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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord in the middle of an interesting speech, but I hope that he will be kind enough to address the whole House as opposed to the Benches behind him.
Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am a sensitive man and I sense the opposition behind me. Therefore I venture to direct a good deal of my attention to that. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that I have the greatest possible respect for his intellect. I felt his intellectual vibrations even though I did not address him personally.
The question is: what account should we take of this? The practice I am discussing certainly will not be abolished and business interests represented on task forces will not change their political beliefs--it is unreasonable to expect them to do so--any more than those who represent companies and are seconded to the Government will change their political beliefs. What we have to try to do, if we can, is to make quite sure that our parliamentary democracy--which it has been my pleasure to support for my entire political life--maintains its strength and is not inhibited in any way from exercising the political will, as distinct from the means of achieving the political will. What I am worried about--I hope that many noble Lords may also be worried--is any diminution in the authority of the political arm of the political organisation in power and of parliamentary democracy. At the moment I cannot see that happening because the task forces are responsible not to the Prime Minister--although there may be a more tenuous link than we think because, as we all know, there are many spin doctors about--but to Ministers. However, they are not responsible to the public.
We must find a way in which Parliament and its Members can become more closely involved with what the task forces are trying to do so that genuinely effective advice is given to Ministers which takes into account not only technical factors that may be involved--I refer, for example, to motor firms that are represented--but also ensures that the political aspect of Parliament is also represented. This may, of course, be accomplished through parliamentary Questions and through having special Select Committees whose tasks comprise supervising and questioning task forces. That is another solution.
However, one thing has to be done. There must be accountability. Over the next few years--the quicker, the better--the powers of parliamentary democracy must be re-established. I regret to say that even in the past three or four years I have seen them slipping away from Parliament and the people. Therefore I am bound to share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, whose approach to this whole matter and whose intellectual honesty I deeply appreciate. I support practically everything that he said. If there is no passion in this matter at all; if we
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I echo the words of everyone who has spoken so far in stating my great gratitude to my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton for introducing this important issue in this relatively short debate. The issue of task forces has become a subject of increasing debate and some concern outside your Lordships' House. It is right and timely that we should now debate it here.
Five of the six speakers from the Government Benches have spoken strongly in support of task forces. The one exception, of course, is the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who is almost as formidable an opponent of task forces as he is of the European Union.
I should start by saying that I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was formerly the Nolan Committee and is now the Neill Committee. Last month we published a report which looked, among other things, at task forces. I am afraid that what I say today will plagiarise rather heavily what is published in that report.
We were mainly concerned with the method by which the outside members of task forces are selected for appointment. In its first report the committee recommended an open and fair appointment system for non-departmental public bodies--which is government-speak for quangos. Those quangos cover an enormously wide field. They cover the Neill Committee itself and, for example, the Parole Board, trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Crown Estate Commissioners and National Health Service trusts.
Broadly speaking, the Nolan proposals for the making of appointments to quangos have been accepted. However, the Nolan proposals never applied to departmental groups, as opposed to non-departmental groups. Departmental groups are those which are set up, metaphorically, within the walls of a government department to do a task set by that department, and which report to the department. Those groups go under many names: reviews, task forces, expert committees and working groups. I believe that the confusion over the names accounts for a good deal of the disagreement as to the number of such bodies which exist. Because there is no definition of them, some estimates are much larger than others.
If these groups are wholly internal--that is, members consist entirely of civil servants--the problems we have been discussing today do not arise. The problem arises when outsiders are brought onto these bodies in significant numbers. That raises
It is, of course, right that the Government should be entitled to call in outside advice. However, let me quote from our report to explain what it is that the Committee is concerned about. In chapter 10, paragraphs 8 and 9, the report states:
One has to recognise the principle of proportionality when one is deciding how to choose members of these groups. It is plainly inappropriate to apply the quite elaborate Nolan procedures to a group, for example, which is set up to report on some specific issue and which may meet a half-dozen or a dozen times before it finishes its job and is wound up.
