direction.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) spoke wisely about the mystery surrounding much of the work of NDPBs. He talked about the need for ever-greater openness and said that progress had been made on that in recent years. I am sure he would agree, however, that there is scope for further progress. He also mentioned the battle that any Government would have in present circumstances of finding appropriate people to serve on public bodies who have enough spare time and are committed to that role. That concerns everyone; we see the problem in our constituencies and at a national level.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the need to re-engage the public, which sparked a good debate on the problems related to low turnout. I am sure he is right to say that if we are able collectively to crack the problems of getting more members of the public actively involved in public life, that would be part of the solution to increase turnout in all elections to this place, the European Parliament, and local government. That is clearly important. I know that the Minister does not have sole responsibility for delivering higher turnout at elections—he will be delighted to hear that I am not attributing to him the responsibility for that yet, although who knows what will happen later in his career?—but it would be helpful if he addressed how we manage to engage more people of the highest quality in public life.

I am sure that part of the solution is to make it clear that we are interested in ensuring that women, members of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and a range of other groups that have felt less than fully included, play a full role. However, that is not the complete answer, and I am interested to hear what the Government have to say on that either now or later.

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for many years and he has extensive experience in education. In a telling intervention, he referred to the lack of clarity. I shall be candid: it was unclear under the last Conservative Government and it is unclear under this Government whether schools that have a great amount of financial autonomy—grant-maintained schools, foundation schools or whatever—should be counted as part of the total of NDPBs. There are arguments both for and against that, but it reinforces the need, as the Select Committee reported, for there to be clarity in the rules that define what is and is not a public body. For example, it is not clear why the cereal marketing board is a non-departmental public body whereas the wool marketing board is not. There are still elements of uncertainty. There is a clear need for clarification. The rules have not changed since 1997, I admit, but we should try to ensure that people can understand why a body is categorised in one way rather than another.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), in a thoughtful contribution, made some powerful constituency points about the difficulties of accessing lottery funding. I suspect that that concern is shared by many hon. Members, because obtaining access to lottery money for genuinely good causes can be a little frustrating. He also made a powerful constituency case about an explosion at a local chemical plant, and I hope that his characteristic diligence and persistence in pursuing that issue will result in greater certainty and clarification on the part of the various agencies that he mentioned.

My hon. Friend also addressed concerns about reductions in turnout and he had an interesting exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about whether low turnout was good or bad and whether a depoliticised society was a healthier society. It is true to say that by comparison with the situation in Afghanistan, politics in this country is less important to our fellow citizens. and that is probably desirable. A society in which politics means life and death, such as Afghanistan. is probably not entirely healthy. On the other hand, a higher turnout is desirable and we would like to hear the Government's proposals—in due course, not necessarily in this debate—for achieving that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury also rightly mentioned his concern about public bodies that need not exist at all, and cited the Tote as an example. I am not sure that I agree with that example, but it is true that public bodies may be set up in certain circumstances at a certain time to perform a particular function and, some years or even decades later, it is not clear why they still exist. I am sure that the Minister will wish to reassure us that the Government keep existing public bodies under review at all times. The various reporting mechanisms that already exist and the welcome commitment to a new series of annual reports on taskforces will, I hope, keep the feet of Cabinet Office officials to the flame. There is a consensus in the Chamber in favour of keeping some non-departmental public bodies, but we do not want an unlimited number. That should be the loud and clear message from our debate to all those concerned.

I remind the Minister of one or two questions that I posed at the beginning of the debate, relating to the timing and content of the public bodies document. Will it be possible in future to have this debate after, rather than before, the publication of that annual report? Will the Government consider amending it along the lines recommended by the Select Committee? Will we have a commitment that taskforces should last only two years, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended? Does the Minister have anything to say about the accountability issues that were raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, specifically including the extension of the remit and role of the National Audit Office?

We have had a constructive debate and I look forward to the Minister's response.

