Inside Parliament: Few volunteers for duty north of the border

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Labour MPs pushing the case for an Edinburgh parliament during Scottish Office questions yesterday were unsettled by a challenge to own up to how many of them would actually want to serve in it.

'Come on, hands up,' demanded the Under-Secretary Allan Stewart. No forest of arms burst forth on the Labour benches. Of Scotland's 72 MPs, 49 are Labour. But of the 30-plus who were present only five showed an eagerness to sit in their national parliament.

The trouble with Labour was that they were committed to a body while refusing to answer in detail how it would work and be financed, Mr Stewart said. His claim that the parliament would be paid for by a tax on businesses in Scotland met with shouts of protest from Opposition MPs.

John McAllion, making his debut on the Labour front bench, mixed Scotland's 'democratic deficit' with Lord Nolan's anti-sleaze committee and pounds 4bn spent on the health service north of the border.

Most of the money was spent by appointees of Secretary of State Ian Lang on health boards and NHS trusts, he said. 'While the establishment of an independent committee to advise on those appointments is a welcome step . .

. it nevertheless leaves a yawning democratic deficit.

'Quangos aren't made more accountable or more democratic simply by setting up a super-quango to watch over them. Only the establishment of a Scottish Parliament will close that democratic deficit.'

Past abuses and the waste of public money by bodies such as Welsh Development Agency (private motoring subsidised by the taxpayer and a pounds 228,000 pay-off for one officer after nine weeks' work), the Wessex Regional Health Authority (computer-scheme scandal), and the Pergau dam affair were trawled over in a day-long debate on reports of the Committee of Public Accounts.

Not a man to indulge in what John Major dubbed the 'feeding frenzy' over sleaze, Robert Sheldon, the committee chairman, called for outside vetting of quango appointments. He pressed for the National Audit Office to be able to examine all bodies which get most of their money from public funds.

If there is no competitive bidding for a contract, then the NAO can investigate the costings once the job is completed. But where there is competitive bidding, it has no right. 'In practice, there are problems of collusion between a limited number of competing bidders,' the former Labour Treasury minister said.

Stressing the need for a check on ministerial appointments to non-departmental public bodies, he said 'new people' were being brought in from outside the civil service who had not acquired its ethos of 'integrity, impartiality and objectivity'.

'There are plenty of people who did go into the civil service, not to make money but to serve their country. We belittle their role at great peril.'