HC Deb 26 February 2003 vol 400 cc124-32WH 3.30 pm
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

At the time of the last referendum we were promised that just about everything that was bad in Welsh politics would be confined to the dustbin of history if only we had the good sense to vote for an Assembly. A new Jerusalem was going to be produced in Wales's green and pleasant land. The days in which unelected and unaccountable individuals in quangos made decisions on behalf of communities were to come to an end—so were the days when individual Ministers in the Welsh Office made decisions that were not subject to a vote. Those Ministers, by the way, had been democratically elected, were accountable and could, indeed, be removed.

The quangos were to be the first victim of that new Jerusalem. Indeed, all of the political parties that campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum were committed to the abolition of the quango state in Wales—not just one, two or three quangos, but the lot. In the words that were used at the time, we were going to make a bonfire of the quangos. Sadly, that has not happened. There has been no bonfire. In fact, it has been a damp squib. If anyone has researched the matter, they will find that there are as many quangos in Wales now—and probably more—than there were when Ron Davies first made the commitment in 1995, or by the time that the referendum was held, or since the Assembly was first set up.

It seems that those people and all the political parties in the Assembly have learned to love rule by quangos. At the same time, they knew that the commitment was a cheap publicity stunt. Anyone who had bothered to read the Bill, which became an Act, would know that it contained no powers to allow the Assembly to abolish the most important—the executive—quangos in Wales. However, it is not just a matter of having the executive powers to deal with the quangos. The Assembly has the powers to deal with the non-executive quangos, but its lack of commitment is shown by the fact that it has failed to abolish them. We still have a quango state in Wales. If the bonfire had happened, we could have been subject, for want of a better word, to a more democratic and accountable Wales.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

The hon. Gentleman's railing against the dangers of government by unelected appointees would carry considerably more weight if he had supported the proposal for an elected second Chamber in Parliament. He voted against both the 100 per cent. and the 80 per cent. elected options. If patronage is wrong in the case of the Welsh Assembly, why is it right in Westminster?

Llew Smith

I was not defending patronage in this place.

Adam Price

Why did the hon. Gentleman not vote for 80 per cent.?

Llew Smith

The hon. Gentleman posed the question and I assume that he wants to hear the answer that I am attempting to give. I did not vote for patronage in the House. I am totally opposed to a second Chamber that is made up of appointed members. If we had such a second Chamber, it would be a quango like those that we are subject to in Wales. A quango is a quango, regardless of whether it is in Westminster or Wales. That is why I voted against that type of second Chamber and in favour of refusing to set up any second Chamber in this community. My position is simple: if the Scottish Parliament does not need a second Chamber, why does Westminster need one?

Adam Price

Why did the hon. Gentleman not vote for 80 per cent.?

Llew Smith

You are not only posing questions, but answering them too—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. The Chair is not posing any questions. A 30-minute Adjournment debate is essentially an opportunity for an hon. or right hon. Member to raise an issue with the Government and get responses from the relevant Ministers. Interventions are allowed, but continuous harassment and barracking are not.

Llew Smith

I welcome interventions. I deliberately made my contribution relatively short to encourage them because several weeks ago I tried to intervene on a debate on the single currency but was refused.

I do not believe that the people and the political parties that made up the yes campaign were serious in their commitment to make a bonfire of the quangos. The Assembly did not get powers to deal with the most important of them—the executive quangos—but it has powers to deal with non-executive quangos. However, there are still more non-executive quangos today than there were when the Assembly was set up. That suggests that the people and political parties that made that commitment were not serious and that it was a public relations stunt.

Several weeks ago, I was at a lobby where that point became relevant. Trade unions in Wales, including Unison, were in Westminster to lobby Members of Parliament because of the transfer of housing stock. They did not come here to complain that powers were being transferred from the Assembly to local authorities: their objection was that pressure was being applied to transfer the power over housing stock from local authorities to the Welsh Assembly. I found that unacceptable, as did just about everyone else who attended that lobby. The Assembly had made a commitment not only to abolish the quangos, but to transfer many of their powers to local authorities, but it was doing the opposite with the housing stock in Wales. It was helping to put pressure on devolved, elected and accountable local authorities to transfer powers over housing stock to new-style quangos that the Welsh Assembly was setting up.

I would have thought that the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) would have opposed that. However, many politicians who used to be committed to making a bonfire of the quangos—to ending the quango state in Wales—are now rushing to distance themselves from that campaign, which was supported by all the political parties that were a part of the yes campaign. They are rushing to divorce or distance themselves from the commitment to make Wales more accountable by making a bonfire of the quangos.

