Public Bodies Bill [Lords]
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important Second Reading debate. The Bill gives the Government of the day the power to set alight a bonfire of the quangos. Over recent decades, I have been involved in a few of these bonfires. I particularly recall one such bonfire in the early 1990s, when I was very much part of “quangoland” and I painfully ended up on top of one of the bonfires. I was heavily singed, but no real harm was done.
Another bonfire of the quangos that I was involved with was carried out by the Welsh Assembly Government a few years ago, when I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales, and I wish to comment on how that was conducted in order to draw a comparison with the democratic and consultative excellence of the processes being followed here at Westminster. That bonfire represented a major change in the governance of Wales, as it included the abolition of the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board, among other bodies. No discussion took place on this; the First Minister simply addressed the Chamber on the last day before the summer recess and announced abolition, without warning, debate or discussion. The debate about the consequences of that bonfire is not for today, except to say that it highlights the way in which our democratic system works in the UK Parliament.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office put forward his proposals last October. They have since been significantly amended in the upper House by their lordships and they have been further amended by a written statement tabled only yesterday about S4C, prior to their being debated at great length by us in the Chamber today. I suggest that the Bill is far better for its amendment and it demonstrates just how effectively our second revising Chamber functions in its unamended form. I wish to say in passing how much I greatly enjoyed reading and learning from the powerful speeches made by Lord Wigley, Lord Roberts of Conwy and Lord Elystan-Morgan in the other place.
Non-departmental public bodies play an important role in our democratic system and the Bill does not challenge that principle. Its main purpose is to increase accountability and transparency, and to limit the role of public bodies to that which is needed for good governance. My right hon. Friend the Minister considered more
than 900 of these public bodies currently in existence and applied the appropriate test of value to them before deciding on their future. It is important to recognise and to say that many of these public bodies are hugely valuable to society, bringing private sector and voluntary sector expertise into the process of government and often facilitating much of what might be referred to as “the big society”. The Bill is about identifying which public bodies bring value to the governance of the UK and which do not.
I particularly wish to refer, as many others have before, to Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—which is one of the bodies mentioned in the Bill. S4C is a unique body that is of great importance to Wales. It is not just a TV channel; it is the cultural backbone of Wales and its success is inextricably linked to the recent success of the Welsh language. The long-term decline of the Welsh language has been halted over recent years, but without S4C that decline would resume. The Welsh language is fundamental to what makes Wales the proud and distinctive nation that it is.
I enjoyed what Lord Elystan-Morgan said about Welsh in the other place so much that I wish to quote from his speech. He said:
“A living language with a living literature is a jewel in the treasury of human culture, and the Welsh language no more and no less than any other living language is such a jewel. It is 1,500 years old and was in existence at least 500 years before the French language came into being. The French language came into being only at the end of the first millennium; up till then it was a patois of Latin. That shows something of the pedigree of the language that we are talking about.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1628.]
S4C is crucial to the language’s cultural preservation.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has recognised the concern expressed in the debate in the upper House, throughout Wales and in the Chamber today, and has removed S4C from schedule 4 to the Bill. That is a very welcome move but, as we realise from today’s debate, there will be much discussion about the future of S4C and that has yet to be settled. We seek to ensure its operational and editorial independence in the long term, along with its long-term financial security. I look forward to taking an active part in the consultation that there will be on the governance arrangements for S4C over the next few months.
This Bill is hugely important, as it will ensure a greater level of accountability and transparency within our democratic system, and I look forward to seeing it passed into law.