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11.33 am

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton–under–Lyne (Mr. Heyes) on his maiden speech. He referred, in a self-effacing way, to not being a worthy successor to Bob Sheldon. I assure him that any of his constituents who heard his speech will consider him a very worthy successor. Without wishing to sound complacent, may I express the belief that, unlike his predecessor, my hon. Friend will spend most of his prime years in the House on the Government rather than the Opposition Benches?

I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for broadening the debate beyond the definition of a quango to discuss public bodies as a whole. Later in my speech, I shall refer to my experiences working with public bodies that might not be strictly defined as quangos but would fall within the bounds of this debate.

When we talk about quangos, we usually focus on whether they are a good or a bad thing. In the past, the debate became quite sterile and polarised. People were either for quangos or against them. That is not helpful. Some of us may remember that in the 1980s such a debate was held in the Labour party. People came down on one side or the other—for or against health boards being directly elected or accountable to local councils. That is no longer helpful, as I shall explain later.

There is an element of public ignorance regarding what a quango is: it is not a soft drink. In Scotland, when people are appointed to public bodies, especially if the person has a record of political service, the call goes up, "You've been quangoed". That says something about the low esteem in which many of those organisations are held.

Before the 1997 general election, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now Lord Robertson, promised a bonfire of the quangos if Labour won the election. Much to the consternation of the chattering classes, that bonfire has not happened—certainly not in Scotland. I am not convinced that that is a bad thing. In retrospect, the "bonfire of the quangos" phrase was a hostage to fortune.

It is significant that the Labour Opposition were not the first Opposition to promise a dismantling of quangos. I note the comments of the hon. Member for Westmorland

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and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the reduction in the number of people employed by quangos after the 1997 general election. However, despite a reduction in the number of people employed by quangos, there was a very modest reduction in the number of quangos. I accept that fewer people worked for them. In opposition, parties tend to count numbers and say that there will be a reduction when they are in government, but often it does not work out like that.

Criticism of the Government for creating extra quangos is misguided. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the number of NDPBs—a term that I shall not use again during this debate: quango is a much more friendly term—fell by 10 per cent. between 1997 and 2000. That spikes the gun of those Opposition Members who say that we are setting up taskforces instead of implementing policy. That is not the case.

However, it may be missing the point to focus on that statistic. Instead of counting quangos and worrying about how many there are and about how many people are appointed by them, we should be considering whether those organisations are doing the job for which they were established. Are they providing the services that we need to offer ordinary people? Are the services of a high quality? Are the members of the quangos accountable to Ministers?

To return to Labour party history, this debate is rather like the one we held on nationalisation. It was only when John Smith became the leader that we realised that ownership itself was not the point: regulation and control were what mattered. There is a similar point to be made about quangos. It is not the numbers that matter—they mean nothing to anyone—but the services they offer and their effect on the lives of ordinary people.

I do not conform to the view that quangos are by their nature unaccountable to the public. In my experience, I can think of a few quangos that have been more responsive to the public than certain Departments, although if I were pressed to give an example, those cases would all be before 1997.

In a debate in Westminster Hall, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) pointed out that the term "quango" is a bad word. He compared quangos to theme parks, call centres and breakfast television. That is rather unfair—especially to call centres, which provide many jobs in my constituency. Indeed, it is about time that the term "call centre" went through a rehabilitation. The point is that people may not be able to tell the difference between a quango and an elected local body. Perhaps we should not expect them to do so.

There was some discussion earlier of the difficulty of persuading people to stand for appointment to quangos. I take what may be a cynical view. When people elect Governments, they want us to get on with the job and leave them alone. Voters in Scotland went to the polls five times between May 1997 and June 2001. They completed seven ballot papers and we ended up with a total of 18 politicians representing every individual Scot. That is no doubt something to be celebrated. I rejoice at the expansion of democracy, but we have the prospect of even more elections. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight talked about putting a limit on the number of elected peers in any future reform. If only 55 per cent. of people turn

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out to vote in elections to the House of Commons, there is not a strong argument for expecting people to turn out and vote in an election to the House of Lords, which the hon. Gentleman said might be described as the greatest quango ever. I am not sure that that is an accurate description.

