|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Tom Harris: In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), I would point out that she simply stated that in the past year the number of women and of people from ethnic minorities appointed to quangos had reduced very slightly. Under this Government generally, far more women and members of ethnic minorities have been appointed to quangos.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, we should make public bodies appear relevant to ordinary people. That would attract them to serve. People always follow success and do not normally jump on a sinking ship. They see success and are led by it. They will be led by the relevance of public bodies and whether they are worth while. We should seek out not somebody from one group or anotherit is demeaning to those groups to do sobut the right people, who will of course include women, people from ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities.
I say that as somebody who argued strongly in favour of women priests during the debate in the General Synod some years ago1992, I think. Although I might be considered to be from a more traditional background, I did so because I thought it right that people should be allowed to do whatever job they want regardless of their sex, marital status, background or whatever. However, I do not believe that it is advantageous to go down the route of positive discrimination. I was therefore concerned this weekI am stretching beyond my pay grade by suggesting thisabout the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill. It is inconsistent with other legislation because it legalises discrimination. It suggests that it is all right for politicians to discriminate but that nobody else in society can do so. The Bill is very curious, but as my party did not oppose it, and given my day job as a Whip, I better move on swiftly.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said about the House of Lords. There has been a transfer of power from the House of Commons to the Executive and to other anonymous bodies that most people have not heard of. Although this may contradict what I have said already, I would not welcome changes in the make-up of the House of Lords. I shall make some brief comments now because my party has not yet determined its policy and I would like to make this point before it is too late.
I can live with the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords as long as it has no power. That relates to what I said about quangos, although some hon. Members may find it contradictory. The fact that the House of Lords is not democratic adds to its quality as its members can say what they feel is right and, unless they are Ministers, nobody can sack them or reduce their pay. That is a useful addition to Parliament.
Some people would say that a Government as powerful as ours with a majority of more than 170 should be challenged by a stronger Chamber that could produce gridlock. I understand that point, but the most damaging and irreversible measures put through by the present Government have been constitutional ones, such as the changes to the House of Lords, devolution and the introduction of alien voting systems in European and regional elections. Those measures were passed by the House of Lords because its members felt unable to resist them. I understand those who say that gridlock might be better, but I do not agree.
If we take the wrong decisions in respect of the House of Lords, we shall lose the tremendous wisdom that exists among its members, who include people who have served in the House, on other public bodies and succeeded in other walks of life, including business. Inviting such people to sit in a Chamber that does not necessarily reward them for that service, but allows the country to draw on their experience is an excellent system and I do not want to lose it.
Anyone who reads the House of Lords Hansard, as I occasionally do when I am researching an issue, will be startled by the quality of debate there. The upper House also provides quality legal services. Some hon. Members would describe it as the worst public body, but I think that it is the best.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said that if he were to come up with a new system for the House of Lords, he would not start from the same place. If one were to design a brand new constitution for a country, one perhaps would not have started by drawing up a system in which some peers inherit their titles and others gain theirs through appointment, but we do not live in an ideal world. The fact that the House of Lords worked is good enough reason to keep it, and the fact that many of the public bodies to which I referred do not, is good enough reason to get rid of them.
I begin with an apology: unforeseen circumstances meant that I was away from the Chamber for longer than I had hoped or anticipated. I was able to be present for a wholly admirable maiden speech by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Heyes). It was filled with knowledge of and love for his constituency. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House remember his predecessor, Bob Sheldon, with affection. Should the hon. Gentleman meet Duncan Goodhew, I trust that he will do so in less dramatic circumstances than those he described. I congratulate him on making a good maiden speech and look forward to debating with him for years to come, certainly throughout this Parliament.
I am sorry to have missed what I gather was a good speech by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), with whom I had an interesting exchange earlier. I believe that he made an important point, which I hope the Minister will address, on the importance of public bodies co-operating with each other, having the same agenda and moving in the same direction.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) spoke wisely about the mystery surrounding much of the work of NDPBs. He talked about the need for ever-greater openness and said that progress had been made on that in recent years. I am sure he would agree, however, that there is scope for further progress. He also mentioned the battle that any Government would have in present circumstances of finding appropriate people to serve on public bodies who have enough spare time and are committed to that role. That concerns everyone; we see the problem in our constituencies and at a national level.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about the need to re-engage the public, which sparked a good debate on the problems related to low turnout. I am sure he is right to say that if we are able collectively to crack the problems of getting more members of the public actively involved in public life, that would be part of the solution to increase turnout in all elections to this place, the European Parliament, and local government. That is clearly important. I know that the Minister does not have sole responsibility for delivering higher turnout at electionshe will be delighted to hear that I am not attributing to him the responsibility for that yet, although who knows what will happen later in his career?but it would be helpful if he addressed how we manage to engage more people of the highest quality in public life.
I am sure that part of the solution is to make it clear that we are interested in ensuring that women, members of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and a range of other groups that have felt less than fully included, play a full role. However, that is not the complete answer, and I am interested to hear what the Government have to say on that either now or later.
I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for many years and he has extensive experience in education. In a telling intervention, he referred to the lack of clarity. I shall be candid: it was unclear under the last Conservative Government and it is unclear under this Government whether schools that have a great amount of financial autonomygrant-maintained schools, foundation schools or whatevershould be counted as part of the total of NDPBs. There are arguments both for and against that, but it reinforces the need, as the Select Committee reported, for there to be clarity in the rules that define what is and is not a public body. For example, it is not clear why the cereal marketing board is a non-departmental public body whereas the wool marketing board is not. There are still elements of uncertainty. There is a clear need for clarification. The rules have not changed since 1997, I admit, but we should try to ensure that people can understand why a body is categorised in one way rather than another.
My hon. Friend also addressed concerns about reductions in turnout and he had an interesting exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about whether low turnout was good or bad and whether a depoliticised society was a healthier society. It is true to say that by comparison with the situation in Afghanistan, politics in this country is less important to our fellow citizens, and that is probably desirable. A society in which politics means life and death, such as Afghanistan, is probably not entirely healthy. On the other hand, a higher turnout is desirable and we would like to hear the Government's proposalsin due course, not necessarily in this debatefor achieving that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury also rightly mentioned his concern about public bodies that need not exist at all, and cited the Tote as an example. I am not sure that I agree with that example, but it is true that public bodies may be set up in certain circumstances at a certain time to perform a particular function and, some years or even decades later, it is not clear why they still exist. I am sure that the Minister will wish to reassure us that the Government keep existing public bodies under review at all times. The various reporting mechanisms that already exist and the welcome commitment to a new series of annual reports on taskforces will, I hope, keep the feet of Cabinet Office officials to the flame. There is a consensus in the Chamber in favour of keeping some non-departmental public bodies, but we do not want an unlimited number. That should be the loud and clear message from our debate to all those concerned.
I remind the Minister of one or two questions that I posed at the beginning of the debate, relating to the timing and content of the public bodies document. Will it be possible in future to have this debate after, rather than before, the publication of that annual report? Will the Government consider amending it along the lines recommended by the Select Committee? Will we have a commitment that taskforces should last only two years, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended? Does the Minister have anything to say about the accountability issues that were raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, specifically including the extension of the remit and role of the National Audit Office?