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Public Bodies Reform

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

Today, the Government have taken decisive action to restore accountability and responsibility to public life. For too long, this country has tolerated Ministers who duck the difficult decisions they were elected to make. For too long, we have had too many people who were unaccountable, with a licence to meddle in people’s lives. For too long, we have had quango pay spiralling out of control, so that seven people in the Audit Commission are paid more than £150,000 a year at a time when the average civil servant’s pay is £23,000.

The landscape for public bodies needs radical reform to increase transparency and accountability, to cut out duplication of activity and to discontinue activities that are simply no longer needed. My written statement this morning outlined the start of a process to curtail the quango state. I have led an intensive review into public bodies, subjecting each to four tests. The first test was existential and asked, does the body need to exist and do its functions need to be carried out at all? The answer to that question in some cases was no. For example, we decided that the Government probably do not need an independent body to deliberate on the purchase of wine.

If, as in most cases, the body’s functions were deemed necessary, we then sought to establish whether those functions should properly be carried out at arm’s length to government. If the body carries out a highly technical activity, is required to be politically impartial or needs to act independently to establish facts, then it is right for it to remain outside direct ministerial accountability. That is the case with bodies such as the new Office for Budget Responsibility and Ofgem. However, any quango that does not meet one of these tests will be either brought back into a Department or devolved to local authorities—in both of which cases, there will be democratic accountability—or its functions will be carried out outside the state altogether in the private or voluntary sectors.

We have gone through an extensive process to determine the outcome of the review. Our first task was quite simply to identify how many quangos there are and what they do. It may sound absurd but it was and remains incredibly difficult to gain firm information on such bodies. Many do not publish accounts, there is no central list and there are myriad different types all with different statuses. The official list of non-departmental public bodies has 679 bodies, excluding those in Northern Ireland, but that does not include non-ministerial Departments, Government-owned public corporations or trading funds. Our review covered 901 bodies and we believe, but cannot be certain, that that is the true extent of the landscape. I stress that departmental agencies—Executive agencies—are not in the review’s scope. They are directly controlled by Ministers who are accountable to Parliament for what they do.

Once we established the overall lists, each Department went through a rigorous process to determine whether each of its quangos met any of the tests. The list I have published today is not complete but is a work in progress. The House will note that a number of bodies are subject to a longer-term review—for example, the Children’s Commissioner and the Office for Fair Access.

Of the 901 bodies in the review, substantial reforms are proposed for more than half. We propose that 192 should cease to be public bodies at all and that 118 should be merged down into 57 successor bodies, removing wasteful and complicating duplication of effort. Some 171 bodies are proposed for substantial reform while retaining their current status. For those bodies that we are abolishing, I stress that in many cases that does not mean the end of the function. Abolishing the regional development agencies, for example, does not mean that we no longer care about promoting regional business—[Interruption.] The Opposition’s response is very revealing, because it suggests something fundamental about what we are trying to change: the assumption that one can prove that one cares about something only if one sets up a quango. We think that there is a different and a better answer, and that we can promote regional business in a better way.

Since the introduction of RDAs, regional imbalances have become not better, but worse, and the development agencies carried a staggering £212 million in administration costs. We believe that local businesses and local authorities are better placed to decide what they need, not highly paid executives imposed on them by Government. An activity does not need an unaccountable bureaucratic structure to signify its importance; the exact converse is true. If something is important, someone who is elected should make decisions about how it is done. That is why we are bringing a host of functions back into Departments, such as those of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and the Renewable Fuels Agency to name but two.

All remaining public bodies will be subject to a rigorous triennial review to ensure that the previous pattern of public bodies often outliving the purpose for which they were established is not repeated. They will be expected to become more open, accountable and efficient. In the new year, I shall outline to the House in more detail the new framework for those remaining quangos.

All proposed changes will be delivered within Departments’ spending review settlements. Those bodies whose status is being retained may be subjected to further reforms following the spending review, in the same way as all other parts of the public sector. I want to acknowledge the dedication and hard work of those who work in public bodies. We are committed to working with the chairs and chief executives of those bodies to ensure that change is conducted as fairly and as smoothly as possible.