Mr. Oaten: Does the hon. Gentleman think that members of the public would be more likely to turn out and vote if they felt that they were voting for the whole House of Lords rather than just 20 per cent of it?

Mr. Harris: The simple answer is no. I accept, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we do not want to stray too far from the core issue, but the simple fact is that the statistics show that turnout at general elections, which are the most important elections, has steadily declined over the past 20 years. I am sceptical about how easy it will be to reverse that trend. The turnout at elections to the House of Lords on the same day as or, even worse, half way between general elections, could be so derisory that it would negate any beneficial effect. Time will tell. I do not believe that the public are straining at the leash for another election.

I have mentioned my time working for public bodies that are not quangos. We can take the House of Lords as one example, and local authorities as another. I worked for East Ayrshire council. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said how difficult it was to motivate local voters to become involved in a general way. If the water commissioner for Scotland holds a public meeting on a broad issue such as the standard of water services, the same half dozen people will come out every time. It is only when there is a specific problem that people come out in numbers.

I was public relations manager for East Ayrshire council between 1996 and 1998, during which period the council held quarterly community forums. I understand that that practice continues. A huge amount of effort and resources goes into organising those meetings so that members of the public can come and listen to their councillors spout forth about cleaning the streets, emptying bins or local education services. At every single meeting, the same six people turned up. Perhaps the public simply want politicians to get on with the job. Bizarrely enough, if turnout is very low at consultation meetings, there is an argument for saying that it shows that people are not unhappy with the service. They may not be enthusiastic about it, but if they were unhappy, they would turn out.

Mr. Oaten: I do not wish to extend the debate, but it may be that local communities should take ownership of some of the services. That would be a much better model, in which people would be engaged rather than going to meetings to hear individuals who run services on their behalf.

Mr. Harris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a certain extent. The point goes back to the debate that we had about encouraging people to stand for election to public bodies. The average person on the street is not like us in the House. They could not care less about politics except once every four years at general elections. I have a similar view of football; I am not interested until it comes to the World cup. The average voter wants to stay in at night and watch television, to go out for a meal or

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go to the cinema. They do not want to sit in a dusty, cold hall listening to a lecture about democratic accountability in the local council.

I agree with the comments that have been made about the system of appointments to quangos. It is one of the strengths of the system. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Isle of Wight express concern that the geographical representation of the future House of Lords might not be equal. I accept that it is not equal now, but the hon. Gentleman did not mention the importance of balancing the sexes in the new House of Lords. He was more concerned about equal representation of Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland and Tyneside than about representation of ethnic minorities, disabled people and women. That is unfortunate. The system for appointing people to quangos has the potential—it may not always be used in this way—to redress the imbalance that exists in the House of Commons and almost every other elected body. That is a good thing. For that alone, quangos have performed a vital service to our country and its political culture.

When I express general support for quangos, I do not say that the principle of accountability is not important. It is extremely important. Apart from anything else, quangos have a huge amount of money to spend. Executive quangos—those concerned with administrative, regulatory and commercial functions—spent £24 billion in 1999-2000, although only 77 per cent. of that came from the Government. I am not sure where the rest of it came from, but perhaps charges and fees accounted for the balance.

The Government deserve some credit for opening up the culture of quangos, but an incredibly small proportion of quangos produce annual reports, allow the public into their meetings and produce reports of their meetings. They will not do so until the Government tell them to. That is a huge failing in public accountability. That attitude has led to the low esteem in which the public hold most quangos. The danger is that, if the public have a low opinion of quangos, publicly elected servants will suffer from that negative attitude, so it is in our interests to ensure that quangos are accountable and get their act together in terms of public accountability.

There is a crucial weakness which is becoming more obvious in Scotland but is not confined to Scotland. There is ignorance or perhaps apathy among the public as regards how they are governed. I have mentioned the number of elected representatives for each Scot, and that has not stopped the spread of confusion. Let me give the House an illustration of where we are going in Glasgow. We have nine parliamentary constituencies. I will not get on the wrong side of my hon. Friend the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household by including his constituency in Glasgow. Much to my disappointment, that number will go down shortly. If it does, it is likely that the number of constituencies returning Members of the Scottish Parliament will stay the same. So we already have a difference in the coterminosity—a dreadful word—of constituencies. That alone will cause confusion.

