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Quangos: Number And Total Cost

Volume 415: debated on Thursday 4 December 1980

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3.21 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state the number and total cost of Quangos in November 1978 and November 1980.

My Lords, the information is not available in the form requested by my noble friend. But, according to the report by Sir Leo Pliatzky on Non-Departmental Public Bodies (Cmnd. 7797), there were 2,117 such bodies in November 1979 and the charge falling directly on public funds by way of grants and other support costs funded by sponsoring departments was about £2,950 million in 1978–79. These figures are now being updated and the results will be published in the New Year.

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his reply, may I ask whether he could confirm that, as reported in The Times today, while the Government propose to retain those Quangos which are doing useful work, we can look forward to the abolition of a further 460 by 1983, with a saving of some £23 million to the Exchequer?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that comment. Following Sir Leo Pliatzky's report, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in January that just over 240 such bodies would be abolished. She announced yesterday that a further 192 would be abolished making a grand total of 436, which is the figure which my noble friend has in mind. These will entail a saving of £23 million by 1983.

My Lords, will the noble Lord appreciate that Quangos, particularly in the field of agriculture, are very important? Today we shall be talking later about the Apple and Pear Development Council, which is a Quango. There are also bodies such as the Egg Marketing Board and other bodies; so will the Government not be doctrinal about this? These bodies, after all, attract men of good will of all parties and are non-political. They do a very fine job, particularly in the field of agriculture.

My Lords, the Government recognise that many of these bodies do an important, if not essential, job, and that is the reason that, while 436 of them will be abolished, approximately 1,600 will remain.

My Lords, following up and supporting the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Peart, and recognising that a number of these bodies do a great deal of good, would there not be some point in asking the organisations, industries and so on, which benefit from these bodies, to give them some financial support, rather than the bodies being supported purely from central Government finances?

My Lords, I note the point the noble Viscount makes. Many of these bodies look for a substantial part of their revenue either from charges or contributions from industry. This is an area in which constant vigilance is required, first, to ensure that bodies are not set up when they are not needed, and, secondly, to ensure that bodies which have completed their function no longer continue in existence.

My Lords, would the noble Lord say what new Quangos the Government contemplate, such as, for instance, the Docklands Corporations?

Yes, my Lords; one of the new Quangos set up by the present Administration was the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which I am sure will have the noble and learned Lord's support. We pay great tribute to the part played by noble Lords opposite in the setting up of that body. In all, 21 such new bodies have been set up since the present Government came into office, but we do take great care to ensure that each body set up is set up only when absolutely essential.

My Lords, will the Minister give us an assurance that the suggestion which has appeared in the press that the axe might fall on some of the consumer councils attached to nationalised industries will not take effect and that these will be safeguarded? They are a most valuable safeguard for the consumer. Would he not agree that the consumer has very few opportunities of making his needs felt without organisations of such a kind?

My Lords, the future of the particular bodies to which the noble Baroness refers is at present under consideration, and I am afraid I can say no more than that at the present time.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to say, regarding the 400 Quangos that have been abolished, whether any of the members involved were Members of your Lordships' House? Can we be assured that, because of the loss of income sustained by these persons who have been eliminated from the Quangos, they are to receive either a golden handshake or some compensation?

My Lords, I fear I do not carry in my head the names of all the members of the 436 bodies which have been abolished; but the noble Lord will find particulars of most of them in the announcements which have been made in this field.

My Lords, if my arithmetic is correct, the saving of £23 million is a saving of less than 1 per cent. on the total cost of Quangos. If that is so, would the noble Lord agree that surely too much fuss is being made about the savings and perhaps many of the Quangos are suffering from being called "Quangos" and are in fact very useful bodies?

My Lords, we have never disputed that many of these bodies perform an important, if not essential task, which is the phrase that I used earlier. The list includes, for example, the regional water authorities, which are clearly bodies we could not dispense with. But a saving of £23 million is a substantial one and we need to find savings wherever we can.

My Lords, would the Minister help me and possibly save me some embarrassment as I am about to proceed to Milton Keynes to deliver the Alan Ashton Lecture, in memory of the first director of the Milton Keynes Corporation? As the lecture is being sponsored by that corporation, should I sympathise with them or applaud them, as I intended to do, for the great work they have been doing?

My Lords, I fear I cannot help the noble Lord in the preparation of his speech, but this is a field in which he excels more than I do.

That of course is perfectly true, but is the Minister telling the House he does not really know whether the Milton Keynes Development Corporation is one of the bodies to be abolished?

My Lords, the noble Lord will find a list of the bodies which it is proposed to abolish—

in the reply given by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place yesterday. If he wishes to refer to it, I imagine that he can do so without much difficulty.

