Ministerial Patronage (Parliamentary Scrutiny)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 22nd March 1993.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright , Cannock and Burntwood 4:31 pm, 22nd March 1993

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for ministerial appointments to public bodies to be subject to a Parliamentary scrutiny and confirmation process through Select Committees. The Bill is about patronage—the patronage powers of Ministers and of the Prime Minister to appoint people to public posts. My contention is that those powers are excessive, often inefficient and frequently abused. The Bill is designed to make the patronage powers of Ministers more accountable to Parliament and to parliamentary scrutiny.

The issue has a long history. From the 18th century onwards, Parliament has been fighting for its rights against Ministers who have deployed the armoury of patronage and prerogative powers to bribe and buy their way through the House. The subject invites a certain delicacy. Patronage has been described as second only to the act of love in conferring pleasure on all parties concerned. Twenty years ago, Lord Rothschild's central policy review staff studied the matter. Later, he said: I thought I detected some resistance on the part of the authorities to the Think Tank studying the subject…patronage is a very precious and delicate commodity. It is surely time to stop being coy about the matter. There is widespread concern in the House and in the country about the matter—and rightly so. At general elections, people think that they are electing a Government. What they do not realise is that they are also releasing the floodgates of ministerial patronage, which will sweep over and dominate the daily government of their lives.

This is the appointive state—non-elected, non-accountable and full of people, chiefly men, whose main and sometimes only qualification is to be acceptable to the Ministers who appoint them. There are currently more than 40,000 public appointments in the gift of Ministers, with the Prime Minister himself standing at the apex of this pyramid of privilege.

I recently asked the Prime Minister in a written question to reveal how many public appointments he controls. Back came those immortal words: The information requested could be provided only at disproportionate cost."—[Official Report, 16 March 1993; Vol. 221, c. 34.] I suggest that there is now a disproportionate cost to our democracy in leaving such patronage unchecked. The present Government did not invent patronage. The last Labour Government made liberal use of it. What the present Government have done is to give it a crudely partisan twist. Out went the great and the good; in came those who passed the "one of us" test. A survey by the BBC in 1985 revealed that a quarter of the chairmen of a selection of major public bodies were openly Conservative supporters. A similar survey by the Financial Times earlier this year concluded: if, there is a new elite running Britain's public services…it appears the best qualifications to join are to be a businessman with Conservative leanings. That is manifestly so in the new trustified health service, while it is widely understood in Wales that the most secure route to public appointment is to be an unsuccessful Conservative candidate.

There is a problem about democracy here; there is a problem about efficiency, too. To take two recent examples, it is not immediately apparent that efficient management has been the hallmark either of the just-surviving chairman of the BBC or of the recently departing chair of the West Midlands regional health authority, both of them political patronage appointments. Last year The Times noted: Mrs. Thatcher's approach to patronage was the simple rule: those who are not with me are against me.The Times went on to observe: A more tolerant use of patronage could spread the art of Government beyond a partisan ruling elite, and raise the quality of institutional debate. To exclude talented administrators and wise old heads just because they are of the wrong political colour is to impoverish political life. Hon. Members may have noted that I have avoided the dreaded word "quango". I have done so deliberately. There is nothing quasi-autonomous and certainly nothing non-governmental about the public bodies to which I refer. We need a new word. I suggest that we call them "patronage bodies"—perhaps "patbods" for short—so that everyone can understand what they are really about.

As patronage bodies become ever more important—as elective government is increasingly replaced by appointive government—so control, too, becomes more important. The quango cull of the early 1980s has been overtaken by the patbod growth that has followed it. The advisory committee on Hadrian's wall may have been swept away, but in have come the agencies, commissions, trusts, councils, authorities and corporations that now dominate public administration on every side.

Such bodies now account for more than a fifth of total public spending—20 per cent. more in real terms than in 1979. What distinguishes them all is the fact that they are the creatures of Ministers, and that they exist in a no-man's land of non-accountability inhabited not by the elected but by the selected.

As a recent report from the European Policy Forum—a voice not of the left but of the right—pointed out, all this represents a major transformation in our system of government. The question is whether Parliament will now take up where the 18th-century radicals left off and assert its rights in relation to the patronage state.

This is not a partisan issue. It turns on the age-old question whether there should properly be power without accountability. The Bill embodies the belief that there should not. The modest proposal contained in it is that significant ministerial appointments should be scrutinised and approved by Select Committees of this House. That would convert patronage bodies into public bodies. It would also represent an affirmation of the rights of this House in relation to the arbitrary powers claimed by the Executive.