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11.57 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. As someone whose day job is in the Opposition Whips Office, I do not know whether I should say this, but the House is at its best when there is, if not full cross-party agreement, agreement on so many issues. We certainly agree on what we want from public bodies, how they should be run, how accountable they should be and how people should be appointed to them.

I do not intend to summarise the debate; that is a task for my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), when he returns to the Chamber. We have heard excellent contributions not only from Front-Bench Members, but from everyone who has spoken, including the hon. Members for Ashton–under–Lyne (Mr. Heyes), for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton–under–Lyne on his election and his maiden speech. I well remember when I made my maiden speech, and although I spoke on a Wednesday afternoon, when one might have expected more Members to be present than are here today, that was not the case. I look forward to hearing from him an awful lot more.

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I do not think that I have to declare an interest for receiving hospitality from a public body, the Horserace Totalisator Board, but I mention it because I shall return to that organisation later.

The Minister made an excellent presentation, explaining what public bodies are and the categories into which they fall, but I was surprised to hear exactly how much money is spent on them—£24 billion, or perhaps £18 billion is a more relevant figure as that is what comes from the public purse. When such huge sums are spent, we must ask whether it is worth while and whether the public get from those public bodies the service that they have a right to expect.

What else could that money buy? Would it be better spent on more direct public services, such as the health service? Should it be left in taxpayers' pockets? Governments should always ask that question when taking money from the taxpayer. Do public bodies provide the quality of service that people need? Do they provide the constitutional administration on which the country depends?

The answer to those questions depends on which public body is concerned. The House was again at its best when it was discussing stem cell research, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is an extremely important public body. Indeed, it is probably one of the most important in existence, given the issues that it regulates. Before I entered the House, I dealt with homeless people and the Housing Corporation is an important public body that provides money to tackle homelessness. Thus some public bodies are very important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about grant-maintained schools. He played down his role in creating the system of grant-maintained schools, which has been a huge success. I pay tribute to his work. If grant-maintained schools can be described as public bodies, they are another example of bodies that can affect the communities in which they operate and the lives of so many people.

I wonder, however, whether the Apple and Pear Research Council is important. It may well be, and I stand corrected if it is. Some public bodies sound serious but I wonder whether they do the work that we want them to do. I know from my time on the Select Committee on Social Security that the benefits tribunal caused us great concern. Indeed, it was the subject of an inquiry at that time.

What about the National Lottery Charities Board? I have always defended the national lottery, but there have been problems in its operation. Organisations in Tewkesbury have made about 15 per cent. of the applications made from Gloucestershire, a proportion appropriate to its population, yet until recently Tewkesbury had received only 3 per cent. of the money that has come to the county.

I looked at a number of those applications and they were of good quality and very sensible, but they did not attract money. What can I, as a Member of Parliament, do about that? I went to see the then Minister, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who was extremely helpful, but she could do nothing either. It was obvious that my constituents were being treated unfairly. That is an example of a public body operating unfairly. I admit

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that it had its criteria, but I suggest that it was not operating fairly in the interests of everybody across the country.

Although there are some good and important public bodies, such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which has perhaps a frightening amount of power given the scale of its task, other public bodies are less important. Indeed, some public bodies should not exist at all.

I have already mentioned the Tote, which has been a public body since 1927. Three years ago, the then Home Secretary announced that the Tote was to be released from Government control, yet nothing has happened. I began by declaring an interest in the Tote, but I do not speak in its favour; I simply say that the Government have a clear opportunity to lose that quango. Linked to it is the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which distributes money through the horseracing industry. It is another body that could be returned to the private sector.

The Government have no need to be involved in either of those public bodies. They have recognised that, yet those of us who take an interest in the industry cannot get the Government to do something about it, despite the fact that little parliamentary time would be required.

I mentioned that I could not make any progress with lottery applications for Tewkesbury, and did not seem to make an impression on the National Lottery Charities Board or Sport England. In spite of having had long, boring meetings with them, there was no way forward. That leads me to accountability.

