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Jon’s article on Labour List
There is a quote whose origins allegedly range from Otto von Bismarck to an unknown Illinois State Senator that rings painfully true about the last year of the Public Bodies Bill: there are two things you never want to let anyone see you make – laws and sausages. Quite. The process by which Ministers have gone about reducing the number of quangos in the UK has been messy, and in many ways circumvented the norms of parliamentary process.
I don’t disagree in principle with the aims of the Bill. Indeed, in March 2010 we set out almost £500m of new savings by reducing the number of arms length bodies by 123 by 2012/13. Labour inherited 1,128 quangos in 1997 and axed almost 400 of them by the time we left office. There is certainly scope for consolidating them to reduce overheads but retain functions.
But the way in which this process has proceeded has been characterised by the same hasty, ill-thought-through approach to governing that we can see across all Government departments. The ideology of cutting without thinking, swinging without looking, with a lack of clear vision or philosophy on the functions of government, pervades the very core of this Bill.
The majority of the bodies in the Bill were set up as a result of reasoned and detailed debate in Parliament. The only appropriate way to consider abolition is with the same reasoned and detailed debate. Cabinet Office ministers claim that detailed debate on each body will come at a later stage, but we know that secondary legislation isn’t typically dwelled on in Parliament to the extent that some of these bodies would deserve.
In the Lords, the Public Bodies Bill dwelled for what seemed like an eternity, where members laid hundreds of amendments and condemned it as a mass enabling act that circumvented the proper due process of parliament by which most of these bodies were established in the first place. And that criticism came not just from Labour benches, but across the spectrum.
Tuesday night was a lesson in how not to do government. Only six hours of debate on a Bill which covers a huge spectrum of the public sphere, with most of the bodies included not even referenced. We managed to properly discuss only three key issues, each of which had wide ranging implications.
The Agricultural Wages Board, which protects 152,000 workers in England and Wales to make sure agricultural workers are treated fairly. But the Tory-led Government shot down the amendment to keep it.
The Youth Justice Board which oversees the interaction between various youth organisations and makes sure young people are protected when taken into police custody. Without the Youth Justice Board, it would have been nearly impossible to open the courts on 24-hour basis during the August disturbances. But the Tory-led Government shot down the amendment to keep it.
The Office of Chief Coroner, which was to be set up to oversee the coronial system and make sure that all bereaved families and their loved ones are treated with respect and sensitivity. At present the coronial system needs leadership and direction to make sure we do not let families down. But the Tory-led Government shot down the amendment to keep it.
We didn’t even have time to discuss S4C, the Welsh-speaking channel that many fought for years to establish, helps to keep the Welsh language alive and is viewed and enjoyed by many who speak Welsh or are learning to speak the language.
Also, we have had no time to discuss other important issues, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Regional Development Agencies and the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority; this is unacceptable. My otherwise patient demeanour was tested beyond what I had deemed possible.
And then there is the shambles on cost savings. We have seen wildly different estimations coming from Government quarters on the actual savings. Francis Maude said £20bn. Two days later, David Cameron said it would save £30bn. In committee, David Heath said it would be £2.6bn. This Government cannot give a straight answer.
No legislation is ever perfect, as hard as we may strive to make it so. But what the Tory-led Government has done here is to simply give themselves more power, centralise more functions and create gross uncertainty for the hard working employees of the bodies contained in the Bill. That is why we chose to vote against it on Tuesday night, and that’s why I believe the House of Lords, on their final consideration of the amendments made last night, will give the Government another uncomfortable ride.
As I said, there are two things you never want to let people see you make, at least under this Government.
Jon’s speech opposing the Public Bodies Bill – 25th October 2011
JT: It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Speaker. I add my own thanks to the Clerks and Committee Chairs for the orderly way in which the business was conducted to those of the Minister for the Cabinet Office. I thought that the Back-Bench contributions sparkled. Let me briefly mention my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), for North Durham (Mr Jones) who worked hard as the shadow Minister, for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Telford (David Wright). Proceedings also sparkled in cross-party unity. It was interesting sometimes to find allies in each of the other parties represented in Committee. I mention the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and for Arfon (Hywel Williams). It was also good to work closely with Charlie Elphicke, who is no longer in his place.