Ron Davies, a previous Secretary of State for Wales who made the original commitment in 1995 to make a bonfire of the quangos, recently stated that it was "just a colourful phrase". Edwina Hart declared:

"I have never favoured bonfires." Janet Davies, a nationalist Assembly Member, proclaimed:

"We should not have a reflex action to get rid of all Assembly-sponsored public bodies", by which she obviously means quangos. When the current Secretary of State for Wales responded to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) and I, he merely stated that the Assembly provides for all its agencies to be more accountable. That is somewhat less than the bonfire of the quangos that he and the yes campaign committed themselves to only a few years ago. Not only were we going to get rid of the quango state in Wales, even more ridiculously, the moneys that would be raised from the abolition of the quangos were,

"to pay for a democratically elected and accountable Welsh Assembly". Only a few hon. Members are here today, but most of them would accept that that was a silly commitment to make. They will also accept that, once again, the commitment has not been delivered.

Some while back, I wrote to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, asking whether they had received any correspondence from Rhodri Morgan asking for legislative time for the Government to make a bonfire of the executive quangos—the most important quangos. The answer was no. It seems that just about all the parties have learned to love rule by quangos.

Adam Price

I have sympathy with the drift of the hon. Gentleman's argument about democratic accountability. Can he give some examples of the Assembly-sponsored public bodies that he would like to be abolished? Will he take the Arts Council of Wales within the Assembly, into the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Welsh Language? Does he see that there is some value in some instances in having arms-length bodies with sector-specific objectives?

Llew Smith

I was not the person who made the commitment to make the bonfire of the quangos. I am sure that the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr would accept that. As for the Arts Council of Wales, I would be in favour of abolition. The Minister and I experienced its decision-making a few years ago, when, in total opposition to the feelings of local communities, it tried to close Gwent Theatre in Education, which most people will accept is one of the finest theatres and education companies in the United Kingdom. I am a member of its board—a non-paid member—but most people would accept that that is so. The Arts Council of Wales was taking decisions, supposedly on behalf of the community—a community that it was not a part of, that it did not understand, and that it treated with total contempt. Much to the credit of the local community, it made its voice heard and, as a result, the decision was changed. Not much later, the chief executive resigned.

As for other quangos, Education and Learning Wales is nonsense—consider the decision and announcement some days ago on the IT contract, whose costs have gone through the roof. Once again, decisions have been taken by bodies that are not accountable, not elected and cannot be removed. Surely that is wrong. I am not saying that all quangos should be subject to the bonfire. I thought that the original commitment was daft because many scientific committees, which are quangos, but are there to advise Government, would be abolished. Does the hon. Gentleman want that? I suggest not. I certainly do not.

The other aspect of public accountability that had to change was that Ministers in the Welsh Office were making decisions that were not subject to a vote. That system had to go and be replaced by a democratic assembly where democratic decision making would be accountable to the vote. I think that most hon. Members would accept that that has not happened either. I should have thought that having reneged on those promises and made a complete mess of running the Assembly—for which I think all the political parties must share responsibility—they would be more humble.

No. Rhodri Morgan has now set up the Richards committee, which is stuffed with his own appointees, who, as we all know, will arrive at the conclusion that the Assembly must have powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament and that there must be 80 members instead of six. That will happen because we know Rhodri's position on the matter. Then they wonder why people are not taking any interest in the committee and why people who are opposed to the Assembly and to giving it more powers are not turning up to give evidence.

To be fair to the Welsh National party, it is committed to a separatist Wales although it used coded language to say otherwise; yet most codes are indeed broken. Ieuan Wyn Jones. the leader of the Welsh National party, once proclaimed:

"Labour are clearly unable to win a general election and self government for Wales is the only answer." Yet Cynog Dafis said:

"Plaid's aspirations remain full self-government … The status that used to be called independence." The most recent thought of Ieuan Wyn Jones is,

"I think self-government now needs to be redefined. I much prefer to use full national status." Whatever difference the party may have over words, its commitment is still to be separate from the rest of the United Kingdom: a Wales where the people in England are no longer a part of the decision-making process.

I find it ironic that while the nationalists are unable, and totally opposed, to share decision making with the English, they are quite willing to share it with, and indeed to be ruled by, the European Central Bank, which is not elected or accountable and cannot be removed. It seems as if the nationalists have some sort of love affair with the European central bankers, as long as they are not English.

In terms of accountability, it is wrong to split up the United Kingdom. We can learn from one of my predecessors, Nye Bevan, who always used to say that there is no difference between an unemployed worker in south Wales and an unemployed worker in London: there is no difference between a rural worker or a coal miner in north Wales and a rural worker or a coal miner in the north of England. That is why he decided to set up a national health service, not just for Wales, but for the whole of the United Kingdom. We can learn from people like Nye.

