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9.50 am

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): It is my happy duty to congratulate the Minister on his promotion to his ministerial role. As a result of a recent minor reshuffle in the Cabinet Office, he is now in receipt of a ministerial salary. Some of us in opposition were, slightly more belatedly than others, converts to the doctrine of the minimum wage, and perhaps it becomes us to congratulate the Minister on the fact that he is now receiving due remuneration for the task that he has been performing. I

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am sure that he shares my pleasure at the fact that that change occurred as a result of British Petroleum's benevolence towards the Government. It is a mark of the triumph of new Labour that British Petroleum's happiness with the Government has resulted in not one but two pillars of the new Labour establishment enjoying an increase in their take-home pay.

I must begin with a small apology. I am afraid that a commitment outside the House will require me to be absent for about half an hour from approximately 10.30 am, and I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to the House, particularly if that means that I miss one or two of the speeches that follow mine. I shall of course return as soon as I can.

In his helpful and constructive introduction to the debate, the Minister set out the role of quangos—or non-departmental public bodies as we are now supposed to call them, as he rightly said, although I am not sure that that greatly illuminates matters. However, what does clarify the issue is a series of excellent reports by the Select Committee on Public Administration. I commend to all hon. Members the reports that it produced during this and the previous Parliament, because they contain much useful information.

It is important to stress, as the Minister did, that quangos or NDPBs, however we choose to call them, can fulfil a constructive and valuable role. They can bring into public service a range of independent-minded people, and they can provide greater expertise, wider experience and more flexibility than the hands-on model of Departments in central or local government.

It is important to stress at the outset that no Government are wholly virtuous in their approach to quangos. All of us in opposition mount great campaigns about the evils of quangos. We argue that they must all be put to the sword, and that public service would be advanced greatly if 99 per cent. of them were wiped away. However, when we come to office, we all suddenly find that they are rather convenient and a good model for delivering public service. Before we know where we are, a new set of Ministers is busily appointing members to quangos and creating new ones.

It is perfectly true to say—I volunteer this insight before Labour Members are tempted to challenge me on it—that all Governments are, from time to time, inclined to appoint more of their friends and supporters than their opponents. It is also important to stress that no Government are wholly sinful. All Governments, including the present one, appoint people from a range of backgrounds and political beliefs, and all Governments face the sometimes difficult consequences of appointees, once in place, turning round and biting the hand of those who feed them. That certainly occurred under the Conservative Government, and I suspect one or two people may be wondering how Tom Winsor managed to get appointed by the present Administration.

There have also been some increases in arm's length administration. I am not sure whether the Government would define the increased independence of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee as the creation of a quango, but it has been universally regarded as a success and is supported by my party. That shows that there has been a shift in the way in which we are governed, and we support that. In my view, it is not an indefensible crime for a Government who have received a mandate from the

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electorate to give power and responsibility to those who share a ministerial commitment to carrying out the policies on which the Government sought election. As ever, it is the detail that can cause problems. Many measures that are sensible in moderation can cause problems if they are carried to excess.

The BBC is an organisation that is listed in the Cabinet Office publication on public bodies. Many of us believe that it is perfectly acceptable for either the chairman or the director general of the BBC to be a known supporter of the governing party, but problems arise when, as now, they are both known to be supporters of the governing party, which is wholly unprecedented, as far as I know.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): The hon. Gentleman has been frank about the Conservative Government's policy of putting Conservative party placemen and placewomen into quangos because they had a mandate from the electorate. During the 1980s, the Conservative party never had a mandate to govern Scotland. Did not its enthusiasm for putting Conservative party spokesmen on health boards and various quangos in Scotland lead to its present position, with only one Conservative MP out of 72?

Mr. Collins: I am grateful for that invitation to comment on the existence of a mandate in Scotland. I was under the impression that the Labour party at senior level, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had said that theirs is the party of the Union in Scotland. If there is a Union and a United Kingdom, it follows that the mandate applied to this place and to Ministers answerable to it is a mandate across the entire United Kingdom. That is the mandate that Conservative Governments received between 1979 and 1997, and it is the mandate that Labour Governments have received since 1997. I could point out that in Westmorland and Lonsdale the Labour party received 10 per cent. of the vote, yet I do not question its right to take decisions at Executive level that affect my constituents. I invite the hon. Gentleman to be a little more careful before arguing that the Government do not have a mandate in certain parts of the United Kingdom.

We all understand that Prime Ministers have the right to make appointments to the House of Lords, but some of us would question the present position, as almost a third of its Members have been appointed by the incumbent Prime Minister.

It is important to examine the trend of quangos. The Minister, with characteristic charm, attempted to convince the House that the number of quangos is falling. I think he said that it is the lowest number for 20 years. The impression was created that the quango state—if that is the phrase—is in retreat, that the virtuous armies of new Labour are vanquishing quangos even as we speak, and that if we give the present Administration a few more years, the role of quangos will be far smaller than ever before.

That is not the view taken by the Local Government Information Unit, which in the past 15 or 20 years has not been renowned for being a front for the Conservative party, as I suspect Labour Members recognise. It has recently produced a study called "The Advance of the

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Quango State", which refers to the fact that since 1997 new quangos have been created to lead, and police, national policy initiatives in almost every policy area. It says that Ministers are adding

right across the field.

If we are to make the numbers comparison, it is important to note that even the Government's document "Public Bodies 2000" recognises that there was a sharp reduction in the number of people who work for quangos, or NDPBs, during the Conservative years. In 1979, 217,000 people worked for quangos, and that was reduced almost every year after 1979. There was a small blip in the 1980s.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Jobs everywhere were being reduced.

Mr. Collins: The hon. Lady says that there were reductions across the board. Indeed, there were reductions in the numbers of bureaucrats and others working for the state. That was one of our commitments in every election from 1979 onwards, and I am delighted that, as the hon. Lady accurately points out, we kept that commitment.

As I was saying, the total number of public servants working for quangos was reduced from 217,000 in 1979 to 106,000 in 1997, a reduction of more than 50 per cent. Since 1997, the number has gone up to 112,000, which is about a 5 per cent. rise. The trend has therefore not only halted but been reversed.

Fiona Mactaggart: I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstood my point, which was that, while his party was in government, employment of every kind reduced. Since Labour has been in government, employment in all fields has increased. Do not the figures that he has cited reflect that, rather than some ideological difference?

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who as ever makes a delightful contribution to our debates. I think that she will find that she is wrong. It would be true to say, had she wished to make the point, that unemployment was higher in 1997 than in 1979, but employment was also higher in 1997 than in 1979. Far from employment in all sectors having increased since the present Government came to power, employment in manufacturing has fallen by 112,000 and is in free fall, so I caution Labour Members not to go down that particular route.

It is important to stress that the Minister made a welcome announcement that there would now be an annual report on taskforces, but we learn from the Select Committee reports that about 303 taskforces exist. I think he said that a couple of dozen are being wound up. It would be helpful to know whether he will be able to give the House an undertaking that fewer taskforces will be set up in the second Parliament of the present Administration than in the first, when a very large number were established.

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