Public Appointments and Public Bodies etc (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:28 pm on 5th February 2003.

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Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 4:28 pm, 5th February 2003

Like Donald Gorrie, I welcome the bill as a step forward—it is a significant step in the right direction. Now that we have debated the bill, we should look forward and think about how to implement its provisions.

I would like to say something about the proposed establishment of a public appointments committee in the Parliament. If the Parliament decides to delegate its responsibilities to a public appointments committee, it is important that the membership and convener of that committee are seen to be objective, like the commissioner—the committee must not be dominated by members of an Executive party or an Opposition party. I hope that, when we discuss the composition of the public appointments committee, we will take into account the fact that its remit will be unique and that its structure and membership will probably need to be somewhat unique, too. That would be an indication of an act of faith by everybody that we are determined to make the bill work and make it work fairly, transparently and objectively.

I hope that the bill is the beginning of major reform not just of the public appointments system, but of wider public administration in Scotland. There is certainly a feeling in some parts of the chamber—probably throughout the chamber—that we need to consider reform of the civil service and examine how it operates in Scotland. I hope that the bill will be the forerunner of a long-term programme of reform to make public administration more politically accountable, democratic and transparent.

We cannot pluck numbers out of the air to say how many quangos or next-step agencies are required to perform the functions of government. That number will change from time to time and from function to function. However, the Parliament has created new quangos in the past few years. Despite George Robertson's promise back in 1997 that we would have a "bonfire of the quangos", something like 19 new bodies have been created since the Parliament came into being, although there has been a net reduction of four or five bodies overall.

We should not think purely in terms of numbers; we must consider the effectiveness of the bodies and the need to achieve modern, efficient and holistic public administration. For example, about 58 quangos or next-step agencies are involved in the administration of the health service in Scotland. I hope that we take a serious look at the number, structure and remits of those bodies to try to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the delivery of public services.

Although the bill does not go as far as I would have liked, it is undoubtedly welcome and the SNP will support it at decision time at 5 o'clock—or earlier. We hope that the bill will bring about significant change in the nature of appointments.

However, I say to the Executive in all honesty that it should be conscientious about the whole issue of cronyism. It should try to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the past, when one political party had an absolute monopoly on public appointments in Scotland. We want a new kind of Scotland—not one run by Lanarkshire Labour, but one that is open, democratic and transparent and of which we can be proud.