To enable the proposed changes to be implemented, the Government will shortly introduce a public bodies Bill, which will give Ministers power to make changes to named statutory bodies. Other forthcoming legislation, such as the education Bill and the localism Bill, will also be used to make changes directly.

I believe that these reforms are the first and necessary step to restoring proper democratic accountability to public life. They signal a complete culture change in government, from one that ducks difficult decisions, is opaque and allows profligacy, inflated salaries and waste, to an Administration who are open and transparent about what they do, with Ministers who take responsibility for their actions and are mindful of every penny of taxpayers’ money. I commend these reforms to the House.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement—in the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph this morning. He is a man who appreciates the courtesies of this House, so I know that he will provide you, Mr Speaker, with an explanation of how the media could possibly have been briefed before Members were.

May I, however, start on a note of consensus? I thank the Minister for his work in completing a process that was set in train during my time at the Treasury. In March I told the House that 123 quangos would need to close, and from first glance at this statement it appears that two thirds of the 192 arm’s length bodies that need to close are those that I announced in March. Instead of 20% of quangos being closed, the Minister has announced that 25% will be.

I am grateful, too, that his tests largely confirmed the approach that I set out in March. I welcome his endorsement of the principles of a sunset clause for quangos and of triennial reviews. I am especially grateful for his confirmation of our decision to mutualise British Waterways, which will be an important institution in the third sector that I know we both support.

May I, however, raise the slightly obvious question about the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has conducted this exercise? All of us want to improve accountability—it was one of the three principles that we set out in the ALB review in March—but we also want to save money, and once upon a time I thought that the current Prime Minister agreed, because, in a typically thoughtful and measured intervention, he said in October 2008:

“Sound money means…destroying all these useless quangos and initiatives.”

Now the Minister tells us that the Prime Minister in fact got it wrong. Saving money

“is not the principal objective”,

he told the “Today” programme this morning.

Labour’s plan would have saved £500 billion by 2012-13. Now we are told that the Government’s approach will not in all cases save money at all. In fact, it could cost more money than it saves at the Audit Commission, the RDAs, the UK Film Council, Standards for England and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. I am afraid that the Minister has become the most expensive butcher in the country. His friend the Chancellor will no doubt be delighted.

Will the Minister, first, set out the total cost of implementing the plan this year and next? He should have those figures at his fingertips now that the review is almost complete. Secondly, can he explain the impact on jobs and unemployment? Organisations such as the UK Film Council help to strengthen industry and tax revenues. What estimate has he made of the impact of his announcement on growth and jobs?

Thirdly, the principle of independence is sometimes important, and I am glad that he acknowledges that, but it is not clear how he has applied it in all cases. For example, we need to hear a little more from the Minister about the Football Licensing Authority. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport infamously had to apologise for blaming Liverpool fans for the Hillsborough tragedy; now the Government are scrapping the organisation established to ensure that a Hillsborough never happens again, without being clear about what will be put in its place.

Finally, in March I introduced a new principle whereby quangos would be set up only as a last resort. The Minister’s statement confirms his presumption that state activity should be undertaken by bodies that are democratically accountable. His party’s manifesto promised 20 new quangos—one third of the extra quangos that he has abolished today. Will he confirm that those quangos will not go ahead?

It is very good to have such a consensual approach from the man who famously told the world on leaving government that there was no money left. There will be savings as a result of the process, and there need to be because the right hon. Gentleman was a prominent member of a Government who left office spending £4 for every £3 of revenue. They were having to borrow £1 out of every £4 just to keep the lights on, the teachers in the schools, the pensions being paid and the doctors and nurses in the hospitals. This Government have to clear up the mess that his Government shamefully left behind, and there will be savings from the process.

We became used to the previous Labour Government bandying around large numbers in respect of the savings that they proposed to make, but we know that when the National Audit Office went around after those much vaunted efficiency exercises over which he and his colleagues presided, it found that in most cases they had not saved money at all. It was all about the optics and trying to make a point; it had nothing to do with reality.

