Bernard Ingham: Quangos are no defence for politicians facing the flood tide of public opinion

2
Have your say

THEY say they go back exactly 500 years – to 1514 when Trinity House, the lighthouse service, was set up. If so, they have a distinguished parentage. I refer to quangos – or quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, to give them their Sunday name, and now epitomised by the waterlogged Environment Agency.

THEY say they go back exactly 500 years – to 1514 when Trinity House, the lighthouse service, was set up. If so, they have a distinguished parentage. I refer to quangos – or quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, to give them their Sunday name, and now epitomised by the waterlogged Environment Agency.

They are the bodies that politicians in government see merit only in culling but find them as difficult to get rid of as Japanese knotweed.

This is not surprising. Depending on what is thought to sail under the quango flag, they number anything from about 750 to 1,162, employing up to 700,000 and costing the taxpayer around £80bn a year.

So that’s the first problem: what can reasonably be called a quango? It depends on how tidy your mind is. In essence, they are bodies with a role in the processes of national government but operating at arms length from Ministers.

Their official name is Non-Departmental Public Bodies. There are four sorts – executive, with responsibilities like the Environment Agency; advisory, for example, the Low Pay Commission; tribunals (e.g. valuation tribunals), and independent monitoring boards as for prisons, immigration centres etc.

Some would include executive agencies, such as Jobcentres, and non-Ministerial departments such as Ofgem, the energy regulator.

The fastidious would lump in NHS trusts and thousands of local public bodies and the purists reckon that the BBC and the Bank of England qualify.

How long is a piece of string?

But that is only the start of the messy business of culling. When they come up for the chop, government has to decide whether, if they do something essential – and why do they exist if they don’t? – who else, if not they, could do their job.

Could they be safely merged? Should they be brought back within a Government department? No wonder the cullers seem to have little to show for their bloodletting.

The coalition seems to have got rid of about 10 per cent towards a promised annual saving of £2.6bn by next year.

For all its faults, real or imagined, the Environment Agency remains.

Which brings me to the nub of the issue. It takes me back to my university – the National Board for Prices and Incomes – which I joined in 1967.

That was when a Carnegie Foundation academic launched the concept of the quango. It was enthusiastically taken up by my boss, the Tory politician, Aubrey Jones, who, as chairman of the NBPI, saw himself as efficiency consultant to the nation.

He regarded quangos, acting once removed from Whitehall, as taking the heat off politicians. Even in my callow youth, I thought this a load of baloney. Come a crisis, the public don’t want some quangocrat’s blood. Only a Minister’s will do.

And so it came to pass that the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Environment, Local Government, Transport and Defence Secretaries waded out in their wellies on the Somerset Levels and in the Thames Valley.

It is true that Lord Smith, the somewhat hapless chairman of the Environment Agency, also got it in the neck.

But, as a former Labour Cabinet Minister, he is fair game. He is not blameless.

I suspect there is some truth that he and his Labour predecessor put too much emphasis on protecting wildlife rather than human beings.

They blame EU and Treasury rules for being economical with river dredging.

The expanse of flood water and the devastation of those inundated may be vast, but the number of flooded properties is remarkably small, given we have had the wettest winter for up to 250 years and persist in building where the land floods.

The EA cannot exactly have been sitting on its hands.

That, however, is not the point. In the end governments cannot – as Aubrey Jones seemed to think – slough off their responsibilities onto some quango.

It may be a way, among other things, of reducing the size of the Civil Service but it does not reduce the size of the State – or the reckoning that comes when half of Britain finds itself under water.

The moral of the EA tale is quite simple: if as a politician you know – as you should – that you are going to be held responsible 
when things go wrong, make damn certain you are in charge of policy and that it is being implemented.

You may not be able to cope with everything the world throws at you, but you have to be able to show pretty smartly that you really did try.

Quangos come with limitations.