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Volume 714: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many quangos exist; what is their total staff; and at what annual administrative cost.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of two non-departmental public bodies. The Cabinet Office publishes an annual report on NDPBs. The latest report shows that, at 31 March 2008, there were 790 NDPBs employing around 92,500 staff. This is a fall in the total number of NDPBs of around 8 per cent since 1997. Total expenditure by NDPBs in 2007-08 was just around £43 billion, of which around £34.5 billion was funded directly by government.

My Lords, first of all, I had better declare an interest as a former member of two quangos—the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission—and five years as chairman of the CPRE, a pressure group. And I thank the Minister for those interesting figures. Does she agree that the value of quangos will be judged by the objectivity of their advice and the proportionality of their actions, and that this means that they must not transform themselves into pressure groups? Is she aware that Natural England, a quango, recently required the Highways Agency, another quango, to spend £300,000 of taxpayers’ money constructing two bridges for bats to commute over the Dobwalls bypass in Cornwall and that a survey of the value of this expenditure showed that 20 bats a day fly over the new road?

My Lords, in all my time at the Dispatch Box I never thought I would have a flag saying, “Bats, if pressed”. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for his courtesy in sharing his thinking on quangos with me this week. Although I am aware of his concerns and agree with his points on proportionality—especially the example he gave the House this morning—he will know of our real responsibility to bats and their habitats from our obligations under EU law.

That will open a debate, my Lords. However, I think that all sides of the House would agree that the model for non-departmental public bodies, generally speaking, works for the health of our democratic society and for the taxpayer.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former and current chair of several NDPBs. It is very easy to knock them, as we know, but does my noble friend agree that a great deal of progress has been made in the composition of the boards of NDPBs by involving lay people, such as patients and families, who bring their particular voice to policy development?

Yes, absolutely. I agree with my noble friend, and I thank her for all the work that she does in the public interest. Over the past 10 or 15 years—and this is not a party political point—there has been a great deal more scrutiny of the whole appointments process and trying to open it up to as many people as possible.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having been a member of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Does the Minister recall the Cabinet Office’s published guidance for departments on public bodies? It states that,

“to provide independent advice and expertise on technical, scientific or other complex issues and take this outside the party political arena, for example on ethical issues, or funding decisions”,

government bodies should operate “at arm’s length” from Ministers? In the light of the sacking of Professor Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, are we to conclude that the Government have torn up their own rule book? If so, what do they propose to put in its place?

This is a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has already given a full Statement to the House of Commons.

My Lords, in this day and age, is it not ludicrous that most people running these quangos earn more than the Prime Minister?

I think I know the case to which the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is referring. However, in the generality of things, chairs and members of such public boards have reasonable remuneration, and many of them serve the public for no remuneration at all.

Let me at least declare that I was chair of a quango, and I was first appointed under a Conservative Government. Does my noble friend agree that while some quangos have served out their useful life, others, if abolished, would simply transfer their functions to the Civil Service, which would hardly be an advantage?

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for his service in public life. That shows that we are not talking about political cronies; as he said, he was appointed under the Opposition, and I am sure that that happens all the time. He talked about old and new departmental public bodies. As quangos—for shorthand—become historical and their functions are no longer necessary, they are merged, reformed or abolished. That has happened over several Governments. We have many new non-departmental public bodies, but we have also abolished many.

My Lords, when might the Government answer the 21 Questions that I put to them regarding which Members of the House of Lords serve on which quangos or non-departmental government bodies and what their remuneration is?

My Lords, why did the Government stop publishing a few years ago the full figures in the Cabinet Office publication Public Bodies? It had clearly and concisely all the answers to my noble friend Lord Marlesford’s Question.

I sympathise with the noble Baroness. As she can imagine, I asked that when I was being briefed on this Question. I hope that the noble Baroness will be reassured that in the next publication there will be more information about where the public and Members of this House can go to find out about the different departmental public bodies. I think it was an efficiency or cost-cutting measure not to have a great tome of information and to ensure that each department gave that information. When I asked how I would find out about individual departments, I was told that I should go to I have asked to have some people’s contact details in the next report.