The Neill Committee thought that the vital factor in drawing the line was the duration of the task force. It selected a dividing line of two years. A body which is expected to last for more than two years and which includes a number of outside members should be treated, in effect, as a non-departmental public body and should be subject to the rules of appointment of such bodies. Outside members should be selected on the Nolan principles. Bodies which originally were not planned to last for more than two years but which have done so should either be wound up or converted into NDPBs.
Governments must be able to go outside the career Civil Service for advice. Members of the Civil Service are, to a large extent, generalists rather than specialists. The noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Faulkner of Worcester, have pointed out the importance of being able to go to outside specialists. On issues such as football, people outside the Civil Service know far more about the subject than those within it.
Task Forces should not be used to undermine the role of the Civil Service. We have to balance the right of the Government to choose their own advisers against a danger of relying on a charmed circle of friends and allies. We believe that there is no need for current alarm but it is an issue which needs to be kept under review. Task forces are a valuable tool of government and do good work but, as my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton pointed out, we need greater access to information about their membership and to the reports which they produce. We need to ensure that the task forces do not expand and increase their responsibilities in a way which would mean that they start taking over the role now played by quangos, which have stricter rules of selection and greater independence of government.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, on introducing this debate. The issue here is one of democratic accountability and I am extremely glad that he was able to raise it. I should say at the outset that, as it is a timed debate, one did not like to intervene in the speeches of other noble Lords. That would have taken time from them and would have been totally inappropriate.
However, I should say in general terms--as did the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington--that I wholly disagree with most of the noble Lords on the other side who spoke about the value of task forces. Not one of those noble Lords spoke about the issues of transparency and accountability. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, referred to those matters in a totally non-political way; I congratulate him on that. Unfortunately, I can never be as non-political as he is. I wish I could be, but somehow my words do not come out that way, as much as I would like them to. It is just one of those things.
What a rousing picture the electrifying phrase "task force" conjures up! I liked the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, described it. I have written in my speech about worthy members of the task force sliding down a brass pole and dashing off in their people carrier with lights flashing and siren sounding, saying, "Quick, chaps! We have got to sort out the problems of the ruddy duck". There really is a "ruddy duck task force", although it is now known as the White-Headed Duck Task Force because the white-headed ducks are the victims of the ruddy ducks.
Let me say, unequivocally, right at the outset, that I certainly do not denigrate the efforts of the 2,500 or so members of the various task forces. On the contrary, those who are not on the public payroll as civil servants or working in wider categories of public service generally give their services without remuneration--a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey--because they feel that they have something to offer in the way of experience and knowledge.
I include among these worthies a number of noble Lords opposite, some of whom are involved in more than one task force or similar body. Some of them--but not all--even give their services at considerable expense to their shareholders, to whom they owe their first duty and undivided attention. Last weekend, the Sunday Times reported the disastrous slide in the share prices of companies chaired by some of the most active of "Tony's Cronies", who are involved in task forces and quangos to the detriment of their day jobs. Of course, your Lordships would not expect me to mention them by name, and I should not dream of doing so.
But, however admirable, selfless and praiseworthy the personal motives and ambitions of those involved undoubtedly are, they are unwitting accomplices in something that I regard as quite sinister--that is, a plotting between No. 10 and Millbank Tower which has something to do with marginalising Parliament. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is surprised by
Of all the noble Lords who have spoken in support of task forces, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned "accountability" once. But the accountability is to a Minister, not to Parliament. That is extremely dangerous. The more people who give their services free and do what they think is a splendid job, the more dangerous it becomes.
In the end, Parliament has been downgraded. The Prime Minister now appears at Question Time on one occasion a week, not two, and he has missed 95 per cent of votes since last November. I know that he is a busy man, but it is important that Parliament should know what are these task forces, who serves on them and to whom they report. It is not enough that they should report back to Ministers. As I said, the task forces are appointed by Ministers.
Few people know that these task forces exist, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. Certainly few people know about the 2,500 members and what their business interests might be.
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