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Non-departmental Public Bodies

Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 9 June 2010

We are committed to cutting the number of public bodies to increase accountability and cut costs. In future, each public body will have to meet one of three tests—does it perform a technical function, does it need to be politically impartial or does it act independently to establish facts? The Prime Minister has written to Cabinet colleagues asking them to apply those tests rigorously to the public bodies within their area of responsibility. I will be meeting colleagues in the coming weeks to take the review forward, and I expect to publish the outcome in the autumn with a view to introducing a public bodies Bill later this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and I welcome him to the Dispatch Box. Given the Government’s clear policy on localism, will he ensure that the regional development agency quango, SEEDA—the South East England Development Agency—is rapidly dismantled and that its powers and decisions are handed back to the local authorities to which those powers have always properly belonged?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is very good to see him here. He is a close neighbour in Sussex and he makes a very good point. The Government will engage in discussions with local partners, including local authorities and local business organisations, to work out with them in respect of each RDA the best way forward. I suspect that he and I have the same sort of concerns about the way in which SEEDA has operated.

While the excellent Frenchay hospital near my constituency was downgraded by the previous Government despite a 50,000-strong petition of local residents opposing the move, it was reported last year that the salaries of NHS quango bosses have increased by up to 77% in the past three years. Does the Minister agree that this Government’s commitment to transparency and accountability will help to reduce that sort of cost to the taxpayer and will help to protect NHS front-line services?

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very vigorous campaign that he has fought and continues to fight in the interests of his constituents to protect the work of the Frenchay hospital. I have visited the hospital and I know what good work it does. He is absolutely right that transparency is the friend of the citizen in exposing what the state spends its money on. It will enable communities, individuals and organisations to exercise and enforce much greater accountability. Money is going to be increasingly scarce in the years ahead, thanks to what we inherited from the Labour party, and it is going to be increasingly important that it is spent where it is needed, at the front line, on patients and on parents whose children are at school.

I thank my right hon. Friend for those reassurances. Will he tell us what we are going to do to stop the proliferation of more and more quangos, as happened under the previous Government?

In addition to applying rigorously to existing public bodies and quangos the three tests that we have set out, we will ensure that public bodies do not come into existence unless they are absolutely necessary to meet one of those three tests. Bodies that spend public money and deliberate on policy should in general be accountable, through Ministers, to Parliament. That is a basic principle, and that is what we will enforce in future.

As someone who has long been concerned about unelected, unaccountable quangos, would my right hon. Friend care to comment on mechanisms that deal specifically with quangos in Essex? Would he welcome representations from me and other Essex colleagues?

I would indeed. I expect those representations to be vigorous and forthright and I look forward to receiving them.

Many public bodies, such as the RDAs the Minister mentioned, but also the Bank of England, the BBC, the Judicial Appointments Commission and parliamentary boundary commissions, are independent of Government precisely because they have to be independent of Government. Will the Minister give the House a commitment that this will not just be a centralising exercise whereby bodies that ought to be independent are taken under direct control by Ministers?

I am disinclined to take lectures about centralising tendencies from someone who was a Minister in the last Government. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said. The tests that we will apply to quangos—to public bodies—will be rigorous and serious. If there is an overwhelming requirement for them to be independent politically, that will be one of the tests, but the presumption will be that public functions should be exercised by organisations accountable to Parliament.

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post? He may be aware that I chair the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a non-departmental public body that has enjoyed cross-party support for its whole existence. Can he clarify the processes that are taking place? The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is already under a process of review as one of the arm’s length bodies independent from the Foreign Office. How does that mix with the process he has set out today?

I hope they will seamlessly meld together. I am not conscious of the particular review to which the hon. Lady refers, but this review will cover all public bodies that come under the responsibility of all Departments. I am confident that in my discussions about the review with the Foreign Secretary the Westminster Foundation will be considered in a proper way.

I welcome the Minister to his responsibilities. If he has a bonfire of the quangos, there are one or two I might add. There is one where newly appointed staff are increasing, its executives earn more than Ministers and MPs, and are appointing press officers and consultants, yet they do not even answer the telephone. Would the Minister be surprised and would he care to name that quango? Might it be the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?

These are deep waters and I prefer not to venture into that particular one at this stage, but I am absolutely confident that the right hon. Gentleman will make his views known in his characteristically forthright manner.