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10.26 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton–under–Lyne (Mr. Heyes) on his maiden speech. He spoke passionately about his predecessor. I was amused by his comments; I am sure that letters will be addressed to him in the years ahead. He also spoke passionately about his constituency. It seems an enormously diverse area and I am deeply

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envious of its leisure and transport initiatives. Many things are happening in the hon. Gentleman's area. I only hope that he breaks the tradition and avoids a boundary review.

I welcome the fact that we are debating public bodies, because there is genuine concern about their role. We have heard from the Minister and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), the Conservative spokesman, about debates on the increase in their number, although there is no doubt that they represent a large part of the work of government. A considerable amount of money is spent by public bodies—£24 million—but mystery surrounds much of their work.

All Governments want to demonstrate that they are controlling the growth of public bodies, and we heard an interesting exchange between Conservative and Labour spokesmen each trying to demonstrate that they are more determined than the other to control such growth. We should put it on record, however, that the present Government have gone some way in tackling the issue. Although there are still many weaknesses in the system, posts such as the Commissioner for Public Appointments are helping to provide more information about what goes on in public bodies and to oversee some of the appointments and the concerns that many of us share.

I shall set aside some of the detail to raise a general concern about public bodies and the way in which the Government are able to engage the public and explain the work done. More than ever before, there is apathy about the Government and public bodies, a misunderstanding of their activities and a disengagement of the public from Government and the mechanisms by which they deliver services to ordinary people. The election saw the lowest turnout for many years. Although I am pleased to say that the highest turnout was in my constituency, the figure was down there, too.

As a result of such disengagement and misunderstanding, the public do not seem to want to get involved in either the process of electing politicians to take decisions on expenditure or the various local or national organisations in which they could have a direct say about how public money is spent.

In many cases, the honest truth is that all three parties have a battle in finding individuals to stand for local elections. There is a similar battle in many public bodies, particularly local ones. On most of the occasions on which I have seen the work of public bodies at meetings in the regions and communities, just a handful of members of the public have been present in the village hall, and not all that engaged in the process. I am not suggesting that the way in which public bodies operate is completely to blame, but I should like the Minister to step back from the detailed initiatives that he has talked about today and let us know the Government's thinking about our use of public bodies. We should think about them in a radical way and reform them so that they can bridge the disengagement between Westminster and local communities. They have an important role to play.

I spent last night and last Thursday night in discussion with my constituents. Last Thursday, 350 people turned up to discuss noise on a motorway and last night about 200 people turned up to discuss the impact of mobile phone masts. We know that when people get involved in issues, they want to join the debate and have a say in what

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affects them. We need to bridge the gap so that people recognise the need to get involved in the public bodies and organisations that set the agenda that affects how much noise there is on motorways and where mobile phone masts are sited. There is a gap between people's interest in issues that affect them and their willingness to get involved in the agencies that may help them address those issues. The Government need to tackle that problem.

Having engaged people in some of those bodies, we need to consider the lack of representation. I was pleased to hear that the Minister is determined that people on public bodies should reflect the make-up of society, but it is hard to find good people to get involved in the process. Of course, some positions are sought after and there have been concerns about certain political appointments.

I welcome the work of the Public Administration Committee, of which the hon. Member for Ashton–under–Lyne is a member. I was a member of that Committee previously and its Chairman is passionately committed to tackling these issues. I also welcome the work of the Commissioner for Public Appointments in trying to make sure that sought-after appointments are made on merit rather than on the basis of favouritism. However, in her most recent report, the commissioner said that there had been an increase of 4.2 per cent. in the number of those appointed who had declared some form of political activity. I would welcome the Minister's view on that. It may be a blip; it may not mean that there has been an increase in political appointments, but I am concerned that the figure has increased from 14.8 per cent. to 19 per cent.

Mr. Tom Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, rather than suspecting some evil conspiracy behind the figures, we should consider whether the Government have not done what all Governments do and simply appointed people who are willing to serve on these bodies? More often than not, those people already have an interest in public service, which usually means that they are engaged in some form of political activity. Perhaps what happens has more to do with playing to people's strengths and interests than with some kind of political conspiracy.

Mr. Oaten: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. We need to expand the process so that it does not always involve the same group of people but includes individuals who are not necessarily involved in politics. The hon. Gentleman's point has held good for a number of years, but I am concerned with the increase in the past year. It is a small increase, but it is worth the Minister commenting on it.

