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Public Bodies: Communications

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what guidance they give to quangos and other unelected government-funded organisations with regard to communications budgets.

My Lords, all public bodies in receipt of government funding are bound by the principles set out in the HM Treasury publication Managing public money. This requires all public bodies to operate efficiently, economically and effectively and demonstrate value for money for the taxpayer at all times.

My Lords, is the Minister not then slightly concerned that quangos spend up to £1 billion a year on PR and other such publications? Could I draw to his attention the Rural Payments Agency, which spent £1.4 million last year but failed to pay the due owed to farmers and other people?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has drawn attention the Rural Payments Agency in the past, and I am pleased to record that the record is improving. On the more general issues, the noble Baroness will appreciate that quangos must have communications budgets so that they can inform the public about the services they provide. That essential expenditure is subject to the Comptroller and Auditor-General and, of course, to Parliament through Ministers.

My Lords, what specific guidance do the Government give to regional development agencies? Is the noble Lord aware that a recent ministerial reply indicated that the north-west RDA gets by on £20,000 over two years while London spends £461,000 and the south-west £706,000? Is it not clear that they are seeking to justify their existence because they think they might be scrapped? What guidance will he give to the new chairman of the south-west RDA to deal with this ridiculous situation?

My Lords, I am not at all surprised that the north-west comes out of that list well, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for identifying that. On the more general issues with regard to RDAs, of course, they face different problems in different parts of the country. Given his representation of part of Cornwall, he will be all too well aware just what a difficult situation the south-west region’s economy is in. Therefore, I should have thought he would applaud the fact that the Government are giving as much support as possible in terms of resources to the regional development agency and, through it, to economic development.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord is aware of the late Henry Ford’s aphorism that everybody knows that half of every advertising budget is wasted; the trouble is that they do not know which half. Given that these quangos have important messages to convey, they should have adequate budgets. But are those budgets overseen and controlled by people who are experts in this sphere, who can decide whether they are being spent wisely and efficiently?

My Lords, appointments to quangos go through a selection process of the utmost rigour. Noble Lords will recognise that people with very high qualifications apply to sit on quangos. The chairman and the board are responsible for its accounts. The Comptroller and Auditor General surveys the position. At the end of the day, Ministers are responsible for the action of quangos within the remit of their departments. That is the basis on which public accountability is best administered.

My Lords, in view of the fact that there have been two parliamentary Written Answers in the other place recently connected with this subject, one of which admits that the Home Secretary has spent £2,000 of taxpayers’ money on improving her self-confidence, and given that the Secretary of State has spent £2 million of public money on improving his media performances, has the Minister any intention of following their example?

My Lords, tempting though the suggestion is, it could well be above my pay grade. I emphasise the obvious fact that there are constant criticisms of the fact that Members of Parliament who become Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of other ranks often have limited experience of managing matters.

That is at least as true of the previous Administration in the 1980s and 1990s as any I can think of. Therefore, I am sure that anything which enhances Ministers’ specific skills will be welcomed right across the House.

My Lords, although there may well be examples of misuse of communications campaigns, does the noble Lord agree that some such campaigns can be extremely valuable? I think particularly of the one that raises people’s awareness of signs of potential stroke. That has caught on extremely well and is doing excellent work.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for mentioning that. She has considerable experience of this work. It is important to recognise that communication is at times absolutely essential to the work of quangos as it enables the public to understand the issues more clearly and the help which the quango can give. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the testimony she has given.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that more than 60 central government bodies are actually hiring public affairs companies to lobby the Government themselves? At a time when businesses, families and households up and down the country are having to cut all unnecessary expenditure, is it not time that the Government took a lead on this subject and stopped the absurd practice of paying third parties to speak to the Government themselves?

My Lords, if the quality of information which comes to the Government is enhanced by such strategies, that is obviously a defence for them because government can only be carried out well when it is well informed of the problems of the nation and responds accurately. I hope the noble Lord will recognise that fact.

My Lords, the Minister has apparently accepted the estimate of my noble friend that these bodies spend between them some £1 billion on communications. Can he tell us what they spend in total?

My Lords, no, I cannot do that, but I did ask the question, of course. These figures are not held centrally.

Well, my Lords, the quangos are responsible to each department for their spending, the total of which appears in public documents. There is no one in the House who does not recognise that a vast range of these public bodies do excellent work. There have been two increases in expenditure over the past 18 months; one relates to expenditure on the learning and skills councils and the development of training, which is absolutely critical in this downturn and economic crisis; the other significant increase in expenditure relates to the development of the Olympic Games and that is, of course, also within the overall budget.