Politicians' love/hate relationship with quangos
- 14 October 2010
- From the section UK Politics
Let the great blaze begin.
The government is promising the flames of efficiency and accountability will illuminate and destroy the most wasteful recesses of public spending.
It is time for the "bonfire of the quangos".
Some 192 of these "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations" - taxpayer-funded bodies doing work outsourced from Whitehall departments - are to go.
This is deemed essential to sorting out Labour's "mess", as ministers go about tackling the £155bn budget deficit.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is set to brand organisations such as the UK Film Council, Health Protection Agency, the Museums and Libraries Archives Council and the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee surplus to requirement.
'Dustbin of history'
They must burn as the government attempts to balance the books.
Many functions will be abolished altogether or returned to Whitehall departments, where they can be better monitored, the argument goes.
It sounds radical, but faintly familiar.
Cast your minds back to the final years of the last Conservative government, under John Major.
In a speech in January 1995 shadow chancellor Gordon Brown said: "The biggest question… is why our constitution is over-centralised, over-secretive and over-bureaucratic and why there is not more openness and accountability. The real alternative is a bonfire of the quangos and greater democracy."
Labour's 1997 election manifesto attacked the Conservatives for supporting "unaccountable quangos".
Shortly before entering power, Tony Blair even promised to dump them in the "dustbin of history". But they are still here - in apparently great numbers.
The government puts the figure at almost 700.
Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, who campaigns for reform of quangos, told the BBC: "The reason more and more quangos have been created over the last 30 years is the cowardice of politicians.
"Whenever there's a contentious area of public policy, whether it's deciding interest rates or the priorities of the budget, it is farmed out to those who are not accountable at the ballot box - the bureaucrats and experts.
"So politicians can get all the credit of setting up the [Bank of England's] Monetary Policy Committee but absolve themselves of any blame when the wrong decisions are made."
He added: "You can find wonderful speeches by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in opposition, and John Major just after he came into government, promising a bonfire of the quangos.
"But once politicians stop being the opposition and form the executive, it changes. They set up quangos. And our spineless legislature does nothing to stop it."
Mr Carswell suggests that beefed-up House of Commons select committee - now freer of government influence because their members are elected by a secret ballot of MPs - should monitor quangos, rather than ministers.
Of the coalition's latest announcement, he said: "It's a good start, but what we are seeing here is the executive using executive rights to rein in the executive."
There seems to be an ongoing cross-party awareness that there are too many quangos.
As long ago as 1978, future Conservative MP Michael Fallon - now the party's deputy chairman - wrote a pamphlet railing against the "quango explosion" under the then Labour government.
In July last year Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to Whitehall departments demanding an "urgent" review.
Which could be abolished, merged with other bodies or taken back directly into ministers' hands?
And so it continues.
'No public support'
Dan Lewis, author of The Essential Guide to EU Quangos, said trying to restrict the growth of such organisation was an unending job "like painting the Forth Bridge".
He said: "We will always have them. They do perform some of vital public services. It's not about stopping them; it's about making them accountable for failure. If they were under the terms of competitive contract, like businesses, that would improve things.
"When tax revenues were booming, people weren't asking these questions about spending. This is the first government in a long time to make a stab at doing something about it. Would it have been done under Labour? I'm not sure."
However, Mr Lewis, director of the Economic Policy Centre think-tank, said: "The government want to have a bonfire, but this is more of a camp fire."
Quangos remain a handy rhetorical target, though.
Mr Lewis said: "They are the only part of the public sector politicians can attack with impunity. There's no public support for them in the way that there is for state-funded health or education."
When the latest list of quangos set for the chop was leaked last month, Labour's John Denham said it included some which "actually have the job of holding the government to account... on behalf of the public".
He said: "If you've got a government coming along saying: 'Let's silence all the independent voices, let's silence the people who speak up about equalities... they are really saying: 'We will be able to do whatever we like and there won't be anyone able to shine a spotlight on what we are up to'."
So, one politician's wasteful bureaucracy is another's guardian of standards. And the man lighting the matches for the latest bonfire, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, was quick to make clear that there was "no dogmatic" ban on future quangos being set up.
Indeed, one of the first acts of the coalition was to set up a quango of its own: the Office for Budget Responsibility, charged with making an "independent assessment" of the national finances ahead of each Budget and pre-Budget report.
Mr Lewis said this was the wrong approach. Such jobs could be outsourced to independent firms, keen to offer effective scrutiny at a better price, he argued.
Anti-quango feeling has been a feature of politics for decades, but the much-promised bonfire never seems to have led to an overall fall in their numbers. Will it be different this time?