My Lords, I do not wish to refer to it. I am asking the Minister, who owes a duty to this House. One can get very angry about this. If Ministers choose to come to this House to make a statement inadequately briefed, the House has a complaint. Now has the Minister referred to the statement made by the Prime Minister in another place yesterday, and does the Minister know whether the Prime Minister included the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in her statement?

My Lords, the statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday in another place was by way of Written Answer. It was a very long statement and I can only suggest that the noble Lord reads it.

No, my Lords. Has the Minister read it? I will persist, with your Lordships' permission, so long as it takes the Minister to ask the people in the Box, who are there for the purpose of advising him. Is that one of the Quangos that was abolished in the Prime Minister's very long Written Answer yesterday? If it was too long for the Minister to read, and too long for his advisers to read, why should I plough through it?

The Minister has people available. There are Lords-in-Waiting, called Whips in the other House, who could proceed between the Treasury Bench and that Box up there. We all know why the civil servants are wasting their time in this House; it is to advise the Minister, in case the Minister is asked a question to which he does not know the answer. Clearly, in this case, he has been asked a question to which he does not know the answer. Would somebody please go up and find out? Is the Milton Keynes Development Corporation one of those bodies?

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister a question? In view of the question put by my noble friend Lord George-Brown, who appears to have declared an interest, may I also declare an interest? Can the Minister explain why, in all the the years I have been a Member of your Lordships' House, I have never been made a member of a Quango? Can he give some kind of appreciation of the quality of intelligence required in order to be a member of these august bodies?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I am sure that the fact that he has not been appointed a member of a Quango is a great tribute to his ability.

My Lords, as the Minister has now received the advice from the Box, may I ask him to acquaint us with the contents?

My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt, because I know that the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, feels very strongly about this matter—and, indeed, we all enjoyed his intervention. But, with the greatest respect to him, my noble friend has answered the Question which is on the Order Paper and it really would be unreasonable, I suggest, for my noble friend to read out every individual Quango that was mentioned in my right honourable friend's Answer yesterday.

My Lords, may I ask guidance here? In the other place, there is a procedure which can be invoked—

when a Minister deliberately and, as it seems to me in this case, quite obstructively declines to help. I do not know who answers here, but may I ask the Leader of the House what procedure is available in this House to a noble Lord who is quite deliberately refused information, which is now quite clearly in the Minister's possession—because we all saw the note passed to the Minister—and who wishes to prevent further business from being conducted until the Minister discloses what he clearly is now in a position to disclose?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, is not doing—if I may say so with respect—a service to the House or to my noble friend. The Question which is on the Order Paper asks Her Majesty's Government whether they will state the number and total cost of Quangos. It was not suggested that my noble friend should read out—or, indeed, should acquaint himself with—each or any of those Quangos. That was done in my right honourable friend's statement yesterday, which was available to the other place and to your Lordships. I really think that it is being slightly unfair for the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, to chase my noble friend on one particular Quango any more than the other 189.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has been up on his feet several times.

My Lords, as the noble Lord the Minister himself referred to a number of Quangos which are now being abolished, without referring to one in particular, can he tell the House whether it is correct that all New Town Corporations and the New Town Commission are to be abolished? If so, what will be the effect of this on the work of new towns, and will it be debated in this House?

My Lords, this goes right outside the Question on the Order Paper. If the noble Lord wishes to pursue the matter, I suggest that he tables a Question on the subject.

My Lords, may I return to my question to the Leader of the House? I am not quite sure whether he is the Leader of the House or the acting Leader of the House. If he says that I am being unfair and am doing no service to his noble friend or to the House by what I am now doing, may I just make it quite plain that I will seek the highest advice as to the way in which a noble Lord who, on the whole, if I may remind him, has supported his Government at great cost to myself, can, in fact, proceed, when I should have thought I was being treated with gross discourtesy by the Minister concerned. The Minister cannot know how many Quangos are being dismissed, unless he knows the list of the Quangos that are being dismissed. It follows. I simply serve notice on the noble Earl who is acting as Leader of the House that whatever disservice he thinks I have done to the House, he has done a very considerable disservice to himself and his colleagues.

My Lords, I really feel that I should just say this to the noble Lord. If I have done a disservice to the noble Lord, to my party or to the House by what I have said, then of course I am intensely sorry for that. It will be up to your Lordships to decide whether or not that has taken place. In the view of the noble Lord, Lord George-Brown, obviously it has. I merely say to him that if he wishes to seek a specific, detailed piece of information, then, if he will be kind enough to put it down, as a Question on the Order Paper, he will receive an Answer.