Richard Howitt on the Meaning of Cuts

07:10 Friday 15th October 2010 Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

ANDY GALL: Ministers have confirmed that nearly two hundred quangos will be scrapped to cut costs. Another one hundred and eighteen quangos are to be merged. The Environment Agency, whose HQ is in Peterborough, will be retained, but will be reformed, with job cuts not being ruled out. Natural England, who also have offices in the city, are also affected. And the Labour Party say the cull could end up costing more than it saves. So joining us now to discuss this is Labour MEP Richard Howitt, for the East of England.

AG: Good morning Richard.
RICHARD HOWITT: Good morning to you Andy.
AG: Thank you for joining us. Now your reaction to the news first.
RH: Well it’s a mess. Labour doesn’t defend every quango. We all know the ones with silly names. And in fact four hundred and fifty quangos were got rid of under the Labour Government. But as with what they’re doing with public spending generally, this new Coalition Government is cutting too hard, too fast. And mixed up in this package are some very damaging cuts. I’m obviously pleased in Peterborough the Environment Agency won’t go. But the loss of jobs means the loss of influence, the loss of activity. And when you look at the Environment Agency, as you say Natural England is also in Peterborough, also Bikeability, the programme that helps our children learn to cycle safely to school. If this government says it’s got good environmental credentials, it does seem to be attacking the very organisations that help deliver those in Peterborough and in Britain.
AG: OK Richard. before we get bogged down in political rhetoric, there clearly will be some people listening who don’t .. are not entirely across what a quango actually is – it’s a quasi autonomous non-governmental organisation, isn’t it? What does that mean in common speak?
RH: Right. This is basically saying that we deliver some public spending and services through government, some through our local councils, but some through independent bodies. And there are lots of things, by the way, and it’s a good thing that it’s not done directly by politicians. For example, the announcement yesterday includes the body that appoints judges, the body that checks our councillors behave ethically and aren’t corrupt. They’re going to be abolished. Now it’s not a good thing that those are politically charged decisions. It’s a good thing that they’re independent ones. And again it’s about the bad decision that was made yesterday.
AG: Well we can’t move away from this subject without looking at some of the more fanciful ones.
RH: Go on then. Go for it.
AG: Just give me a moment to fill out my chest here. Advisory Committee on Packaging. It’s a sweet gig, to see you through these difficult times, if you can get yourself in there. We’ll leave that there, because obviously the listener can make their own mind up. What’s this one? Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the Purchase of Wines. Again, you know. Really? Do we need that? And the third one here for quangos is Veterinary Residues Committee. I don’t even know, and especially people trying to enjoy their breakfast, we don’t even want to think about what that possibly is. So how do you defend some of the more fluffy ones?
RH: Well I don’t. As I say Labour got rid of four hundred and fifty. But two hundred are going to close, as of yesterday, and that includes the Regional Development Agency, and that’s the body in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, that supports business, that helps with jobs and job creation schemes in our rural areas, that helps with heritage programmes. These are vital things. It includes the help for our museums in Cambridgeshire, with getting children and people who wouldn’t otherwise perhaps go to museums, or be involved in heritage or cultural projects. They provide the money that actually helps people to do that. And there’ll be a lot of parents, when they hear that their children won’t actually be trained to cycle safely, or won’t be able to go to museums or perhaps won’t get a job in the future, because the job creating agency’s going, I think they’ll have a very different view.
AG: Now looking closer at Peterborough, the City Council has just stepped up its bid to become the environment capital of the UK. It’s a big blow to hear the Environment Agency will be significantly restructured.
RH: It is very serious, because we have, in Peterborough in particlular, really championed the idea that future jobs and future businesses will come in the environment sector. The new campus for the university has been based on that. Many of our local businesses have been part of the championing of that.
AG: Richard, do you have any idea of the number of job cuts that could be coming through from this?
RH: That’s precisely my point. Peterborough has been at the heart of trying to say that environment is part, the future part of our future prosperity. And for the Environment Agency itself, it has really important functions to do with seeing how climate change is affecting our country, and helping us to predict that, helping to control, to make sure that decisions that are taken don’t then lead to accidents, to hazardous pollution, helping to work with the other agencies to ensure that we don’t get flooded, but equally we don’t run out of water, and both of those things are a problem. Now we have trained professional staff in Peterborough, doing a good job. It’s no good to say review, and let’s bring more uncertainty. It’s no good to say we’ll put it in Government, if Government itself isn’t spending the money. This is the great confidence trick of yesterday, and what they’re doing with the quangos. They say they can merge them. They say they can put them inside of Government. They say that local authorities should do more, but if they take away the money at one and the same time, it’s not going to happen. And that’s why apart from the Environment Agency, and apart from these other very important agencies locally, in Peterborough, that support our businesses, that help our museums, that help our transport system, that the one or two funny quangos shouldn’t obscure that real hurt and damage will be done locally.
AG: Now the Environment Agency have sent us this statement, that says, “there is plenty of information to consider at this stage. Once we have a clearer understanding of the coming changes, we will be in a better position to comment.”