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12.38 pm

Mr. Leslie: Today's debate has been constructive and friendly. It has also been enormously useful in the process of scrutinising the whole question of public bodies, and the Cabinet Office and other Departments will be able to incorporate many of the thoughts and ideas that have been voiced today in the policies that we pursue. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the timing of the debate and

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the publication of the public bodies report. If we could align those events in future years, it would be preferable. I am also grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome to my post. This is the first time we have crossed swords, but today's debate was not violent and I look forward to working with him in the future.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale acknowledged that reforms had been necessary. Any Government carrying out policy must make a careful check to ensure that they always pursue probity and merit as the key criteria at all times in making appointments to public bodies. The hon. Gentleman referred to the numbers of non-departmental public bodies and taskforces. The Government want to keep numbers to a minimum, and the five-year review process examines all the fundamental questions, including the existence of those public bodies. But we have to make sure that the functions that those bodies undertake are met somehow, and it is a difficult balance to strike.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the next edition of "Public Bodies" in 2001 and whether it will widen information in line with the Select Committee's recommendations. We are trying our best to endeavour to broaden the scope of the report. Compiling these documents is not always easy, given the vast number of quangos and NDPBs involved, but we are trying to make improvements as quickly as possible. On the question of confirmation hearings—raised by the Select Committee—for the chairs of some of the larger bodies, I am afraid that I cannot offer an enormous amount of hope. The principle of ministerial appointment must remain. We should engage with Select Committees in the scrutiny of public bodies, but the Commissioner for Public Appointments is the better and more appropriate safeguard for a lot of the concerns that the Committee voiced. In terms of the allocation of functions as between public bodies and Departments, this is a judgment for Ministers and for Parliament to make in how best to scrutinise the work of the public sector.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), as well as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, asked how we defined taskforces and whether we were looking to bring that definition into line with that of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I agree with the general definition and we are trying to stick to the two-year rule. However, we are reviewing those bodies that are more than two years old.

Mr. Oaten: Will the Minister give a commitment that the 52 bodies that are over the two-year rule will be reviewed?

Mr. Leslie: All taskforces, ad hoc advisory groups and review groups are examined and monitored at all times and we are in regular discussions with Departments about those issues. Obviously, there will be certain circumstances in which it is not appropriate to conclude a taskforce just because a two-year period has elapsed. We must retain a degree of flexibility.

I appreciate the shift in the position of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale on the Disability Rights Commission. That is welcome. I believe that that body is proving to be very important and we will watch its work develop over future months and years.

The hon. Members for Winchester and for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked whether the boards of NDPBs will meet in public. We are trying to promote the

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code of practice in which this question is raised. Similarly, in terms of the role of the National Audit Office, best practice suggests that we should be widening access for the NAO to all public bodies where possible.

The question of the role of elected representatives on public bodies is an interesting one. We already require disclosure of political affiliations in appointments to public bodies and we focus on merit, rather than on the basis of some partisan desire. I do not believe that activity in a political party should be a bar to appointment and, as has been expressed in the debate, political activity can enhance the role of public bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton–under–Lyne (Mr. Heyes) gave an insightful and intelligent maiden speech. He has a hard act to follow when we think of his predecessor, Bob Sheldon, but the quality of his speech showed that he is well up to the task. His background and involvement in trade unionism, local government and citizens advice bureaux will stand him in good stead in his time here. His speech showed an understanding of and pride in the local communities that he serves. His vision is clear and good; it will do much to encourage his constituents. I know that he will play a strong role in the Select Committee on Public Administration, and I look forward to seeing him take part in future Cabinet Office debates.

The hon. Member for Winchester talked about the need to reinvigorate the public voice and participation in public life in general. It is certainly important that efforts be made to encourage volunteering and appointments to school governing bodies and other local organisations. I share the view that more effort needs to be made to improve diversity. We strive always to reach the targets that we have set, particularly in terms of bringing young people into public life. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who has had to leave the Chamber, as she explained earlier, talked about taking risks in appointing young people and referred to the wild card. I am not sure whether that applies to me—time will tell.

I also share the hon. Gentleman's view that organisations should reflect all elements of service delivery and that it is important to have not only professionals but service users such as patients, victims of crime and council house tenants on public bodies. On the implementation of the code of practice for public bodies, the hon. Gentleman asked about the requirement to publish annual reports. We wish to see that requirement implemented more frequently, and acknowledge that more must be done to ensure that best practice is spread.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough expressed strong views that more efforts must be made to drive forward diversity in public appointments, with the greater representation of a variety of groups in society, particularly women. She made insightful comments about the ideas of networks breaking out of the classic appointment system. The concept of equality audits is already essentially undertaken by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who operates in a monitoring capacity in the very way my hon. Friend seeks. I shall certainly be looking at broadening the types of publication in which vacancies for public appointments are advertised, as she described, rather than simply concentrating on the broadsheet newspapers. My hon.

