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The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I apologise for intervening. I shall not complain if the noble Baroness exceeds her time. The noble Baroness asked what are the task forces and who are members of them. The Cabinet Office publishes a list of all task forces and the names of their members every six months. That is the answer.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, recently asked how many task forces there were, the Minister said that there were 38. I believe that there are 318. It would seem that not even the Government know how many task forces there are.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: No, my Lords. The noble Baroness is completely wrong. There are 46 task forces and 270 ad hoc reviews and advisory groups. As has been pointed out, the problem is not identifying these groups, but the name that one attaches to them.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, later on in my speech I shall ask what is a "task force".

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is a body which advises the Government in areas of policy.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the reports are not published unless the Minister requires them to be published. In fact, in a Written Answer of 25th January the noble and learned Lord said:

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, made the point that the reports should be made to Parliament. However, that does not have to be the case if the Minister does not wish it to be so. I notice that the

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noble and learned Lord the Minister is nodding in agreement--at least with that point. This is an extremely serious matter. It is not something to be pushed aside. We have not had anything like this before, with reports going back to the Minister, and Parliament--this House and another place--not knowing what is going on. That should cause us worry.

When a task force is up and running and a Minister is questioned about some alleged shortcoming or other, he can say that he is well aware of the problem, that he has set up a task force to look into it and that it will report in due course. But it reports to him in due course; it does not report to anyone else. That is just a new gambit of, "It's not my fault, guv".

I made a point just a few moments ago on which the Minister argued with me so charmingly across the Dispatch Box. I was then going to say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on behalf of the Cabinet Office, provided a list of 38. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, had asked in a Question for Written Answer on 11th November (at col. WA 242 of the Official Report) how many task forces were in existence. That was where I found that figure. The list does not include the new and more recent all-powerful "ministerial panel at the heart of government that will examine regulation across numerous government departments", which was appointed last November with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, at its head and with a staff of about 50. However, more or less at the same time--that is, last November-- according to the Sunday Times, the Cabinet Office was admitting that it did not know the actual number and refused to give details of their members. I do not know how we will get to the bottom of this.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, perhaps I may suggest that the noble Baroness should not believe everything that she reads in the newspapers.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, it might be helpful if the noble and learned Lord knew the answers and did not give the figure of 38 or whatever it was.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the answer was set out on 11th January in the press release given by the Cabinet Office and I shall give the answer again today as to how many there are. The problem is not one of where are they: it is one of definition.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, that may very well be the case, but it seems to me that they are increasing in number at a very speedy rate.

The University of Essex independent research group, Democratic Audit, claimed that there were no fewer than 318. That was also last November. Perhaps it would be a good idea to set up a task force to count how many task forces there are. That might be quite useful. The Government have set so many targets. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a target that it should reach at least five of its six targets.

Lord Warner: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that she could do what I did, which was to ask

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the Library to give a list of the task forces, with all the categories of people on them? She could then add them up. If she did that, she would have no difficulty. Does she accept that?

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, as a matter of fact, I have already done that. I have all the information in front of me. The point I was trying to make--the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made the same point--is that the ordinary man or woman on the Clapham omnibus does not know about all of these things; does not know who is on them; does not see the reports from them; and does not know what is going on in his or her name.

In view of all the points that have just been made, I ask: when is a task force not a task force? The Minister gave me a very quick reply across the Dispatch Box and I am sure that that is correct. But another answer is: when it is a tsar. We have a so-called "drugs tsar", the excellent and highly qualified Keith Hellawell. His brief is to sort out the drugs problem, but since his appointment it has got worse. His solution, from which he had to beat an immediate undignified retreat, was that the police should not prosecute so many people for using cannabis. If the number of prosecutions goes down, the number of crimes must have gone up. The point I am making here is neither about drugs nor about Mr Hellawell's excellent efforts. It is the fact that he presumably has considerable influence on the Government's thinking and actions and yet, in whatever he proposes, he is not accountable to Parliament. That is another example of what I am trying to say.

Many of the members of some of these task forces, whatever they are called, and indeed of more than 1,000 quangos, are substantial contributors to the Labour Party. Their appointments are justified in part by their special expertise in a particular subject. But that expertise may betoken a special interest or axe to grind. I must emphasise that I cast no aspersions on any noble Lords who might be members of a task force. I am pleased to say that outside this Chamber--I know it has to be outside this Chamber--I call many of them my friends. But they are not subject to the Nolan rules. The sixth report of the Nolan committee recommended that a proper definition of "task force" should be established and that we should know exactly how many there are, their status and longevity, and that long-standing ones should be disbanded or made permanent.