In conclusion, public accountability in Wales, not quangos, is increasingly subject to the bonfire. We were not promised that, and it has been a sad day for Wales that this has not happened.

3.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) on securing this debate. All of us who serve Wales have at heart the best interests of the people whom we represent. I am in politics because I am determined to do something about my constituents' quality of life, and I am sure that the same is true of my hon. Friend and his constituents. To do that, we must have first-class and effective public services.

I am delighted to be taking part in this debate, which bears directly on the key issues of how we can best deliver quality services to the people of Wales. I know that my hon. Friend shares my aspirations for the people whom we represent. I strongly hold the view that we can best serve our people and deliver services by pushing decision making out from the centre wherever appropriate. We have come a long way since the election of the Government in 1997.

I contrast the journey that we have made since then with the situation that existed before. Decisions were taken at the centre, often in Whitehall, when they could have been taken in the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I remember the debate about whether my children's secondary school, which took pupils aged 11 to 16, should have a sixth form. The final decision on that proposal was taken not by the school governors, the parents or the LEA but by the then Secretary of State for Wales. I have often mused on such matters. Let us imagine the Cabinet of that time being called together at No. 10, with the Prime Minister calling it to order and saying that the first item on the agenda was that the Secretary of State for Wales was to report on whether West Mon school at Pontypool should have a sixth form.

Things have changed dramatically since 1997. We have a democratically elected Assembly to take decisions about the delivery of public services in Wales; we have a Scottish Parliament; we have an Assembly in Northern Ireland, albeit temporarily suspended at the moment; and we hope to have regional assemblies in England. Prior to the creation of those Assemblies, there existed an unsatisfactory way of running public services in Wales. Only three Welsh Ministers were available to take responsibility for, and decisions on, everything from health to transport and from education to planning. The only way in which the system was made to work was by Ministers delegating their responsibilities and powers to quangos—the theme of my hon. Friend's contribution.

I remember how difficult it was to work with many of those quangos. I have often thought that people seem to have no difficulty in finding Members of Parliament or their local councillor when they have a problem; however, let them just try to find out who runs the local general hospital or college of further education. My hon. Friend and I have been comrades in arms in many a battle. One in particular was to uncover considerable mismanagement in our local college of further education, which was run by a quango. My hon. Friend referred to the battle in which we were both engaged concerning the appalling decisions about the Gwynedd theatre made by people in senior positions at the Arts Council of Wales. I well remember the difficulties and our campaign.

To come to the core of my hon. Friend's argument, it is, in the devolved context, for the National Assembly to determine how it will deliver services in Wales, and whether that should be done by the Assembly itself, by local authorities or by Assembly-sponsored public bodies—or quangos. However, we have a role in this place. It is for Parliament to set the primary legislative framework within which the Assembly must operate. It is the job of Members of Parliament at Westminster to debate that and to vote the necessary funding to enable the Assembly to provide the relevant services. Within the broad parameters that we set it is for the Assembly to set priorities, to allocate funding, to ensure that services are working effectively and economically and, to a significant degree, to decide on the mechanisms by which the services can be delivered.

We should be careful to avoid generalisations about Assembly-sponsored public bodies, because some of them may provide the best answer in some contexts—such as science and research, which my hon. Friend mentioned. However, in other cases they may not be the best answer. Something that does not work well in one case may be exactly what is needed in another. What one Assembly-sponsored public body has done well may not be done superbly well by another. I should certainly want the greatest openness and accountability from any organisation that was providing public services. We should not be overly rigid in prejudging the structures that we want in Wales—a point that was, I think, conceded by my hon. Friend.

Llew Smith

I accept the Minister's point about the Assembly now having responsibility for many public services. However, a commitment was given by all the parties that were committed to a yes vote for the Welsh Assembly that when it was established, with its powers over non-executive quangos, it would abolish not one, two, three or four, but the whole lot; it was going to make a bonfire of the quangos. That was not my work. I thought that it was a bit daft at the time. Still, I should like the Minister to respond on the subject of the commitment that was given, and the fact that the Assembly, and all the political parties in the Assembly, reneged on it.

Mr. Touhig

I shall develop that point in a moment. I am aware of the statement that was made at the time. I do not think that we had so much a bonfire of the quangos as a small coal fire. Perhaps I shall demonstrate how that came about as I continue my remarks. For my part, I want the best services for my constituents. I recognise that some services can be delivered effectively by Assembly-sponsored public bodies, or quangos.

We should not forget, I think, that there have been significant improvements in the behaviour of quangos since 1997. In that period the Government, in partnership with the Assembly, have done three things. We have reformed the structure of many of the Assembly-sponsored public bodies; we have maintained the rigorous scrutiny of their effectiveness; and we have reformed the system of appointing members.