Many public bodies have a lot of power and responsibility but are not accountable to anyone. I suppose that they are ultimately accountable to Parliament and to Ministers, but what happens if things go wrong and they do not carry out their administrative role as we would expect? There can be recourse to the ombudsman, but he will investigate only if there is a clear case of maladministration and there can be direct redress for the person who has lost out. There may be serious maladministration, but it may not be possible to provide redress to an individual or a group of individuals, so there is a gap in the system.

It is important that public bodies are accountable. There is a growing lack of faith in politics, Parliament, public servants, public bodies and the democratic process itself. The hon. Member for Winchester made a thoughtful, interesting speech, and gave some figures. It worries me that the turnout at the general election was less than 60 per cent.

I used to tell people to look at what happens in America—a country that I greatly admire—where only 50 per cent. of the electorate vote, and only 50 per cent. of that 50 per cent. vote for the elected president. That is terrible, and I ask them to consider what happens in this country, where 78 per cent. turn out to vote, which is marvellous—or which was marvellous, because all of a sudden something went wrong at the last election. People may argue that there was not enough obvious difference between the two parties—[Interruption.]—between the three parties, I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. That perception is real, and in politics perception is all important, because people vote not according to reality, but according to their perceptions. When it comes to the ballot box, if people feel that something is the case, then it is the case.

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I am not sure what the average turnout is for local and European elections, but it is very low. Why is that?

Mr. Andrew Turner: Could there not be an alternative and perhaps much more attractive explanation? Electors have rightly lost faith in politicians. They do not trust them to do what politicians in the past have given the impression they are able to do. Frankly, what was untrue then, is still untrue now. Society is becoming depoliticised, and that is a good thing.

Mr. Robertson: As usual, my hon. Friend makes a good intellectual point. There are many reasons for the low turnout, and I shall explore some of them. One reason why people do not vote in local and European elections is that they do not think voting matters. I have never been a fan of the European Union, and even less of the European Parliament, so I can well understand people who think that voting in those elections will not make a difference. Having sat on the Select Committee on European Scrutiny for two years, I sympathise with that view. Endless directives come through the House literally every day, and people are powerless to stop them. I can well understand people not wanting to vote in European elections. There is a strong constitutional argument for that.

However, it is worth voting in local elections. My wife was a county councillor for four years, and I often said to her that she had far more power and influence than I have. That is true. Proud though I am to be a Member of the House, that role is somewhat different. What happens in local government is important, but people are not persuaded of that and will not vote in local government elections. They cannot understand why planning applications that no one wants are accepted, either locally or at inspector level. They see a huge democratic deficit. We must deal with that. The creation of public bodies just for the sake of it does not deal with that problem but adds to it.

I have a constituency example that illustrates fully what I mean. It was the subject of my Adjournment debate last week, so I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for repeating it. Just over a year ago, a chemical reprocessing plant in my constituency was, for reasons best known to the county council at the time, built on a flood plain. Planning permission was given in 1978. It was a very dangerous plant that gave off lots of bad odours. Heavy lorries went into it at all times of night and day. It was a bad neighbour with scant regard for the environment or amenities. No one wanted to live near it.

For years, people not only complained about that site, but gave warnings about it to a number of agencies and public bodies: the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the county council. There was a lack of response from those bodies.

Just over 12 months ago, there was a very serious explosion at the site. Fortunately, it happened at night so no one was there. Two days later, the River Severn flooded the entire site. The fire and rescue service said that, if the explosion and the flood had coincided, it could not have accessed the site to tackle the fire. One can imagine the dangers inherent in that statement. People had to be evacuated. People from nearby villages were ill. People had to go into hospital. They are still complaining about feeling ill 12 months on.

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The agencies and public bodies were warned that that was going to happen, yet took no action. They could have closed the site. The Environment Agency, the county council and indeed the Minister have powers under various legislation to close it. They have chosen not to do so, not because they do not recognise that it is dangerous—it is; we all recognise that—but because they are frightened of being taken to court by the company. That is an exercise not in democracy but in bullying and fear. People in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire have to live under the threat of that site reopening—it is on the brink of being reopened—and further dangers arising.