I am sorry to say that jobs will be lost as a result of this process, but, in order to clear up the fiscal mess that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government left behind, that is sadly an inevitability. Savings will be made as a result of the exercise, but, as I said at the outset, it is not principally about saving money, although it will do so. It is principally about increasing accountability—the important presumption that when an activity is carried out by the state, and there is no pressing need to do so at arm’s length from government, it should be carried out by someone who is accountable democratically, either a Minister who is accountable to this House and, through this House, to the public, or a local authority that is accountable to local residents.

It is very good that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with our approach and thinks it sensible. He tried to claim credit for it himself, actually, so, as the various bodies that we have discussed today start to complain, as some will, and as some vested interests will with a very loud voice, I shall be able to tell them that our approach is a consensual one—that the Labour party wants to play its full part in responsibility for the whole exercise.

Order. There is a lot of interest and little time, so brevity both from Back Benchers and Front Benchers is vital.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says, rather regretfully, “Not very much.” It sounds as though he wants us to be more regulated and bossed around—that is somehow in his nature.

The answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) is that some functions will not be carried out at all. The key point is that the presumption will be that where there is a state activity, at least he and the rest of the House will be able to hold a Minister to account for what is done. What people find so irritating is the sense that there has been incontinently set up, in large part by the previous Government, this huge amount of activity by bodies that are in no way accountable: no one can hold them accountable for what they do. That is what we are seeking to change.

May I first invite the Minister, in the spirit of consensus that we certainly want on this, to show just a tiny bit of humility in recognising that the high point of the unaccountable quango state was under the Major Government, of whom he was, I think, an adornment? At that time, outrageously, as I found when I became Home Secretary, having endured it in opposition, even parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State about prisons were being answered not by a Minister but by the chief executive of the agency concerned. That was preposterous and it happened under a Conservative Government, but we ended it very quickly. I hope that he recognises that the history goes right back to the Major Government.

Secondly, may I ask the Minister a specific question about the Youth Justice Board? I set that up; I accept that it does not have life eternal and that there is a case for reviewing its future. However, will he ensure that as its future is reviewed, its key functions of delivering effective youth justice are preserved?

It is a pleasure to welcome the right hon. Gentleman into our big tent; it is open to all-comers, and it is a delight to have him as a resident. I think that he confuses the role of Executive agencies with the function of a quango. It seems to me perfectly proper that when Members of Parliament inquire about an activity they receive a reply from the Executive agency’s chief executive. That does not mean that that agency is not accountable to Parliament through what a Minister says and does. The right hon. Gentleman will have found himself, as Home Secretary, directly accountable to this House for those functions.

Some of the functions performed by the Youth Justice Board will continue to be very important, but we take the view that the need for independent oversight of the process has now outlived its usefulness.

I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that overall costs will be reduced. A Local Government Association publication of December last year outlined 790 quangos costing £43 billion. How can he ensure that more quangos will not reappear as some disappear?

I am sure that there will occasionally be a case for new independent bodies coming into existence, but they will need to meet rigorous tests. They will need to show that they are needed to provide a seriously technical function, or that the function has to be carried out in a way that is demonstrably politically impartial, or that they are measuring facts in some way that requires independence. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set up early in the life of this Government, is one such body that meets all those tests. They will have to go through a rigorous process before consent is given to their creation.

Does the Minister accept that some of these bodies were set up almost as debts of honour? I particularly mention the Football Licensing Authority and the Human Tissue Authority, which were set up respectively after the Hillsborough stadium disaster and the scandal at Alder Hey hospital. Does he accept that a lot of people who were affected by those events will be aghast that that debt of honour has now been reneged on by this Government?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I know how deeply he, and many people, feel about that. Those two events caused a deep scar in the lives and memories of very many people, and they were scars on the life and history of this country. I would simply make this point to him: we should not be setting up bodies, or retaining bodies in existence, merely for symbolic purposes. It will remain important that there is expertise about safety measures in football grounds. That function does not disappear, but it does not necessarily need to have its own separate, unaccountable organisation to dispense it. Similarly, the functions of the Human Tissue Authority can be carried out perfectly properly within the plethora of regulatory bodies in the health sector, to which my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is rightly applying some reforming rigour.

