Inside Parliament: Peers attack quango culture: Baroness Williams deplores the erosion of civic society; Lib Dems condemn Tory party's 'fountain of patronage'

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Baroness Williams of Crosby, the former Secretary of State for Education Shirley Williams, last night spoke of her sadness at the erosion of the concept of civic society in Britain through the transfer of responsibilities to non- elected bodies.

Countering the attack by Michael Portillo, the Treasury Chief Secretary, on the disease of national cynicism, Lady Williams said that ministers themselves had held some of the country's finest institutions in contempt.

One such institution, admired throughout the world, was the police, she told peers. But only 24 hours earlier the House of Lords had given a Second Reading to a Bill handing control of the police to appointees of the Home Secretary. Critics of the Bill included the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, and Viscount Whitelaw, a former Conservative Home Secretary.

Taking part in a Liberal Democrat-initiated debate on 'quangos', Lady Williams, a founder of the party, said that Britain, more than any other country, had built up a civic society in which citizens believed they could participate and share responsibility.

'Seeing citizens as 'consumers' wholly misses the concept of public deliberation, participation and shared responsibility. Useful though the market is, it cannot capture in its psychology the concept of civic society.'

Lady Williams noted how often in her notes for lectures and seminars in Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, the Czech republic and Hungary, she referred to the ideal of the new democracies to move towards a civic society. But she said: 'How can I talk about the ideal of a civic society as realised in my own country if my own country is constantly belittling the ability of citizens, ordinary citizens, to contribute to policies, to ideas, to the development of their communities and of this country?'

Lady Williams went on: 'I am sad to see my country losing the capacity to involve citizens, public accountability to citizens, to recognise the responsibility of citizens, and that is what the multiplication of quangos says in the most eloquent language every day we create yet another one, taking powers away from elected officials.'

Though most peers admitted serving on quangos and agreed that some did good work, the term was used in a broad, and usually derogatory, sense encompassing not just quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, but executive agencies, NHS trusts and non- departmental public bodies. Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for Labour, called it the 'magistracy of ministerial appointees'.

Opening the debate, Lord Bonham-Carter said it was estimated that by 1996, there would be 7,700 public bodies and 40,000 Government appointees. His Liberal Democrat colleague Lord Holme of Cheltenham called it 'a veritable fountain of patronage - a comprehensive system of social benefit for the Conservative Party'.

The Labour peer Lord Taylor of Gryfe said he had served on so many quangos that he thought he was the statutory Scot. But he had also served on Glasgow council when it had responsibility for the police, health, education and housing. All these things that impacted seriously upon the daily lives of the people of Glasgow were now handled by politically partial quangos.

By 1996, non-elected bodies would be responsible for a quarter of total government expenditure, he said. 'That cannot be a healthy sign in what we claim is a democratic society.'

But, in a robust defence of the system, the recently ennobled Baroness Miller of Hendon, a Conservative, said that being a member of a quango was 'no cushy sinecure'. She described her workload when a member of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - far more than the two days a week she was told about - and as chairman of a family health service responsible for 300,000 people and a budget of pounds 40m. She had had no pay increase since 1991 and calculated she received less on an hourly basis than the cleaning lady.

Winding up the debate, junior minister Lord Howe denied any political bias in appointments. Individuals were free to nominate themselves or other people to be included on the database of those willing to serve on public bodies.

But when Lady Williams challenged him to name any chairman of the 40 leading quangos who was associated with any other party than the Tories, Lord Howe said that he would have to write to her. 'I don't carry names in my head.'

Indeed the minister's head seemed to contain very little on the subject and he stuck closely to his departmental brief. 'The key point in these arguments is not whether those who run our public services are elected, but whether they are producer-responsive or consumer- responsive,' he read. 'You do not necessarily ensure that services respond to the public simply by giving citizens a democratic voice, which would be in any case a distant and diffuse one, in how services are delivered. Services can be responsive by giving the public choices or by instituting mechanisms which build in publicly approved standards and redress them when they are not attained.'

Lady Williams's fears had been confirmed. Here was the triumph of the language of the market over civic society writ large.