Will the Minister tell us whether the Government intend to adopt the Nolan recommendations on task forces? This debate involves a serious constitutional problem. The problem is the removal of the conduct of the Government's business away from the traditionally neutral Civil Service into the hands of anonymous unelected and unaccountable nominees of the Prime Minister and his Ministers. That takes away from Parliament, particularly the other place, the supervision of the machinery of government and leaves Parliament sometimes unable easily to discover what is being done in its name.

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I sincerely trust that the Minister and the Government will take on board the serious concerns expressed in the debate. I hope in particular that the noble and learned Lord will take to heart the words of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who made an excellent speech--as I said earlier, I only wish that I could be non-political like that--and indeed the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who made an important point.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, because he nodded his head--I think, agin me, not for me--several times as I was speaking. The noble Lord said that advisers could come into this category in order to deal with the problems facing the Government in getting their manifesto through. He also mentioned the value of political advisers as they would have more expertise. I suggest to him that he reads in The Times today an article by Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes headed,

    "Is Blair the new Wilson?"

I should like to quote one paragraph from the article. It states:

    "Jim Callaghan has warned him"--

he was talking about Tony Blair--

    "of the perils. The Civil Service is being invaded by political advisers, boasting party allegiance but little professional expertise".

I mention that en passant.

1.27 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, for "What the Papers Say" over the past two years. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, for initiating this short but interesting debate. It raises important issues which deserve an answer.

The Government came to power after one government had been in office for 18 years. Whatever one's political view in relation to them, they were a government who came in with a desire to change various areas and directions of policy, in my view correctly. It is vital that any government who embark on a process and policy of change should make the decisions on change on the basis of sound, wide-ranging advice so that when implemented new policies are workable and bring about real change. We have made it clear as a government that we are committed to securing the widest possible range of advice and views in the decision-making process.

Task forces and short-term advisory groups and reviews play an important part in making sure that one gets the best and most wide-ranging advice. The advice that is received from the professional civil servants--the senior Civil Service--is excellent and expert. It would be wrong simply to restrict to the Civil Service the advice that one receives in relation to particular areas of policy. I am sure that the Civil Service would agree with that view. I am sure that the party opposite would agree with it as well.

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Task forces are established to focus on specific and often difficult areas of policy development by bringing together a range of individuals with experience and expertise in the area concerned. It is important to emphasise that they are not only the great and the good. We want people from all walks of life to have a real say in the issues which affect them and to be a part of the process for change. If there is not some process by which people excluded from the policy process are brought in, such as care leavers and people who live on the Holly Street estate--people who are affected by social exclusion in their daily lives--the problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, will ensue; that of a public miles away from what is happening in Parliament or in the policy process.

In my own department--the Cabinet Office--the policy action teams have supported the work of the Social Exclusion Unit on developing a strategy for neighbourhood renewal. The team members are drawn from across 10 Whitehall departments, together with 200 outside people with first hand experience of living or working in deprived neighbourhoods, including those from business, faith, black and ethnic minorities, tenants living in some of the deprived areas, as well as representatives from local government.

One of the most impressive things I have seen since being in government is a care leaver describing the problems she had experienced after leaving care. She illuminated a discussion taking place in the course of the formulation of policy in relation to the problem of how children in care have been let down by successive governments and policy developments. Far from being a bad thing, that strikes me as being an extremely good thing because it widens the policy advice which one receives and it reaches to areas of the community which one would not otherwise reach.

What objection to that approach would appear to reasonable and sensible people? The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made a clear and excellent speech identifying the related risks. In effect, he summarised the views of the Neill Committee. I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong in believing that the Neill Committee's report states that in principle the approach does not currently give rise to a problem. However, one must be clear that an inward looking clique does not emerge. There must be openness in the process.

That involves, first, the Government identifying those on their working parties, which they do. Secondly, they must identify the focus and purpose of the task force ad hoc group. Again, that is what we do. This is a much clearer and more open system than any run by previous governments. I challenge any noble Lord to name the times that the previous government identified those people outside the Civil Service from whom they took advice on particular policy issues. It has never been done before. It is an entirely new approach. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, appears to be dying to intervene. With the greatest respect to her, that policy was not implemented previously; it is being carried out now. We have a system whereby we

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identify from whom we are taking advice and they are brought together. They are not just the great and the good; they comprise anyone who may be involved in the relevant communities. That seems a sensible approach.

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