The Greater Glasgow health boards cover not only the city but the surrounding area, including Milngavie and Bearsden in the north, Eastwood in the south and Clydebank. In addition, we have the local NHS trusts. Glasgow and Clyde Valley tourist board covers a completely different geographical area. Then there are all the residual bodies left over from Strathclyde regional council—another body that I used to work for. When I

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left the employment of the Labour party in Scotland in 1992 to join Strathclyde regional council, one wag quipped, "You are going from one sinking ship to another." In the long term, however, that judgment was proved to be incorrect as regards the former.

The residual bodies from Strathclyde regional council are technically not quangos but executive bodies, and they add to the complicated pattern of public bodies. Although the Strathclyde passenger transport executive, by which I was employed until June this year, is a non-elected body, it is accountable to the Strathclyde passenger transport authority, and its remit is huge. It is responsible for funding the public transport system for 2 million people in west central Scotland, and its geographical boundary is completely different from those of any of the other bodies that I mentioned, as well as those of the West of Scotland water authority, the Strathclyde police board and the Strathclyde fire board.

I am sorry to see that the Conservative Benches are now almost vacant because I want to make a party political point. The previous Conservative Government contributed substantially to people's cynicism about public bodies because they played such an obviously partisan game with public bodies in Scotland. They got rid of Strathclyde regional council because they saw that as the only way to change the fact that people in west central Scotland had the cheek to keep electing Labour councillors. Even as they got rid of it, they confounded their own arguments for doing so by accepting that there had to be strategic authorities to provide water, fire, police and transport services.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale took exception to my suggestion that the Conservatives had misused their power in the 1980s by appointing many Conservative placemen to quangos in Scotland. I totally accept that, politically and legally, there was nothing to stop them doing that, and I have no objection to it. However, the Conservatives made a political misjudgment because of arrogance resulting from their strong electoral position in the UK. In the long term, that led to their complete elimination at the 1997 general election. We could have warned them that that would happen.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that we are a unionist party, and, unlike his party, we think that MPs from all parts of the country should have equal rights in this House. That is why we, rather than the Conservatives, are the unionist party. Arrogance in the use of appointments to quangos works against the party in government, and I am delighted to note that this Government are not guilty of making the same mistakes.

There are 82 national quangos in Scotland—a fact that I found out only last night—including the children's panel and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Minister for Education, Jack McConnell, on using his powers to sort out the dreadful mess that the SQA was in last year, which resulted in a great deal of confusion and personal distress for many parents and students in Scotland. The SQA is a good example of a quango accountable to a devolved Parliament which got out of control during the year of change-over from the Scottish Office to the Scottish Parliament and has now been brought back within the scope of ministerial accountability. It shows how a quango can work to the benefit of the people of Scotland now that it is being called to account by democratically elected Ministers.

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I list all those examples merely to point out a great weakness in the structures of quangos. There is a dreadful misunderstanding by the public about how services are provided. It is difficult for members of the public to know who to contact when something goes wrong. As we all know, if they do not know who to approach, they come to us. I have no objection because that is our job, but the Government's impressive efforts to make quangos more open and accountable may come to nothing if they cannot sort out the structure of quangos on a UK-wide basis and, where appropriate, on a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland basis.

Three of the quangos listed in "Public Bodies 2000" are nationalised industries: CalMac, the Scottish Transport Group and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. I did not know that we still had nationalised industries in Scotland. The third of those quangos reminds me of the story of an American woman in Glasgow who went to visit the Western isles. She reported that as she was getting the bus from the Glasgow terminus out to the aeroplane, she was surprised and not a little panic-stricken to realise that the bus was taking off. I am always concerned when the crew start clapping after those planes have taken off. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. is obviously an important body in Scotland.

I came across a question and answer note prepared by the Cabinet Office. One question is:

The answer is:

I agree with the last part, and I do not think that we should get too hung up on the number of quangos. We should concentrate far more on the quality of service and the quality of the people who serve on quangos.

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