12.38 pm
Mr. Leslie

Today's debate has been constructive and friendly. It has also been enormously useful in the process of scrutinising the whole question of public bodies, and the Cabinet Office and other Departments will be able to incorporate many of the thoughts and ideas that have been voiced today in the policies that we pursue. take the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the timing of the debate and the publication of the public bodies report. If we could align those events in future years, it would be preferable. I am also grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome to my post. This is the first time we have crossed swords, but today's debate was not violent and I look forward to working with him in the future.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale acknowledged that reforms had been necessary. Any Government carrying out policy must make a careful check to ensure that they always pursue probity and merit as the key criteria at all times in making appointments to public bodies. The hon. Gentleman referred to the numbers of non-departmental public bodies and taskforces. The Government want to keep numbers to a minimum, and the five-year review process examines all the fundamental questions, including the existence of those public bodies. But we have to make sure that the functions that those bodies undertake are met somehow, and it is a difficult balance to strike.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the next edition of "Public Bodies" in 2001 and whether it will widen information in line with the Select Committee's recommendations. We are trying our best to endeavour to broaden the scope of the report. Compiling these documents is not always easy given the vast number of quangos and NDPBs involved. but we are trying to make improvements as quickly as possible. On the question of confirmation hearings—raised by the Select Committee—for the chairs of some of the larger bodies, I am afraid that I cannot offer an enormous amount of hope. The principle of ministerial appointment must remain. We should engage with Select Committees in the scrutiny of public bodies, but the Commissioner for Public Appointments is the better and more appropriate safeguard for a lot of the concerns that the Committee voiced. In terms of the allocation of functions as between public bodies and Departments, this is a judgment for Ministers and for Parliament to make in how best to scrutinise the work of the public sector.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), as well as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked how we defined taskforces and whether we were looking to bring that definition into line with that of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I agree with the general definition and we are trying to stick to the two-year rule. However, we are reviewing those bodies that are more than two years old.

Mr. Oaten

Will the Minister give a commitment that the 52 bodies that are over the two-year rule will be reviewed?

Mr. Leslie

All taskforces, ad hoc advisory groups and review groups are examined and monitored at all times and we are in regular discussions with Departments about those issues. Obviously, there will be certain circumstances in which it is not appropriate to conclude a taskforce just because a two-year period has elapsed. We must retain a degree of flexibility.

I appreciate the shift in the position of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale on the Disability Rights Commission. That is welcome. I believe that that body is proving to be very important and we will watch its work develop over future months and years.

The hon. Members for Winchester and for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked whether the boards of NDPBs will meet in public. We are trying to promote the code of practice in which this question is raised. Similarly, in terms of the role of the National Audit Office, best practice suggests that we should be widening access for the NAO to all public bodies where possible.

The question of the role of elected representatives on public bodies is an interesting one. We already require disclosure of political affiliations in appointments to public bodies and we focus on merit, rather than on the basis of some partisan desire. I do not believe that activity in a political party should be a bar to appointment and, as has been expressed in the debate, political activity can enhance the role of public bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes) gave an insightful and intelligent maiden speech. He has a hard act to follow when we think of his predecessor, Bob Sheldon, but the quality of his speech showed that he is well up to the task. His background and involvement in trade unionism, local government and citizens advice bureaux will stand him in good stead in his time here. His speech showed an understanding of and pride in the local communities that he serves. His vision is clear and good; it will do much to encourage his constituents. I know that he will play a strong role in the Select Committee on Public Administration, and I look forward to seeing him take part in future Cabinet Office debates.

The hon. Member for Winchester talked about the need to reinvigorate the public voice and participation in public life in general. It is certainly important that efforts be made to encourage volunteering and appointments to school governing bodies and other local organisations. I share the view that more effort needs to be made to improve diversity. We strive always to reach the targets that we have set, particularly in terms of bringing young people into public life. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who has had to leave the Chamber, as she explained earlier, talked about taking risks in appointing young people and referred to the wild card. I am not sure whether that applies to me—time will tell.

I also share the hon. Gentleman's view that organisations should reflect all elements of service delivery and that it is important to have not only professionals but service users such as patients, victims of crime and council house tenants on public bodies. On the implementation of the code of practice for public bodies, the hon. Gentleman asked about the requirement to publish annual reports. We wish to see that requirement implemented more frequently, and acknowledge that more must be done to ensure that best practice is spread.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough expressed strong views that more efforts must be made to drive forward diversity in public appointments, with the greater representation of a variety of groups in society, particularly women. She made insightful comments about the ideas of networks breaking out of the classic appointment system. The concept of equality audits is already essentially undertaken by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who operates in a monitoring capacity in the very way my hon. Friend seeks. I shall certainly be looking at broadening the types of publication in which vacancies for public appointments are advertised, as she described, rather than simply concentrating on the broadsheet newspapers. My hon. Friend told us that she believed much greater and more proactive work is necessary in this area, and I have taken those comments to heart.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) had a broader interpretation of public bodies. I appreciate his points entirely. He talked about local government participation and mentioned his experiences with grant-maintained schools and voluntary organisations. He said that other public bodies as well as the Government provide public services. We must accept that interchange and dialogue are necessary between the public sector and non-governmental organisations in general.