It is true that the Bill was somewhat improved following our debates, at least in two matters where the Government accepted defeat—and with some grace, I have to say—on the question of the port of Dover. It was good to see the Minister move the amendment on co-operatives as eligible bodies and particular forms of charitable organisations. All that is very welcome. We worked in good order with good humour. I said many times—and I repeat it now as it is a good thing to say—that the two Ministers were both extremely reasonable, although they were occasionally reasonable men doing unreasonable things.
No Labour Member would object in principle to the idea that we should keep the quango state, as it is called in the United Kingdom, under constant review. In March 2010, the Labour Government set out almost £500 million-worth of savings that could be achieved by reducing the number of arm’s length bodies. We expected to reduce their number by 123 by 2012-13. Labour had inherited just over 1,100 quangos when we came to power in 1997; in fact, we axed about 400 of them during our term in office.
I want to put it on the record before making some more general points that we will support properly costed savings in administration, bureaucracy and other forms of overheads. Clearly, if bodies have come to the end of their useful lives, they should be put humanely into wherever quangos go when they are no longer needed. We gave the Bill a fair hearing on Second Reading, and did not divide the House. In Committee, too, we tried to be more than reasonable and fair. To an extent, there is a shared agenda and there is certainly a consensus that the quango state should at least be kept under review. However, following Committee and today’s debates on Report, I am sorry to say that I find it impossible to recommend that the Bill be given a Third Reading.
All the bodies that we are discussing were established through primary legislation, a process with which we are very familiar, involving reasoned and detailed debate here, in the other place and in Committee. Surely the most appropriate way in which to consider the abolition of most of these bodies is through the same reasoned and detailed debate. It may be possible to deal with
some it of through secondary legislation—I do not want to make a universal law—but it seems to me that Ministers are being given far too many powers that will be exercised by means of orders placed before the House. Already, even before the House has finally decided to enact the Bill, the Government have, by administrative means, begun to disassemble the various quangos with which we are now so familiar. They have gutted the regional development agencies, which were there to create jobs, enterprise and growth, and which are needed above all in times of difficulty such as those that we are now experiencing. They have cut staff, changed their functions and reduced their funding without a by-your-leave from the House, although the House spent many weeks, indeed months, setting up the RDAs in the first place. The same applies to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. What I consider a disgraceful 66% reduction in staff has made it difficult for the commission to perform duties that were conferred on it by the House. It is not right for Ministers to take administrative measures to curtail the lives of bodies that were established by Parliament to carry out particular public functions before the Bill has been enacted.
Ministers will claim, as they have done repeatedly, that there will be detailed debate on each body at a later stage through the secondary legislation process. However, it is simply not right for such important issues to be debated only by means of statutory instruments. That is not, in general, the way in which to reverse primary legislation.
In the other place, the Bill was debated for what must have seemed an eternity, particularly to civil servants and Ministers. Literally hundreds of amendments were tabled, and, as we have heard, there was criticism of the infamous schedule 7. The Bill was condemned as a mass enabling act which circumvented the proper and due process of Parliament, and it emerged substantially changed. I am sorry to inform any of their lordships who read the record of tonight’s debate that they must again pay special attention to the Bill if it is passed tonight, because so much of it has been dealt with inappropriately. I urge them to look carefully at some of the amendments that have been driven through.
We should remember that when Conservative Members first envisaged the Bill, they said that it was designed to save money. It was extraordinary that the Prime Minister should say that it would save £30 billion, given that two days earlier the Secretary of State, in another newspaper article, had said that it would save £20 billion. Now we hear that, in fact, we will save £2.6 billion. However, we gather from parliamentary questions that I have tabled that the savings will amount to about £1.5 billion. The financial underpinnings of the Bill are a shambles, and that typifies the way in which it has been handled more generally. Therefore, my patience and good-will in respect of the Government’s course of action on quangos has tonight been stretched to breaking point.
The House was given less than five hours to consider the Bill on Report, even though there was a glut of Government amendments and a list of incredibly important organisations that ought to have been discussed, but which were not. There was an odd moment in the Lobby, when the Government Whips seemed to be dragging their feet, presumably in order to avoid a debate on the Welsh television channel. Therefore, as I predicted earlier, this evening we have not had an opportunity to deal with all the matters before the House. We did not get an opportunity to look at the regional development agencies, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Equality and Human Rights Commission or the Human Tissue Authority. Above all, we did not get even a moment to discuss S4C, a vital service to the people of Wales. These are just some of the bodies covered by the Bill which, disgracefully, the House did not have a proper opportunity to debate.
