The business brains behind Blair

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WHERE ONCE union leaders had a monopoly on beer and sandwiches with Labour at Whitehall, the heads of Rolls-Royce, Tesco and British Aerospace have now moved in with mineral water and quiche.

Around 350 of Britain's most successful industrialists and business people are now advising the Government, according to a report just published. Business and industry have taken half the 700 seats on more than 75 task forces, an analysis by the Cranfield School of Management has shown.

Yet, even as the 48-page report, "The Task Force Revolution" by Lewis Macleod, was rolling off the presses, the Government was already cocking a snook at the expert advisers it has gathered.

The chairman of the Low Pay Commission, Professor George Bain - the distinguished former head of the London Business School - spent months working with employers, employees' representatives and academics to produce recommendations on a minimum wage based on extensive consultation. Then Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, watered down his figures.

The decision raised questions as to exactly what task forces were for. Mr Macleod said they certainly went further than simply breaking down "Whitehall intransigence and providing outside help". But he concluded: "The jury is still out on the task-force format as a viable means of spreading the ownership of policy decisions."

Key recommendations of the better regulation task force on consumer affairs were rejected, for example. The legal-aid review conducted for the Lord Chancellor's department by Sir Peter Middleton, deputy chairman of Barclays Bank, caused widespread unease and its proposals were unlikely to be implemented. And then the Treasury rode roughshod over the advice of the Low Pay Commission.

Yet none of these rejections has stopped the "dramatic rise" in the number of task forces and representatives on them. The research, carried out by the Cranfield School of Management at Cranfield University, Bedfordshire, showed that there were 90 business leaders on the competitiveness working parties of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) alone.

"The business community has representatives on most of the major task forces and has the chair and a majority of members on those directly concerned with industry issues," Mr Macleod said.

They far outnumbered the trade union representatives, although the Communication Workers Union, Manufacturing Science and Finance Union and Transport and General Workers' Union were among those groups with a say.

Virtually all posts are unpaid. "The only thing they get is a cup of coffee and possibly a biscuit," one government spokeswoman said. Some departments, such as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, do not even pay expenses. Only academics among the DTI's advisers get their bus fares back, although no one has claimed any yet.

Some task forces, such as the Low Pay Commission, meet once or twice a month, the creative industries task force - designed to increase creative activity and excellence - about six times a year, and others every few months or so.

The Treasury's private finance initiative (PFI) task force is the exception. Adrian Montague, a City banker, was appointed as full-time chief executive on a salary of pounds 160,000 for two years to sort out the programme to use private money for public-sector infrastructure projects. He has a team of eight, all also paid and full-time.

The irony, of course, is that in Opposition, Labour criticised the Conservatives for their quangos. A Cabinet Office spokeswoman tried to outline the difference between the two bodies. "As a rule of thumb, a quango tends to be permanent, a task force is set up to look at a particular issue or problem."

Not all problems get big names to tackle them. While Richard Branson, the rock singer Mick Hucknell and lyricist Sir Tim Rice wander the corridors of the Department of Culture, the Department of Health has a hospital porter, Clive Mason of Telford, on its staff involvement task force.

Mr Macleod said: "The task force is a concept indicative of a new trend towards partnership working."

But do they work? Gerald Frankel, who runs a computer innovations company, has reservations. As chairman of the Industry Forum, a body set up around five years ago to establish links between the Labour Party and business, he was partly responsible for the development of the task-force idea. Before the election, such groups helped Labour develop its business and industry policies. But they were arguably less useful for a party in power, he said.

"There are some extremely good people on these task forces, but in the main they are appointments, and people are not inclined to be as open and as critical as is necessary to those who have appointed them."

But they might not last anyway. The task force might be "a phenomenon that will continue to evolve", suggested Mr Macleod. Or they could be "a one-off political fad with a limited shelf life".

They should set up a task force to investigate.