The hon. Gentleman spoke a lot about the House of Lords reform, as did the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). The Government have developed a considered and well argued approach and have looked at the issue properly in the context of the United Kingdom's political system. We have said that no political party should command a majority in the second Chamber. A House in which the Government of the day have no majority cannot be regarded as a poodle or a House of cronies. The Prime Minister's power of patronage has been massively reduced.

Our decisions are underpinned by very clear principles. The second Chamber must not undermine the position of the House of Commons. It must bring distinctive expertise to the scrutiny of legislation and must also be more representative of the country as a whole. The Government believe that a wholly or largely elected second Chamber would not be the right approach for the UK at this time. Although I question some of the hon. Gentleman's assumptions on House of Lords reform, at least he is attempting to engage in the reform process, which is welcome and refreshing.

In a very enlightening speech—the first I have heard from him and the first I am sure of many—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) talked of the need for more co-operation between public bodies. He also commented on the Scottish experience of promoting a "bonfire of the quangos". Devolved authorities are quite rightly pursuing their own approach to the issue, and the Scottish Executive have set in train their own process from which we can all learn and which we should watch very closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart said that we should recognise the balance that we have to strike between the number of elections to public authorities and the efficacy of service delivery, which is often well served by a public body that is accountable to Ministers. He also mentioned local government consultation meetings such as neighbourhood forums, and the difficulty of encouraging a healthy turnout for those events. As we know, occasionally such meetings are attended only by the usual suspects, with longer speeches and few signs of discontent. Others can judge whether that applies to today's debate; I would not say that it does.

In his speech, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pursued a refreshingly consensual approach and discussed some very specific examples. He described the sad incident in his constituency and how he has attempted to gain more information from the Environment Agency. I know that my ministerial colleagues will certainly be examining his comments. He also raised the issue of what motivates his constituents to vote. I share his belief in the importance of local government, even if I do not quite share his opinions on the European Union. His speech was refreshingly progressive and egalitarian, but I am not sure that that bodes well for his career on the Opposition Front Bench.

The principles of public service reform cannot be forgotten. The big-picture issue for this debate is the need to have a framework for national standards, inspection and accountability for all public services, to devolve more freedom to the front-line professionals, to recognise the value and work of front-line staff, and to strive whenever possible to give more choice to service users. Public service reform is important and is not a matter for only the Government to initiate: public bodies have a role in it, too.

The work of the Select Committee on Public Administration should not go unrecognised. I am aware that the Committee has announced that it will be conducting an inquiry into public appointments. The Government will of course co-operate with that inquiry and carefully consider recommendations. I should certainly welcome new ideas on how we can broaden the composition and membership of public bodies, as that is an aspiration that I share entirely. In the past, far too many public appointments were available only to those who knew where to look for them or the right people to talk to. The Government are putting an end to that practice. Wider publicising of posts is clearly crucial to reform, and new technology can help ensure that up-to-date information is available to as many people as possible.

The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough made on women are crucial. Rather than sitting passively and waiting for applications to be made, much can be done actively to promote and encourage interest. The Government's commitment to equal representation for women and men will require extra effort to achieve, but next year, for example, the Cabinet Office will be holding a series of regional seminars across the country led by the new Minister for Women—the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). The seminars will start in the new year and seek to provide practical information, advice and opportunities to women who already hold a public appointment.

I should also take a moment to pay tribute to the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has been instrumental in developments in recent years. Its first report recommended the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Looking back, it seems astonishing that that role did not exist before.

Ever since the Government came to office we have consistently demonstrated our commitment to more open and transparent government. Our commitments in the new Freedom of Information Act 2000 are underpinned by a code of practice that sets clear standards on how information should be made available. Dialogue should take place with service users at all times. The new statutory right of access to a wide range of information held by public bodies enshrines the existing practice of many quangos which were already proactive in releasing a huge volume of data into the public arena.

The Government intend to strike the right balance in their policy towards public bodies, checking the number and growth of new quangos while simultaneously improving the systems of those that are in place. We have to work hard to increase diversity in public appointments while always focusing on appointment by merit and anticipating the major changes from the growing regional dimension of public policy. I look forward very much indeed to working closely with hon. Members and the Public Administration Committee in reforming public bodies and modernising the structures through which so many vital public bodies are delivered.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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