Liberal Democrat Back Benchers welcome the statement on the grounds of cost, improved efficiency and, above all, embarking on dealing with the problem of democratic deficit. However, behind the names of these organisations there are many people genuinely fearful for their jobs. Will the Minister emphasise this line in his statement: “For those bodies that we are abolishing, I should stress that in many cases this does not mean the end of the function”? That is very important, and that reassurance needs to be made to many other people.

On the ending of Consumer Focus and the passing of its responsibilities to citizens advice bureaux, the Minister is aware that there are many concerns about funding for Citizens Advice at a central level. What discussions has he had with his colleagues about enhancing the role of CABs and, indeed, increased funding—

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I will be grateful to the Minister for a brief reply.

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly proper point about staff. We hope that jobs will not be lost, although some will be; we recognise that every single one is a personal disaster for the family involved. The chief executives of all bodies affected by the changes I am announcing should have communicated with staff this morning to give them as much certainty as possible about the future.

As regards Consumer Focus and consumer activities, the funding implications are being considered by my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, and results will emerge in due course. We recognise that we cannot just hand these functions over to outside bodies without any resource implications.

In pursuit of his body count, did the Minister consider the role of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which has upheld absolutely no complaints against the security services and has never offered any reason? Its existence is merely a deceit of scrutiny to mask the conceit of unaccountable, secret powers. Has he found any more faceless, toothless or spineless creatures in the ecosystem of government?

In Gosport, we face the prospect that our outstanding Navy engineering training school at HMS Sultan will move to St Athan in Wales under a massive and unnecessarily expensive private finance initiative. What will happen to some of the other outrageous PFIs that quangos have entered into, such as the National School of Government?

As we spend more time in government and pick up stones, we find quite a lot of contracts in place that make one wonder a bit about the diligence that Ministers took in exploring them at the time. Going through the detail of contracts is not necessarily the most amusing way to spend one’s life, but it is rather important because there is a lot of public money involved; the body to which my hon. Friend refers is one such example.

Will the Minister say what will happen to the functions of the Football Licensing Authority and who will give its world-class advice on safety? That issue is of high importance to my constituents and to many others around the country.

The FLA does not license football grounds, of course. That responsibility rests in all cases with local authorities, which will continue to exercise that incredibly important function. The central expertise to support the licensing activity could exist in a number of bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive, or the Football Association could provide it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will explore all those options.

I congratulate the Minister on the speed with which he has taken forward the review and this activity. [Interruption.] Well, it was completely ducked by the Labour Government. What further steps is he taking to give the remaining public bodies an increased focus on effectiveness and value for money, which is much needed as part of the culture changes set out in his statement?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. In my written statement and the list attached it, we have identified 40 bodies that are still under review, in many cases because a formal review has been launched but has not yet reached its end. The Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review, which I believe he will announce to the House next Wednesday, will set out the spending envelopes for all remaining bodies and place them under considerable financial rigour. For those that remain independent bodies there will be more transparency, which we have already started with the disclosure of higher salaries above £150,000. That has raised a number of questions about how those bodies are run.

Some of the most vulnerable people in Wrexham work at the local Remploy factory. What kind of Government is it who include two words—“under consideration”—about their jobs, and what consultation is the Department for Work and Pensions undertaking with people whose jobs the Government are threatening?

To put it bluntly to the hon. Gentleman, it is a Government who are having to clear up an appalling mess left by his party, which left office spending £4 for every £3 in revenue. This coalition Government are having to reduce and eliminate a budget deficit that was created by his party with gross irresponsibility. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is undertaking a serious review of the future status of Remploy, and is very much aware of its good work and the valuable employment that it provides for many disabled people.

Quango is not a description usually associated with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If it is not on the Minister’s culling list, will he please consider putting it in there? This morning, IPSA refused to refund the cost of an advertisement for an advice bureau for my constituents. Is that not an affront to the House? Perhaps the Minister would like to invite Sir Philip Green to take over IPSA. I am pretty sure that the backroom staff of Topshop could do a far better job.

