William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, recalled that in 1977, 39 members of the TUC council held 180 state appointments. Jack Jones, after retiring as leader of the then all-powerful Transport and General Workers' Union, sat on seven public bodies, from the National Ports Council to the UN National Commission on Unesco.
'Those were the days of true state patronage,' Mr Waldegrave said in reply to a Labour-initiated debate on the issue. 'So many key jobs went to Labour's trade union cronies that it wasn't clear if the state was giving patronage to the TUC or vice versa.'
But by the close of business more recent boils were bursting as it was reported that British firms were being blacked for contracts in Malaysia because of the exposure given to the Pergau dam arms-and-aid deal.
Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, calling for a statement, said it was serious news for British aid and jobs. But he added: 'Before any Conservative points a finger at the media or the Labour Party, they should think about this further example of abuse of power by a Conservative government.'
Raising the pounds 234m of British taxpayers' money for Pergau during the debate, Michael Meacher, Labour's Citizen's Charter spokesman, said Overseas Development Administration objections to aiding the project had been over-ruled 'because it offered a huge construction contract to Balfour Beatty and Cementation who are also major contributors to the Tory party'.
At Question Time, John Major dismissed the party placemen accusation when Labour's George Howarth said that according to parliamentary answers, 127 members of 41 bodies were 'associated with firms that directly finance the Tory party'.
Pointing to Tory benches, Mr Howarth went on: 'Can the Prime Minister tell me, is this just a highly unlikely statistical coincidence, or yet another example of that lot over there getting their cronies' snouts in the trough.'
But Mr Major pointed to other members of quangos - Margaret Hodge, former Labour leader of Islington Council, on the Local Government Commission, Opposition frontbenchers Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Jay, and Bob Cryer, Labour MP for Bradford South on the British Film Institute. 'Not a single government supporter or contributor amongst them.'
Making good use of his mention, Mr Cryer said he was 'very proud to be a member of the unpaid board of governors of the BFI' and urged Mr Major to do more to finance and develop the film industry.
Somehow though, the citing of Mr Cryer, or even Jack Jones, hardly measured up to the charge. Mr Meacher said there was nothing inherently wrong with quangos. But there had been a shift from the 1970s type, many of which were purely advisory, to powerful executive bodies exercising functions taken from local government and health and transport authorities. 'Today quangos are powerful vehicles of patronage, wielding far greater powers and spending far more public money than ever before.'
Using the term quango to embrace not just non-departmental government bodies but health trusts, school boards and agencies, he said they had taken over the spending of some pounds 24bn of public money. By 1996, it was estimated they would control pounds 54bn - a fifth of public expenditure.
Mr Meacher twice challenged Mr Waldegrave on whether or not Conservative Central Office ran a check on political affiliations and passed the information on to ministers making appointments. The overwhelming Tory majority on quangos was not an accident. 'It has been determined by very careful research.'
'Is Mr Meacher saying that Transport House or the Labour whips office take no interest in appointments?' the open government minister snapped back.
Decrying a 'Tory nomenklatura', Mr Meacher said all parties in the past had wanted a 'reasonable share' of their supporters appointed. 'Today is something on a completely different scale - ruthless elimination of everyone who is not of a Conservative persuasion. It is patently clear from the way Mr Waldegrave avoided my question that the answer is 'yes'.'
Speaker Betty Boothroyd issued what might be termed a 'windbag' ruling - instructing backbenchers and ministers to keep their questions and answers brief so that more of their colleagues could get a word in. Last week there were protests when Mr Major used Question Time to make what amounted to a mini-statement on breaking the siege of Sarajevo.
Miss Boothroyd's rebuke sounded to be directed more at the front benches than the infantry. Referring MPs to recommendations of the Commons Procedure Committee, she said they should confine questions to a single issue.
'I shall equally look for brief answers from ministers, and the answers should be restricted to the point that has been raised.' At present not enough MPs who had tabled questions were getting a chance to have them answered 'through lack of discipline by their colleagues, including those on the front bench.'
MPs will be curious to see if Miss Boothroyd's stricture on sticking to the point means an end to the type of reply given by the Prime Minister as he clashed with John Smith, the Labour leader, over the income of the poor. Claiming a rise, Mr Major said: 'The Right Honourable Gentleman poses the question in his own way. I will answer the question in my own way.'
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