HL Deb 11 January 2000 vol 608 cc524-7

2.39 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, and, if so, how, task forces are held accountable to Parliament.

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

My Lords, task forces are accountable to Ministers; Ministers are accountable to Parliament. Those task forces classified as non-departmental public bodies are accountable direct to Parliament through their sponsoring department.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for making it clear that these task forces, unlike the much maligned quangos, are not established by Acts of Parliament and are not governed by such Acts. They are appointed by Ministers at their whim and are responsible to those Ministers. Is not the whole system open to abuse? Should not the Government make these task forces subject to parliamentary scrutiny, along with the growing army of working groups and special advisers who also spend taxpayers' money?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think the move towards task forces is a good thing. It means that, before they make decisions, Ministers can receive advice from beyond only the traditional advice available either within Whitehall or beyond Whitehall in relation to special interest groups. In principle, I believe that this is a good development. It makes for more transparent government and provides a much wider source of advice.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, as regards perhaps the most recently instigated task force set up to consider near earth objects, will the Minister tell us whether we will be allowed a debate on this subject when the report is made available in approximately three months' time?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is for the Department of Trade and Industry to decide what should take place in relation to the report once it is available and it is for the usual channels to determine whether there should be a debate on the subject.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, will the Minister tell us how the Government will evaluate the work of the task forces; namely, whether their work is good, bad or indifferent? The Minister told the House that he thought task forces were a good thing. When will he know whether they are a good thing?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton?

My Lords, the role of a task force is to give advice to a Minister, a department or the Government on a particular issue. The success or otherwise of a task force will be determined by the quality of the decision taken by the Minister or government department.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, for two and a half years I had the honour of serving as the vice-chairman of a government task force which completed its work just before Christmas. The chairman of that task force was a Conservative former Secretary of State. In the Football Task Force our experience was exactly as my noble and learned friend has described. We undertook a worthwhile examination of the subject and published four substantial reports. Does my noble and learned friend agree that it is desirable that the reports of task forces—in particular, our task force—should be published by the Stationery Office and made available to Members of this House and those in another place and, indeed, that the contents should be debated here in due course?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is for individual departments to determine what is done with the results of a particular task force. However, I agree that in many cases it would be both appropriate and helpful for reports from task forces to be published.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many task forces have been set up since 1997?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that I have just answered that question in writing in response to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy. I am grateful to noble Lords for reminding me that the answer is 40. However, I should like to confirm that by reference to the Written Answer that will be published today in Hansard.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, since my noble and learned friend is in such an informative frame of mind, will he also tell us what is the difference between an advisory quango and a task force?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the difference between a task force and a non-departmental public body is the permanence of the non-departmental public body. If the NDPB is intended to be permanent and to carry out permanent functions, it is not a task force, but a non-departmental public body.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, is not another major difference between task forces and non-departmental public bodies—quangos—that, in the main, members of quangos are paid, while those who work on task forces give their services free and gratis?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have tried to address the fundamental difference between NPDBs and task forces. However, I am sure that those who serve on task forces are happy to serve the nation in a free capacity.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, was a task force set up for the Dome? If so, were its findings subject to public scrutiny?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Dome is certainly subject to public scrutiny. No task force was set up for the Dome, but the public will come to see it and will form their views as to whether they like it.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will the Minister concede that, at the very least, task forces should be subject to a commissioner for public appointments? Will he also tell the House why the Government rejected the proposition that task forces should be subject to the rules proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Nolan?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not think that that course would be appropriate. One purpose of task forces is to enable a Minister or department to receive appropriate advice on particular issues. If task forces were subject to the kind of procedures referred to by the noble Lord, that would greatly inhibit the ability of a Minister or a department to get access quickly and sensibly to advice from a much wider network than that available from normal sources.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the Minister has told the House how many task forces have been created. Furthermore, he has told the House that those jobs should be finite because task forces are established to undertake a particular task. Will he also tell the House how many task fates have ceased to function and are no longer in existence because they have finished their task?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not have the precise figure to hand. However, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, in an earlier reply to a supplementary question the Minister referred to transparency as regards task forces. However, he failed to give an absolute assurance that the reports of task forces will be published. How does he reconcile those two comments?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, very frequently the results of an examination by a task force will be published in effect either by the publication of a report or by publication of the consultation. That means that the wider range of consultation undertaken on behalf of the Minister becomes public.