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Mr. Tom Harris: I shall try to restrict my interventions. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is now the policy of the Conservative party not to set up any new taskforces if it wins the next general election?

Mr. Collins: I am always delighted to have a conversation with Labour Members about what we will

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do when we return to power, but in common with most Oppositions in the first six months of a Parliament—it was certainly a characteristic of the Labour party when it was in opposition for four Parliaments in a row—we do not enter into firm policy commitments this early. All those things are being considered by our policy review, but I take his submission to that policy review in the constructive spirit in which it is offered, and it will be given due consideration in time.

I wanted to put some specific questions to the Minister. He referred to the document "Public Bodies". As he knows, that was most recently published in December last year. I am sure that he will know that a number of hon. Members would have found it helpful if it had been possible for the 2001 edition to be published before, rather than after, this debate. It would be useful if, in the discussions that he has with the Government business managers, it could be suggested that it would help if such a debate took place after, rather than before, publication of the annual report.

Has the Minister a view yet on the format of that document? He will remember that some two years ago in its sixth report the Select Committee on Public Administration said:

We all know what has happened to the Government's annual report. It became such an embarrassment that it appears to have been buried without trace. None the less, it would be helpful if the Minister indicated whether he thinks that, from now on, perhaps for this or next year's edition, "Public Bodies" can be modified in the way the Select Committee recommended, to become something nearer the map of the quango state for which it described the need.

It would also be helpful to learn the Minister's thinking on the Select Committee's recommendation that there should be some form of confirmation hearings, although not necessarily on exactly the model in the United States. It recommended that, for the most senior appointments to the most powerful and independent-minded of non-departmental public bodies, there should be the possibility at least for the relevant departmental Select Committee to have a hearing at which the Minister's nominee appeared before their formal appointment.

It would be helpful to know whether the Government have reached a settled view on that recommendation, just as it would be to know what the Minister makes of the Committee's recommendation, which seems quite sensible, that there may need to be clear, universally applicable guidelines on when a function should be implemented by a quango and when it should be implemented by either central or local government. We all understand that there must be some flexibility at the margin. However, there seems to be some confusion about whether a function should automatically be best implemented through an NDPB or through an elected tier of government.

I had an exchange with the Minister earlier about the number of taskforces and whether there would be fewer of them in this Parliament than in the previous one. Does he specifically accept the recommendation from the

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Committee on Standards in Public Life that taskforces should last for a maximum of two years? He will recall that the Committee reached that conclusion because it was said that taskforces should not be counted in the total number of NDPBs since they were temporary structures. The Committee thought that a temporary structure should by definition wind itself up within two years. Is that the Government's view? If not, many of us say that at least a number of those 300 or so taskforces should be counted as quangos and as a bit more than temporary.

On a slightly more constructive and less challenging note to the Minister, may I say how strongly I welcome what he said about wishing to see more people with disabilities appointed to public bodies of all sorts? I am a strong supporter of the creation of the Disability Rights Commission. Before Labour Members come to it, I am well aware that that was not the view of the last Conservative Government, but I think that the present Government were right to establish the commission. Their view on that has been entirely vindicated by events.

The commission has conducted itself admirably. I hope that the Minister will feel that he can take advice where appropriate from the commission on how best to take forward his strong commitment that there should be a greater number and diversity of people with disabilities on a range of public bodies.

I endorse what the Minister said about the many people who work very hard, either as board members or as employees for public bodies. We should recognise that public service can take a range of different forms, and we are very lucky in this country in the quality of many our public servants. None of them, any more us, is perfect, but they work extremely hard. Many of them do so not for a huge amount of money but with a strong commitment to their community. That should be welcomed.

As we have established, there is a valuable, long-term role for quangos, but there are a number of principles that it would be helpful to establish in relation to their running and the way they are organised. The first is greater openness about who is appointed to run them, how those people are appointed, and what and when decisions are taken.

The Minister outlined various ways in which the Government hoped to take that forward. He did not say much about the idea of having at least some meetings of the boards in public. We all understand that some discussions of commercial and other sensitivities cannot take place in public, but it would be helpful for the Government to say that, unless there are reasons to the contrary, it is useful to have meetings at least from time to time in public.

We need to know whether there will be a strong view about the auditing of those public bodies. The Select Committee recommended that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee should have a greater role in auditing them. There seems to be a strong case for that. Again, that cannot apply in all circumstances, but as the Minister said, according to the most recent available figures, about £24 billion is spent by these public bodies, of which about £18 billion comes from central Government; the other sums come from fees and other charges that they levy. A large sum of public money is involved. It would be useful if the principle were established that the National Audit Office should have a wide rather than a narrow remit.

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It is important that we put down a marker as a Parliament that arm's length relationships have a valuable role and that virtues can come out of them, but I am not a fan of the proposition that distancing Ministers, parliamentarians and politicians from accountability for decisions is always and invariably a good thing. Often, people will say that it is important that political considerations should be taken out of a particular decision-making process, when what they are really saying is that under no circumstances should the electorate be listened to. That is a dangerous principle.

All of us—I suspect that this is true of Labour Members too—when out of office, and sometimes when in office, may, in criticising the other side, have contributed to the creation of a climate in which the process of election has resulted in some people thinking that those who are elected are disqualified from making decisions, rather than qualified to do so. That is dangerous.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Is that not especially conspicuous when judges enter into the making of law, superseding the decisions of Members and the Government? That extends to decisions about the Home Secretary's powers in respect of sentencing.

Mr. Collins: I agree, but I will not go far down that route, as I suspect I would be rebuked by the Chair if I did. I merely say that the Home Secretary's remarks about the need for the primacy of Parliament and elected politicians in that respect are admirable, and that I hope they will be translated into action.

Consequently, I am afraid I do not agree with the recent conclusions of The Democratic Audit, a body that has conducted otherwise very useful research:

That comes dangerously close to being rather patronising about the role of the House. I feel that Ministers and Parliament should be the primary focus of accountability in the case of non-departmental public bodies. As the supreme elected body in these islands, the House should make it clear, on a collective basis, that nothing less than primacy of accountability will do. There may be other forums in which accountability can be exercised, but public bodies in the United Kingdom must be principally and primarily accountable to Ministers and, through Ministers, to Parliament.

My party has made it clear, both before and since the last election, that we are interested in the development of a range of means to strengthen the role, prestige and powers of this place. I very much hope that greater control of NDPBs, and a greater sense of their accountability to the House and its Committees, will form part of that agenda. I also hope that it will be possible to build some cross-party consensus on that.

I agree with the Minister about the role of public bodies, although I would tweak him slightly for one or two of the appointments that the Government have made. I hope that many of those involved in such bodies will interpret what is said today as both a strong indication of parliamentary support for their hard work and public service, and as a demonstration of the strong feeling on—

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I hope—both sides of the House that they should regard themselves principally and primarily as being accountable to this place.

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