HL Deb 08 December 1999 vol 607 cc1276-8

2.57 p.m.

Lord Islwyn

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in reducing the number of quangos.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, in 1997–98 there was a net reduction of 55 non-departmental public bodies over the previous year. Public Bodies 1999, which is due to be published on 16th December, is likely to show a further decrease in numbers.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the turmoil caused in Gwent in south-east Wales by the proposal of the Arts Council for Wales to close Gwent Theatre which over 23 years has provided such an excellent theatre-in-education service? All local authorities and Members of Parliament in the area are opposed to the proposal and the opposition is also buttressed by a public petition of over 8,000 signatures. Even the staff of the Arts Council is now threatening a vote of no confidence in the board. As that body receives £15 million of public money, is there not now a need for a full inquiry into the matter? Meanwhile, should not the chief executive, M.S.J. Weston, and the chairman resign?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am aware of that because my noble friend told me so on the telephone yesterday, for which I am genuinely grateful. However, responsibility for sponsoring the Arts Council for Wales transferred to the National Assembly on 1st July. As my right honourable friend the Leader of the House has already said in connection with Scottish affairs, the Government do not believe that it is appropriate to reply on matters which are not the responsibility of UK Ministers. The responsibilities assumed by the Assembly on 1st July are defined by Part II and Schedules 2 to 4 to the Government of Wales Act, along with the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 1999. However, there was an adjournment debate on this issue in the other place on 1st December 1999. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place undertook that he would pass on the concerns expressed in that adjournment debate to the relevant Minister in the National Assembly for Wales and to the chairman of the Arts Council. I undertake to do the same in relation to the matters raised by my noble friend today.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister cannot answer for the devolved bodies, will he tell us whether or not the publication in December will include any quangos in Scotland, Wales and possibly Northern Ireland? We now have many task forces. Are they listed under quangos? If not, will he define what a quango is currently known as?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, not a "quangaroo", as my noble and learned friend the Deputy Leader of the House suggests. I believe that the publication in December will refer to quangos in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Perhaps I may confirm that in writing or correct myself if I am wrong. Task forces are a separate kind of body. They are set up to help ensure that decisions are soundly based and representative of a wide range of views. They are not intended to have the permanence of non-departmental public bodies, which is the phrase used to refer to quangos.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that included among the quangos to which he has referred, there is an unknown number, running into some hundreds, of task forces to which have been delegated by the Ministers concerned executive and advisory powers of some significance, without any reference to Parliament? Does the noble and learned Lord think it is now time that we should publish particulars of those task forces, the terms under which they are engaged and the personnel involved in order that there can be perfect transparency in the parliamentary terms to which we have become accustomed and to which we look forward in the future?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, to some extent that touches on the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. The Government have set up about 40 task forces and 250 short-term working groups which do not have a standing remit. That is perhaps the essential difference between those bodies and a non-departmental public body. It is open to noble Lords to ask any questions they wish of the Government. Indeed, I know that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington has asked many questions in relation to task forces which we have endeavoured to answer.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, what proportion of the quangos in existence when the Government came into power still exist? Were the figures which the noble and learned Lord gave directed to the whole of the United Kingdom, or England and Wales together, or England and Wales separately? Does the Minister not agree that the Government fought the last election on the basis that one of the justifications for the Welsh Assembly, an elected body, was that it would enable them to get rid of many unnecessary quangos in Wales? That has not happened; they are persisting with them.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there will be a percentage reduction of 1.5 per cent in 1998–99. The reduction in expenditure is from £24.1 million to £23.3 million. There are some quangos we cannot get rid of but we are doing what we said would do—making sure that there are no unnecessary quangos.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that there is no such word as "quango" in Welsh? Let us do away with it.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not believe that the word "quango" exists in the English language, let alone the Welsh language. That is why "quangaroo" or non-departmental public body may be more appropriate.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how many more quangos will be created as a result of the passage of the 28 Bills envisaged in the Queen's Speech? If he cannot give the answer off the top of his head or from his brief today, will he agree to write to me?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am quite sure that there will be a net reduction in the number of non-departmental public bodies year on year.