I have been invited to go down that path before, and I am a cautious fellow so I shall resist the temptation to do so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his endorsement of the approach that Sir Philip Green has taken in helping the Government pick up a number of stones to find out exactly what is crawling around underneath.

The Minister is proposing to merge UK Sport and Sport England, which do quite distinct jobs—there is a clue in their titles. From his existential ruminations, will he tell me how he proposes to guarantee that elite athletes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who are getting magnificent support from UK Sport in the run-up to the Olympic games, are not disadvantaged by what is effectively a takeover by Sport England, which understandably has a quite different focus?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport will no doubt be able to answer the hon. Gentleman’s regular questions about how that will work.

This is cross-Government activity, and the review has taken place across the Government. The hon. Gentleman will find that my right hon. Friends in charge of other Departments will make statements publicly today, and then he can pursue the matter. Of course the two organisations have different focuses, but they none the less cover a lot of the same ground. Having two separate lots of unproductive overheads when one set could do the job just as well does not seem a good way to spend taxpayers’ money.

I commend the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that the problem with quangos is not just their cost but their effectiveness? Competition law is vital for a free market, but having three regulatory bodies—the Office of Fair Trading, the Competition Commission and the European Commission—has made business more bureaucratic and regulation less effective. When Lloyds bought HBOS, the OFT’s competition concerns were brushed aside with a wink and a nudge from the last Prime Minister at a cocktail party. Does the Minister agree that that is a good example of how less overlapping bureaucracy can mean more independent and robust regulation?

My hon. Friend is completely right. The way in which the competition scrutiny process, which is really important for an effective economy, currently works can be very complex, confused and slow. If we can simplify it by merging competition functions into one place, as we propose, there will be a benefit for the economy and for business and it will assist in creating jobs, which will be really important.

I noted with interest that the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission was one of the bodies to be brought back within the Government tent. Of course, it has not been subject to the same lack of public confidence as the Child Support Agency suffered for many years. How can the Minister guarantee that the stakeholders whose interests are put at the heart of the CMEC’s functions within Government are parents and, crucially, children, and not primarily the state, as was the case with the CSA?

I suppose the short answer to the hon. Lady is that this Government believe that Ministers should make themselves available to be held to account for what is done in their name. I understand that the previous Government preferred not to do that and set up independent bodies to carry out important functions. The child maintenance function does not meet any of the three tests that I set out. It obviously needs to exist, but it does not need to be politically impartial, and indeed Ministers should be ready to be held to account for it.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) said, I have found that in the case of a quango that I have been dealing with, the UK Film Council, the industry is delighted that in future it will have direct access to Government instead of having to go through a third party. My concern, however, is that the same people who are working in such quangos will simply become Government employees. What measures will he take to ensure that that does not happen?

I suppose from my hon. Friend’s point of view the bad news is that many of them will become Government employees, but in those circumstances Ministers will be held responsible for what they do. I make no apology for restating that the principal purpose of the review is to increase accountability. The fact that someone becomes a civil servant employed directly by a Government Department rather than by a public body will make them more accountable, not less. We will be able to drive value for money and effectiveness much better.

On the same subject, the Minister did not respond to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) asked about the UK Film Council. I declare an interest: I co-chaired with Stewart Till of Universal the review “A Bigger Picture”, which led to the formation of the council. I am sure the Minister would agree that since that time, there has been a huge renaissance of the British film industry. How can it be considered achievable and accountable to switch responsibilities from the council to the British film industry, and how can he say that we will have access to more transparency?

I treat what the right hon. Gentleman says with great respect, because I know that he has a long background in the film industry. He is passionate about it and has done a huge amount in the course of his illustrious career to support it, but I take issue with his central contention. The implication of what he sets forth is that the excellent renaissance of the British film industry is somehow inextricably linked with the creation of the UK Film Council, but the creativity of the people who make films delivered that. I find that there has been a mixed response to the announcement that the UK Film Council will be abolished, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport back in July. Very many eminent people in the film industry say that the UK Film Council’s work was not central to the great success of the British film industry, but marginal in many cases.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that hard-working taxpayers in my constituency will be glad that their taxes will no longer subsidise regional bureaucrats and quangos in the east of England? Does he also agree that that work could be done much better by local federations of small businesses and chambers of commerce, and that the new local enterprise partnerships should be lean and mean?