Jonathan Edwards (Plaid) My colleagues were delighted to see the Labour amendment on S4C. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that if Labour are returned to power—or when broadcasting is devolved and Labour take control of the Welsh Government—it will honour its commitments?
JT: What I will say about S4C is that we tabled our amendment and we made our position clear both in that and in the speeches made in Committee, which the hon. Gentleman can read, and thereby see the precise commitments we made.
Throughout the consideration of the Bill, there has been no appropriate means for consultation or for the making of representations by the many bodies whose futures are being damaged or by their clients who will be affected by these measures. Evidence sessions were not permitted, and bodies who had a case were ignored, as were people who benefit from the services they offer—the disabled who depend on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for instance, or those who depend on the Royal British Legion.
The Ministers have been fair-minded, but the truth is that this whole process has been ramshackle. Giving Ministers the power to strike down organisations without there being proper parliamentary scrutiny is the worst kind of government; that simply does not meet the high standards this House should expect. The Bill should be condemned based on the decision on the chief coroner alone. For these reasons, the Opposition firmly oppose the Bill and will seek to press the House to a Division.
Jon’s article for Labour List
Labour’s priority for the country is to get people working again and to ensure our economy is never again left so exposed. To fulfil the promise of Britain, we must also begin making a new bargain from the benefits office to the boardroom based on something-for-something values. If the government were not so out of touch they would share these priorities, but this weekend the Sunday Mirror reported news of a Government initiative from my opposite numbers in the Cabinet Office, which is called ‘Tell Us How’.
Apparently, Frances Maude is going to invite members of the public to make suggestions about Government policy. Of course, one’s first response to such an idea is one of vague amusement. Given the crisis in the Eurozone and the increasing levels of unemployment in our own country, one would have thought that the British Government would be fully preoccupied with dealing with the crisis. But the truth is that the British public is more likely to make suggestions than the Coalition, who seem to have run out of ideas about how to take the country forward. As has been widely commented, Plan A is not working and yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor refuse to consider any other options.
And beyond the economy, what is striking about the Tory-led Government is the absence of a unifying narrative or ideological imperative. They are out of touch with mainstream opinion in the country and it feels like a government which is running out of steam relatively early in the parliament.
Cabinet Office ministers are responsible, for example, for the Big Society initiative. But it is unclear whether the government regards the idea as a means of cutting back the state for ideological reasons, or simply that the decision to cut spending and hand services over to the voluntary and charitable sectors is contingent on perceived problems with the deficit. Few people believe that the details of the Tories’ Big Society idea is a convincing development which will enhance the community life of the country.
Whatever the motives, it is clear that the Coalition’s commitment to the Big Society is the point at which their communitarian aspirations are in conflict with its fiscal strategy. Everywhere you look, in every community and neighbourhood, it is the third sector which is experiencing cutbacks as severe as or more stringent than the public sector.
Little surprise therefore that in recent times the Government has abandoned almost entirely its commitment to the Big Society.
A similar vacuum lies at the heart of the Government’s ideas about public sector reform. The Cabinet Office, for example, launched a bonfire of the quangoes with the Prime Minister promising £30billion of savings. But the truth is that far from undertaking a comprehensive and careful review of quangos, the Cabinet Office have produced a complex and ramshackle piece of legislation which the House of Lords had to drastically amend and which fails to deliver significant savings at all beyond that which Labour was already working on at the time of the election.
In the week when the House debated the Hillsborough Disaster, why on earth would any government propose to mess about with the Football Licensing Authority on the argument that it is just another quango when in fact the safety of tens of thousands of spectators in grounds across the country are at stake?
There ought to be one single, over-riding drive connecting every one of the Government’s actions. And that is to drive the country back to recovery with a programme for jobs and growth. But tragically even when it does have an economic initiative it is too little too late, such as the Regional Growth Fund, which lacks ambition and whose delivery is weak.
Perhaps however gimmicks are all that can be expected. For the Cabinet Office is the government department which houses the Minister whose paper-recycling scheme is focused on the bin in St James’ Park. Ideas from gimmicks all too often meet with the same fate.
It is outrageous that hospital bosses want to close Pontefract A&E, breaking the promises they have repeatedly made to local people that they would keep a 24 hour consultant led A&E in Pontefract. ]
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