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Friend told us that she believed much greater and more proactive work is necessary in this area, and I have taken those comments to heart.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) had a broader interpretation of public bodies. I appreciate his points entirely. He talked about local government participation and mentioned his experiences with grant-maintained schools and voluntary organisations. He said that other public bodies as well as the Government provide public services. We must accept that interchange and dialogue are necessary between the public sector and non-governmental organisations in general.

The hon. Gentleman spoke a lot about the House of Lords reform, as did the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). The Government have developed a considered and well argued approach and have looked at the issue properly in the context of the United Kingdom's political system. We have said that no political party should command a majority in the second Chamber. A House in which the Government of the day have no majority cannot be regarded as a poodle or a House of cronies. The Prime Minister's power of patronage has been massively reduced.

Our decisions are underpinned by very clear principles. The second Chamber must not undermine the position of the House of Commons. It must bring distinctive expertise to the scrutiny of legislation and must also be more representative of the country as a whole. The Government believe that a wholly or largely elected second Chamber would not be the right approach for the UK at this time. Although I question some of the hon. Gentleman's assumptions on House of Lords reform, at least he is attempting to engage in the reform process, which is welcome and refreshing.

In a very enlightening speech—the first I have heard from him and the first I am sure of many—my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) talked of the need for more co-operation between public bodies. He also commented on the Scottish experience of promoting a "bonfire of the quangos". Devolved authorities are quite rightly pursuing their own approach to the issue, and the Scottish Executive have set in train their own process from which we can all learn and which we should watch very closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart said that we should recognise the balance that we have to strike between the number of elections to public authorities and the efficacy of service delivery, which is often well served by a public body that is accountable to Ministers. He also mentioned local government consultation meetings such as neighbourhood forums, and the difficulty of encouraging a healthy turnout for those events. As we know, occasionally such meetings are attended only by the usual suspects, with longer speeches and few signs of discontent. Others can judge whether that applies to today's debate; I would not say that it does.

In his speech, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury pursued a refreshingly consensual approach and discussed some very specific examples. He described the sad incident in his constituency and how he has attempted to gain more information from the Environment Agency. I know that my ministerial colleagues will certainly be examining his comments. He also raised the issue of what

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motivates his constituents to vote. I share his belief in the importance of local government, even if I do not quite share his opinions on the European Union. His speech was refreshingly progressive and egalitarian, but I am not sure that that bodes well for his career on the Opposition Front Bench.

The principles of public service reform cannot be forgotten. The big-picture issue for this debate is the need to have a framework for national standards, inspection and accountability for all public services, to devolve more freedom to the front-line professionals, to recognise the value and work of front-line staff, and to strive whenever possible to give more choice to service users. Public service reform is important and is not a matter for only the Government to initiate; public bodies have a role in it, too.

The work of the Select Committee on Public Administration should not go unrecognised. I am aware that the Committee has announced that it will be conducting an inquiry into public appointments. The Government will of course co-operate with that inquiry and carefully consider recommendations. I should certainly welcome new ideas on how we can broaden the composition and membership of public bodies, as that is an aspiration that I share entirely. In the past, far too many public appointments were available only to those who knew where to look for them or the right people to talk to. The Government are putting an end to that practice. Wider publicising of posts is clearly crucial to reform, and new technology can help ensure that up-to-date information is available to as many people as possible.

The points that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough made on women are crucial. Rather than sitting passively and waiting for applications to be made, much can be done actively to promote and encourage interest. The Government's commitment to equal representation for women and men will require extra effort to achieve, but next year, for example, the Cabinet Office will be holding a series of regional seminars across the country led by the new Minister for Women—the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche). The seminars will start in the new year and seek to provide practical information, advice and opportunities to women who already hold a public appointment.

I should also take a moment to pay tribute to the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has been instrumental in developments in recent years. Its first report recommended the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Looking back, it seems astonishing that that role did not exist before.

Ever since the Government came to office we have consistently demonstrated our commitment to more open and transparent government. Our commitments in the new Freedom of Information Act 2000 are underpinned by a code of practice that sets clear standards on how information should be made available. Dialogue should take place with service users at all times. The new statutory right of access to a wide range of information held by public bodies enshrines the existing practice of many quangos which were already proactive in releasing a huge volume of data into the public arena.

The Government intend to strike the right balance in their policy towards public bodies, checking the number and growth of new quangos while simultaneously

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improving the systems of those that are in place. We have to work hard to increase diversity in public appointments while always focusing on appointment by merit and anticipating the major changes from the growing regional dimension of public policy. I look forward very much indeed to working closely with hon. Members and the Public Administration Committee in reforming public bodies and modernising the structures through which so many vital public bodies are delivered.

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