I am confident that they will be, because they will be under much closer local control. Local business organisations will contribute to them and local authorities, which are of course democratically accountable, will influence them. The fact is that regional development agencies did not contribute to narrowing the regional imbalances in our economy. In fact, those imbalances got worse and not better when the agencies existed over the lifetime of the previous Labour Government. This Government believe that support for local and regional businesses that is focused more locally and that is more locally accountable is likely to deliver greater success.

There is great concern in the field of health about the impact of the changes in loss of expertise, which we will examine closely in the coming days and weeks. Would the Minister today like to give a guarantee on the Floor of the House that there will be absolutely no loss of expertise?

I am pretty sure there will be no such loss. If functions need to be carried out, the expertise deployed in doing so will be maintained.

How will the Minister ensure that quangos handed back to the Government do not generate more costly parliamentary questions?

The number of parliamentary questions generated is not a matter of where functions sit within government, but generally a matter of how many questions my hon. Friend and other colleagues in the House ask. If bodies become more democratically accountable through the House, they will be subject to more parliamentary questions—by definition—but it seems to me that that is a good thing and not a bad thing. That is what accountability is about.

Now that the much-vaunted bonfire of the quangos has turned into a clammy Sunday afternoon barbecue, may I congratulate the Minister on his plans for British Waterways? He seems to be taking exactly the right approach, but we await information on the allocation of property assets.

What do the Government plan to do with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts? May I also urge the Minister to encourage his right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary to hurry up in sorting out the future of the Independent Living Fund, because that is causing real concern to my constituents?

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s last point and I know that he is addressing the matter with urgency. I welcome the hon. Gentleman into the big tent as far as the British Waterways Board is concerned. That is a good route to follow.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the future of NESTA, which will become an independent endowment outside the Government. When the Bill that set it up went through the House, I was the Opposition spokesman, and I urged that it should be set up as a wholly independent endowment that is outside, and not in any way subject to the whim of, the Government.

Although I welcome the proposal for a triennial review of the remaining quangos, can my right hon. Friend confirm that if it becomes clear that a quango no longer serves a useful purpose, it will be abolished immediately, without waiting for the completion of the three-year review?

Going through the list of quangos in the Department of Health, I can see the logic of pooling some of their regulatory functions. However, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority provided more than regulatory functions; it also provided the forum for some very tricky ethical debates, without which the previous Parliament would have been unable to pass some of the legislation on such matters, because debates would have polarised along political or religious lines. Can the Minister assure me where that function of that authority now lies? Will he reconsider that change? The Health Secretary will have heard that as well because he has just arrived in the Chamber.

We will end up with a single regulator for medical research. At the moment, such functions are dispersed quite widely. The functions of the HFEA and the Human Tissue Authority will lie within that single regulator.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Oxford canal goes right through the heart of my constituency. Waterway users generally will welcome the opportunities provided by the setting up of a new waterways trust. However, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) made an important point when he asked what happens to existing British Waterways assets. Will they be transferred to a new waterways trust? Presumably, in this as in any other aspect of my right hon. Friend’s statement, Secretaries of State for the Departments concerned will be willing to answer written parliamentary questions about the detail of such matters. The changes provide an enormous opportunity for civil society to engage in the running and maintenance of our waterways.

My hon. Friend is completely right on that. Secretaries of State will indeed be willing to answer detailed questions on exactly those issues. On many of the changes, complicated questions arise on the ownership of assets and where they will end up. The public bodies Bill will provide a power by secondary legislation to deal with asset distribution, and I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have heard my hon. Friend’s concerns about British Waterways Board assets.

I have heard the Minister say a number of times that if something is important, Ministers ought to take decisions on it and to be accountable. In that context, does he believe that consumer protection and a consumer voice are important? If so, why has he chosen specifically to abolish Consumer Focus and to transfer its functions to Citizens Advice? The latter is a worthy organisation, but it surely has enough to do in coping with the increasing demands for advice that result directly from the Government’s welfare reforms.