I am also concerned about the role of women in public bodies. The Minister rightly said that 33 per cent. of public bodies include women, but that figure has not changed since the Labour Government were elected. It is a pity that progress has not been as fast as we all would have liked it to be. In fact, some Departments which are involved in nominations have seen a decrease in the number of women appointed. The Treasury and the former Department of Social Security have reported such decreases. The latter has had to reduce its targets, and that is disappointing. I would welcome the Minister's view on how we can turn things around.

The Minister and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned the inclusion of disabled people. The Select Committee reported a slight dip in the number

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of disabled people appointed to public bodies. Similarly there has been a dip in the appointment of people from ethnic minorities.

Two other barriers to achieving the Minister's aim of getting a broad range of individuals on to these bodies have not been mentioned this morning. The first is the lack of involvement of young people. The Minister is a shining example, as he has achieved a great deal at a young age. I think I am correct in saying that he is the youngest Minister in the Government. However, young people are not getting involved in public bodies. It is difficult to make that a target and I accept that it is not one of the Government's indicators, but I hope that the Minister will give some thought to how we can encourage more people under 40 to get involved. Perhaps because of the time commitment involved or the times at which public bodies meet, the tendency is for individuals to become involved when they are in their 50s and 60s, have already brought up their families and do not have pressing commitments. If public bodies are to be representative, particularly given the decisions that some of them take, it would be good to get some younger people involved.

Perhaps it is more controversial to say that most public bodies involve middle-class professional people. If we really want to include a more diverse range of people, we should encourage people from different professional networks. In a sense this picks up on the point that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made in his intervention. We have to look at how people get involved in these organisations. We are part of a cosy network. That may be because we are politicians or because of our professional lives. That is where the chats take place and people say, "There is a position coming up. Would you be interested?" As long as that is how appointments are made, we will continue to exclude people from other parts of society. I do not know whether we can change that by looking at how positions are advertised. If the proposed solution is to advertise in The Guardian, it will not be good enough. We need to go out and seek good people who are getting involved in issues on estates and in communities and persuade them to step up their activities. We need to give them financial support so that they can get involved in public bodies.

My next concern relates to the lack of accountability in public bodies. The Public Administration Committee reported that 95 per cent. of non-departmental public bodies were under no requirement to produce an annual report. I find that as bizarre as the fact that Members of Parliament are not required to produce annual reports. Perhaps it is hypocritical of us to criticise other organisations. I produce an annual report and I believe that there should be a requirement for all hon. Members to do the same. However, the fact that 95 per cent. of public bodies do not produce an annual report cannot be contributing to accountability or explaining the work that they do.

Only 1.8 per cent. of advisory quangos release the minutes of their meetings. Although I quite understand why some of them may not want to do that, what is stopping such organisations as the Sustainable Development Education Panel, the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee making the minutes of their meetings accessible? Perhaps the Minister could comment, as I believe that there is a need for action and for a requirement on those organisations.

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My final concern relates to the Government's ability to slow down the increase in the number of public bodies. I have no doubt that nearly all of them are set up with good intentions. When an issue needs tackling, the Government nearly always respond by setting something up. The Government and the nanny state rarely step back and do nothing. That is the nature of politics. It is also the nature of politics that responding to a situation often involves bringing expert advisers in to help. There is nothing wrong with that, but we need to make more progress in trying to analyse whether we need all the bodies that exist. With so many bodies in place, how can they co-ordinate among themselves? There must be crossover, and the more non-government bodies there are, the more likely it is that the Government's ability to achieve joined-up government will be hampered.

Worse still, there has been a growth in the number of bodies being set up which fall outside the remit of this debate—organisations that are not described as public bodies or quangos. Appointments are being made, particularly by the Cabinet Office, to taskforces, ad hoc advisory groups and internal reviews. My concern is that these bodies fall outside our remit. They are described as temporary bodies, which means that they do not have to fall within the commissioner's remit. Of the 300 or so that exist, 52 have been in operation for more than the two-year limit that is recommended for a body to be regarded as temporary.

The Neill Committee said that after two years the Government should decide whether a temporary body is to be abolished or turned into a permanent organisation that would fall under the commissioner's remit and be included in the figures that the Minister gave. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can specifically address that concern and give a commitment to review the status of those 52 organisations so that they can either be abolished or can fall within the remit of the Neill Committee.

I welcome the debate. The Minister has been open about his ideas for making progress on this issue. I have raised specific concerns about the ability to include quangos in the figures and the importance of accountability. We can tweak the figures, but unless we tackle the problem of apathy in public engagement and find a way in which public bodies can engage with the public, the subject will remain mysterious, which does nothing to make the Government more accountable to the people whom we represent.


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