To deal first with the structural changes, there were 19 executive quangos in 1997; there are now 15. The map has changed with the merger of the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales. Tai Cymru, the Welsh Health Common Services Authority and Health Promotions in Wales were abolished, and their functions were transferred to the Assembly. The Cardiff Bay development corporation was dissolved, and my hon. Friend will remember that he and I made common cause in campaigning for greater public investment in our valleys when we saw public investment going to Cardiff bay.

Llew Smith

The fact that the Cardiff Bay development corporation has gone has nothing to do with the Welsh Assembly; the development corporation had a set life. Tai Cymru was abolished before the Assembly was established. Does the Minister accept that there has been no reduction at all in the number of quangos in Wales?

Mr. Touhig

No, I do not accept that. As I have pointed out, there has been a reduction. Some of the quangos were abolished before the Assembly was set up, which is why I prefaced my remarks by saying that we, the Government, and the Assembly had taken the steps.

There has been the abolition of the training and enterprise councils and of the Further Education Funding Council for Wales, with the transfer of those functions to the National Council for Education and Training in Wales and the WDA. We now have continuing rigorous scrutiny of quangos, and the Labour-led Assembly is committed to accelerating a review of major sponsored bodies to ensure that they are necessary, effective and efficient, and to the reviews being completed by 2003–04. The objective of those reviews is for Assembly-sponsored public bodies to be retained only where they are the most appropriate, cost-effective means of carrying out functions.

To date, reviews of the WDA, the Countryside Council for Wales, the National Museum and Galleries of Wales, the Welsh Language Board, the National Library of Wales and the Wales Tourist Board have already been completed and discussed in plenary sessions of the Assembly. Plenary debates on completed reviews have resulted in unanimous Assembly support for the retention of those bodies so far reviewed.

Strategic reviews of the royal commission on the ancient and historical monuments of Wales and the executive agency Cadw have been completed, and the findings are being fed into the historic environment review of Wales that the Minister with responsibility for the environment has commissioned. A review of the Sports Council for Wales is well under way and a review of Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales is planned to start in the spring. That shows that we are continuing to apply rigorous standards to our Welsh quangos.

Another strand of improvement since 1997 has been in the way that members are appointed. All appointments to Assembly-sponsored public bodies in Wales are made in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointment's code of practice on ministerial appointments to public bodies. The code is based on the principles of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Nolan report. We can contrast that with what existed when the Tories were in government and there were jobs for the boys. We saw that throughout the quango structure in Wales.

Adam Price

Of course, there is another level of public accountability, which is UK-wide public bodies that have a responsibility to Wales, such as the Strategic Rail Authority or the new regulator, the Office of Communication. Does the Minister believe that the National Assembly should have the right to appoint a member for every major public institution that covers Wales?

Mr. Touhig

No, I certainly do not, but for any appointment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be in consultation with colleagues in the Assembly when any aspect of Wales's interest is affected, and we shall judge what is appropriate. However, I do not believe that there should be any automatic appointment.

Last year, the then Secretary of State for Wales succinctly summarised the improvements that we have made when he told my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent:

"What has happened is that those bodies" he was referring to Assembly-sponsored public bodies—

"are now much more locally accountable in Wales than they ever were, and appointments to them are much more open and transparent than they ever were under the previous Administration."—[Official Report, 19 June 2002; Vol. 387, c. 263.] I fully understand my hon. Friend's dislike and mistrust of Assembly-sponsored public bodies—quangos—and he has good grounds for that. I have had similar experiences. He and I have shared problems in trying to solve such difficulties in the past. However, the Government have done a huge amount to improve, to scrutinise and to reform the Assembly-sponsored public bodies throughout Wales. We have done that to the point at which I am confident that they provide a useful solution—but not the only solution—for delivering services in appropriate circumstances.

We must constantly keep under review that system of delivering public services. It is the intention of the Secretary of State and myself to take part in those reviews and to make appropriate changes where necessary. My colleagues in the Assembly who are responsible for the reviews that are carried out there intend to do exactly the same. I recognise my hon. Friend's strong feelings, but I hope that he will recognise that we have made some progress in trying to make improvements.

Llew Smith

Does the Minister accept that there has still been no bonfire of the quangos, a commitment that was given by all the political parties that campaigned for a yes vote?

Mr. Touhig

I made the point that there has been no bonfire of the quangos but, as I said earlier, we have a small coal fire that is still burning. We must keep the issue under review, but we have made some progress. I intend, with the Secretary of State, to play my part in keeping under review the delivery of public services by quangos.