Public Bodies

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 30th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Sharples Baroness Sharples Conservative 2:53 pm, 30th November 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there has been an increase in the number of quangos since 1997.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, information on public bodies sponsored by central government is provided annually in the Cabinet Office publication Public Bodies, which records information as at 31 March each year. In 1997, the Cabinet Office recorded that there were 1,128 public bodies reporting to UK government departments and what are now the devolved administrations. As at 31 March this year there were 910 public bodies reporting to UK government departments, not including bodies reporting to the devolved administrations.

Photo of Baroness Sharples Baroness Sharples Conservative

My Lords, I find that Answer very interesting. Would the Minister not agree that independent reports show that there are over 100 more quangos now than there were in 1997 and that more than 100 quangocrats—it is an awful word—are earning in excess of £100,000 a year? Mr Blair said in 1996 that he would consign quangos to "history's dustbin", but since then there have been a great many more. Is it not perhaps time that Mr Blair had a new buzzword—"relocation, relocation, relocation"—because I have counted 250 quangos based in London?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I have provided figures which suggest that we have continued the long process of merging and reducing the number of non-departmental public bodies. Indeed, we are actively pursuing and continuing that policy as I speak with the merger of regulatory bodies which are down from 31 to 11. In the agricultural field we are considering reducing the number of levy boards and so on. So this is an active area of government policy. Like the noble Baroness, we are concerned to ensure that we do not develop public bodies which are not necessary and are not accountable.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister deprecate the assumption behind this Question that quangos are necessarily less efficient, less flexible and less useful in organising public affairs than more traditional bodies such as government departments and local authorities?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am not surprised that my noble friend makes that important point. Naturally, I share his view very much. I think that non-departmental public bodies—to give them the more accurate description—are very effective in their delivery of services and the way in which they regulate. They are, of course, fully accountable for the funding they receive. Inevitably all governments turn to non-departmental public bodies to provide a whole range of services that are not necessarily best provided directly through government departments.

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative

My Lords, in the light of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has the Minister noticed that the expenditure, for example, of the Electoral Commission has risen from £6 million four years ago to £25 million in the latest year? Is that not a body which is considering, with less wisdom, the same questions that might have been considered by Speakers' Conferences of Parliament rather than by an independent quango? Is it not a very good example of a quango which we could do without?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am slightly surprised by the noble and learned Lord's approach to this issue. Inevitably the Electoral Commission spends more now than when it was established, but the party opposite was very supportive of its development. Having read the Conservative Party's attack on public bodies at the time of the general election, conducted by John Redwood MP, I did not notice that the Electoral Commission was one of those organisations which the Conservatives would abolish, had they won the election.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland, Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Cabinet Office

My Lords, what progress has been made towards the achievement of the Government's target for these bodies of 50 per cent representation by women by the end of this year?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, during the lifetime of the Government we have made steady progress in that regard. Roughly speaking, I believe that women represent about 35 per cent of the membership of those bodies. In the past year that figure has stalled, but we continue to encourage, through the process of appointment, an increase in the number of women represented on those organisations.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government have in part dealt with the problem of quangos through democracy; that is, dealing with a vast array of quangos in Scotland and Wales through devolution—which was so misguidedly opposed by the party opposite, whose rescue is now apparently coming from Mr Cameron?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely valuable contribution to this debate and I entirely agree with him. Noble Lords would not expect me to do otherwise.

Photo of Lord Hurd of Westwell Lord Hurd of Westwell Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no magic in the process of merging quangos, which he praised, if the quangos concerned do not have a great deal in common? Does he further agree that in the case of criminal justice inspectorates, the Government seem to be merging bodies producing not a saving in cost but a small increase and considerably decreasing their effectiveness?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, we approach the subject of merging bodies, as the noble Lord described it, with great care. Where interests, particularly in the criminal justice field, seem to us to be easily aligned and to work together, it makes good sense to effect a merger. I am sure that the noble Lord, with his interest in ensuring good governance, would encourage that process, not just in the criminal justice field but in all other fields of public policy.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, what constraints do we have in place to ensure that quangos do not expand unnecessarily?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, they have to account to the Minister and to the department. They can also be brought before the Public Accounts Committee with their chief executive, and they have to properly operate within the effective constraints on public expenditure.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

My Lords, do the Government agree that the powers of some quangos should perhaps be strengthened in the light of the previous subject discussed in this House? Is there not a case for having a Press Complaints Commission with proper teeth and a chairman who is truly independent of the press?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, it is a generous invitation offered by the noble Lord. He makes an important point, which has been part of our debates. No doubt those points will continue to be made.

Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Work & Pensions & Welfare Reform

My Lords, the Minister sang the Government's praises at reducing the number of quangos from 1,128 to 910 over the lifetime of this Government; but he is not comparing like with like, because the 910 as of 31 March this year exclude those in the devolved bodies. Much more importantly, he may remember that on 20 May last year the then Secretary of State for Health promised a 50 per cent reduction in quangos saving half a billion pounds with a reduction of 25 per cent of posts. Which ones have been abolished?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, there are too many for me to list. As the noble Lord made a direct reference to health, I understand from my noble friend Lord Warner that only today the noble Lord has launched a review of, for instance, the strategic health authorities, with a commitment to seek to make more efficient use of their energies and expertise.