Furthermore, the Environment Agency, which was supposed to have been monitoring the site, is being allowed to produce reports on what happened on the site and on its monitoring of it. The agency has a distinct disincentive to investigate the site fully because the more it finds out about what happened, the worse it looks as the waste licensing authority.

I have pressed for the public inquiry that must be held into not only the explosion and the company but the performance of the agencies in monitoring the site. The Health and Safety Executive was well aware that an employee was sacked by the company for failing to carry out what he considered to be dangerous duties. He took his case to the industrial tribunal and won, yet the Health and Safety Executive, fully aware of that, took no further action.

The county council gave planning permission for the site in 1978 to treat oily wastes and waste oils, yet very dangerous chemicals were treated on the site, including carcinogenic chemicals and BSE drums, which were ordered by the Government from an agricultural area—the Government said, "Send them to Cleansing Services Group in Sandhurst." The company did not have planning permission for any of that.

The county council had discovered that huge breach of planning laws two years before the explosion. However—I have this in writing from the council—it did nothing to correct the position. The Environment Agency nevertheless issued operating licences to the company, which was so stupid as to be unbelievable. Earlier, someone—possibly the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart—mentioned agencies not speaking to each other, and not tying in their activities. That certainly applied in this instance.

I hope that the House will forgive me for taking so long to make a constituency point, but it shows why people are losing faith in public servants, whether elected or appointed.

I do not want to be party political, but I suppose that I am going to be when I talk about local councils. I regret the creation of cabinet or executive-style councils. Thanks to the good sense of the Gloucestershire electorate, the Conservatives form the largest group on the county council but are excluded from the executive, because in a post-election pact—not a pre-election pact, of course—Labour and the Liberal Democrats got together to exclude them. That is not illegal, but it is not terribly democratic, and it certainly does not serve the best interests of the electorate. It could happen only because the Government had changed local government rules, and I think it regrettable.

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Many back-bench councillors across the country have received increases in their allowances but, along with those, large decreases in responsibility. They now consider council membership worthless. I mentioned that my wife was a county councillor. One of the reasons for her failure to stand in the most recent elections was the fact that she had to make a decision. Either she would join the executive and work almost as a full-time councillor, which is what is now required—in fact, she could not have, for the reasons I gave, but the facts were not known then—or she would become a back bencher, and not be involved at all.

My wife did not want to be a full-time councillor, for two reasons. First, she did not have time to commit herself to that; secondly, that is not what council work is supposed to be about. Council work is supposed to be about living in the community, whether as a housewife or an executive, and bringing that experience to the council a couple of nights a week. That is how things used to be when local government operated far better than it does now.

We seem to have created a two-tier system in local councils rather like that in the House of Commons, in which the executive—or, perhaps, one, two or three members of the executive—are all-powerful, while the rest are almost impotent unless they are determined to do something different. Moreover, the executive-and-back-bench style will not encourage people to stand for council membership. It is all very well for MPs to say they want to encourage better candidates, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, we must show that these organisations are doing a good job and that it is worthwhile joining them. That would be far more likely to attract candidates of the kind that we want—women, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, for instance—than a search for candidates from different backgrounds. In that respect, I depart slightly from the otherwise excellent speech of the hon. Member for Slough.

What kind of people can we hope to attract to serve on councils when we create a set-up where it is all or nothing and one is either a back bencher with no influence or a member of the executive and required almost full-time? We can attract either people who rather like the idea of the word "councillor" before their name even though it does not entail much, or those who have an interest in dragging out meetings all day because they have nothing else to do, when we do not want to attract either. The Government have made it almost impossible to attract the sort of people we want, which is regrettable.

I have never served in local government; I do not have a vested interest in it. However, from experience in Gloucestershire and Tewkesbury, I can see what has happened. It bothers me that we shall miss out on many good people serving not only on councils but on other public bodies. I shall not go into the matter of appointments to public bodies; suffice it to say that we are not reaching out to the sort of people to whom we need to reach out.

I mentioned that I had a slight difference of opinion with the hon. Member for Slough on such appointments, although she pointed out that all the Government's efforts and determination to be politically correct have failed to change things for the better. She said that more women,

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people with disabilities and people from ethnic communities had not been attracted to undertake such roles. If that is so, we must ask why.

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