Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:07 pm on 5th February 2003.

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Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative 4:07 pm, 5th February 2003

The Scottish Conservatives support the bill. We are committed to cutting bureaucracy, red tape and cronyism in Scottish politics and we congratulate the Executive on taking a step in the right direction, albeit that I suspect—as Tricia Marwick said—that it came about as a result of Alex Neil's member's bill. However, we must ensure that the appointment of a commissioner for public appointments does not result in another empty promise from the Executive, but that it translates into real change for the benefit of public life.

I refer members to the empty promises that are contained in the Executive's champions for change initiative, which the Executive abandoned earlier this week. What has happened to the performance improvement unit, which has sunk without trace, or to the improving regulation in Scotland unit, IRIS, which has managed to produce only five press releases in three years and has cut no red tape at all? The Executive introduces such initiatives in the glare of publicity, but as my leader David McLetchie said, they disappear under the cover of darkness.

I support part 1 of the bill, which sets out the creation of a commissioner for public appointments in Scotland. The new code of practice will mean that appointments can be made in an open and transparent manner and that any serious breach of the code can be investigated. I hope that that will reduce the cronyism and jobs-for-the-boys mentality that pervades the appointments system in Scotland.

I continue to have concerns about section 2(10), which seeks to impose diversity in the selection process by setting targets for appointments from minority groups. The Scottish Conservatives celebrate diversity in every way. We would very much like to see more balanced representation of all groups in our society, but that must be achieved on merit and not through setting targets. I believe that positive discrimination is a dangerous and inherently flawed concept and I cannot support its use.

Furthermore, as I articulated in committee, there is some legitimate concern about the term of office that is prescribed under schedule 1, which states that there can be no more than three five-year terms, and that a third term will be permitted only in special circumstances and if it is in the public interest. As I suggested when evidence was given by Roger McClure of the Scottish Funding Councils for Further and Higher Education—who considers five years to be too long—the enforced shelf life of the commissioner might be a deterrent to good candidates applying. Why should a good commissioner who serves the public interest be forced out of office to the public's detriment when he or she is doing a perfectly good job? The same logic applies to the age of the commissioner, and I am pleased that the bill has been amended to allow the commissioner to continue in the position past the age of 65.

Part 2 of the bill provides for the abolition of some non-departmental public bodies—quangos. Five in total are to be abolished. We agree fully with that and have argued for a long time that there is a desperate need for the amount of red tape and bureaucracy to be cut to allow officials to get on with the jobs that they are supposed to do. However, we would have preferred the promised bonfire instead of this damp squib. Despite the protestations of unelected bureaucrats, such bodies do not perform any functions that other, preferably local, bodies could adequately carry out. The removal of an unnecessary level of bureaucracy is welcome and long overdue.

Despite the small reservations that I have mentioned, the Conservatives support the bill.