Warning, when Choosing a Government, Read the Small Print.

A little noticed Bill has been introduced to the House of Lords, it’s called the Public Bodies [Reform] Bill. The Government claims that its purpose is to achieve greater efficiency and transparency in the operation of Statutory Bodies, achieving a saving of £1 billion. Achieving efficiency and value for public money is a laudable aim, and a periodic review of Public Bodies no bad thing to counter little empire building. However, it is difficult to see why abolishing an agency and privatising its functions will lead to greater transparency. The true purpose of the Bill is to merge, abolish them, or outsource their functions.

Forty-four bodies are scheduled for abolition. They include the Advisory Committees on Hazardous Substances and on Pesticides, the Commission for Rural Communities, all the Regional Development Agencies, and the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. A further seventeen are to have their statutory duties altered, including the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the National Parks Authorities. It is to be presumed that they will have to become more business friendly. [For the full list see: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldbills/025/11025.15-18.html#j102s]

It is Ministers, their advisors, and lobbyists who will have the power to decide the fate of the Statutory Bodies named in the Bill. There will be no Parliamentary debate on their value or how best to discharge their functions. Ministers will be able to transfer functions and assets to the private sector. This may be an existing business, a mutual company, a charity, or voluntary organisation.

If the popular media notice this measure at all, it will be to cheer over the axing of ‘wasteful’ public bodies. But others with more political insight are raising serious concern, not simply on the substance of the Bill, but also its wider implications. Among those voicing concern is the House of Lords own Constitutional Committee, who recognise it as a calculated attack on our constitutional process.

Parliament, through primary legislation, established the Public Bodies due for ‘reform’. The ‘Reform’ Bill will remove from Parliament its right to amend its own legislation. Instead, Ministers will amend Parliamentary legislation, putting them on an equal footing with the democratically elected Parliament, and not subordinate to it. However, Ministers are appointed, not elected, they do not even have to be members of the elected chamber. For our democracy, this sets a dangerous president. If allowed, it will be done again, because that is how our unwritten constitution works, by precedent. An emboldened Government will see that it has a way of changing or abolishing primary legislation – in other words, the Law – without Parliamentary debate or approval. That is the path to dictatorship.

We are now getting the true flavour of the Conservative Party’s purpose. It’s not Big Society at all – remember, they once declared that society does not exist. It is Big Business. This Bill is part of the privatisation project, to pass the greater proportion of government functions and assets to the private sector, for them to discharge in any profitable way they see fit, which will be at our expense.

Where business sees no profit, or attractive assets, functions will be offered to the voluntary and charity sector. While this sector will do all it can with limited resources, it will have a limited reach and may choose to be selective, will, for example, a faith-based organisation accept obligations towards non-believers? How is the voluntary sector going to bridge the resource gap between rich and poor areas?

There is also the question of the regulation and enforcement duties that often makes Statutory Bodies a thorn in the side of Business. We can expect more self-regulation, for all the good that does. If an enforcement agency is being effective, business simply bleats to a sympathetic Minister, who can introduce and amendment naming the agency, to the Public Bodies [Reform] Act, for reasons of efficiency and transparency. After all something that isn’t there is fully transparent.

[Mike Shipley 23/11/10]

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