The short point is that citizens advice bureaux carry a high degree of trust with citizens. They exist locally and are well supported, and they manage to mobilise very large amounts of voluntary activity. We must get away from the slightly outdated idea that to show that we care about something very much, we must set up a quango to express it.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the complete abolition of the Union Modernisation Fund Supervisory Board, which wasted hard-earned taxpayers’ money holding secret meetings in expensive hotels? It effectively handed taxpayers’ money to the trade unions. Will he give an assurance that he will take action to prevent such abuses of taxpayers’ money from happening in again?

We have not taken a decision on the future of the Union Modernisation Fund itself, but my hon. Friend raises genuine concerns about the way in which the supervisory body operated. In the previous Parliament, I asked a number of questions about the publication of its minutes, but somewhat to my surprise I discovered that no such minutes were kept. That is the epitome of unaccountability and lack of transparency, which is exactly what I am seeking to address.

The decision to strangle at birth the chief coroners office will be viewed with dismay by many organisations, including the Royal British Legion, which campaigned for it to improve the coroners service. Can he explain why the Opposition supported the proposal during consideration of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, but now they are in government they wish to abolish the office?

In government, you have to look very carefully at the costs and accountability. Ministers have not been convinced that setting up an independent overarching body of that nature is essential to the proper delivery of this important national function.

I am looking forward to warming my hands in front of the bonfire of the quangos, with 192 on the flames. Can my right hon. Friend confirm how many quangos were abolished under the last Administration?

I have learned to treat the claims made by the last Government with some scepticism, because they often claimed to have got rid of things, but on closer scrutiny they turned out to be merely resting, not defunct. I do not know whether this is a bonfire or, in the term used by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), a damp Sunday afternoon barbecue, but we should not knock barbecues.

The Minister talked, both in his statement and in answer to questions, about exorbitant pay in quangos and the public sector. Would it not add force to his argument if he and his colleagues also talked about exorbitant pay in the private sector? On the transfer of employees from quangos back to the public services, I seek reassurance that their pay and conditions will be protected in that process.

There is a bit of a difference between pay in the private sector and pay in the public sector—[Interruption.] The fact that the hon. Gentleman finds it difficult to make the distinction tells us a lot about the mentality behind the last Government. In the public sector, it is taxpayers’ money that is being spent and Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that it is well spent. The fact that they did not is one of the reasons why we are now facing the scale of budget deficit that we are. The transparency that we have applied to pay in the quangos has meant that people have been shocked to find out how profligate some of the pay has been.

On the transfer of staff into the civil service, the terms and conditions will of course be transferred according to the TUPE rules, as the hon. Gentleman would expect.

In a previous existence, I was a leader of a local authority, and three things got in the way of effectiveness—an increasing lack of democratic authority; an over-burdensome inspection regime; and a lack of funding. All three of those problems often stemmed from the existence of far too many quangos. I seek an assurance from my right hon. Friend that functions presently carried out by quangos that are to be abolished will be devolved to the local level.

Wherever possible, that is our preference. We believe in localism and in trusting local authorities to take responsibility for what they do. Our commitment to localism does not only mean devolving to local authorities. In the case of consumer functions, for example, we think that devolving beyond local authorities to citizens advice bureaux is potentially a better approach. However, I can confirm our preference to devolve powers to as close to the front line of where citizens use services as possible.

Does the proposal to abolish Consumer Focus and transfer its functions to citizens advice bureaux mean that in the coalition’s big society a consumer and a citizen are one and the same thing?

In my experience, which I agree is limited, citizens tend to be consumers and consumers tend to be citizens, so I am not absolutely certain what point the hon. Lady is trying to make.

Current legislation requires Departments to get the best possible price for Government assets such as furniture, computers and other items. As part of the big society agenda, will the Minister consider whether donations could be made or other disposal routes used to support voluntary organisations, charities and other bodies that are being squeezed at the moment and could make good use of those resources?

I thank hon. Members and Ministers. A great many Members managed to ask short pithy questions on the statement and the answers were also short.