Katharine Dommett: It’s too easy to blame the big, bad quangos

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IN a week that has seen the general condemnation of the Care Quality Commission and further criticism of the UK Border Agency, it’s fair to say that quangos are under attack. As the political parties start manoeuvring for the 2015 General Election it’s likely that we will see increasingly bold commitments to launch a cull of the quangos.

In just the last few weeks we have seen George Osborne praising Eric Pickles’ work in scrapping a dozen local government quangos, and have heard Ukip arguing that “quangos make the perfect fuel for a debt bonfire”, a sentiment which has inspired their pledge to “fearlessly axe the multitude of quangos that cost the state billions annually”.

The problem is that the public has heard it all before and the pre-election rhetoric of quangocide is rarely matched by dramatic abolitions once in office.

As a report published this week by the University of Sheffield and Birmingham University explains, the current coalition Government has taken a different approach, focusing more on increasing transparency and strengthening internal control than simply abolishing quangos.

This was part of the strategy first outlined by David Cameron in 2009 when he claimed there was an urgent need for “a more sophisticated approach” to the quango conundrum. And yet quangos continue to be labelled “unaccountable” and an “affront to democracy” – as Ukip termed them this week – a depiction which is highly misleading.

Non-departmental public bodies are subject to a wide range of accountability mechanisms and, as a number of recent incidents demonstrate, the convention of parliamentary accountability forces Ministers to respond when things go wrong.

While it’s undoubtedly true that blame games sometimes occur as Ministers attempt to pass the buck to officials, such strategies often backfire. And while some “quangocrats” are perceived as receiving lots of money for very little work, the reality of serving on the board of a public body is quite different.

The vast majority of ministerial appointments to the boards of quangos are unpaid (apart from expenses) and the “fat cat” chairs will generally work at least twice the hours they are nominally paid for. The board of a quango is just about the last place to go if you want to make money. Check out the Public Appointments website if you don’t believe me.

I’m not arguing that quangos are great, or perfect or beyond reform but I am suggesting that there is a reason why the rhetoric of “quangocide” is rarely, if ever, matched by reform. These are the organisations we rely on to deliver services and regulate the police, universities and various elements of the National Health Service.

From the DVLA to the BBC, Ordinance Survey and the Student Loans Company, most of us rely on the services of quangos, either directly or indirectly, throughout our lives.

When crises occur it is usually to a quango rather than a politician that the public will turn – to bodies like the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Children’s Commissioner, UK Anti-Doping or to a whole host of bodies that regulate and control politicians and their officials on behalf of the public.

When it comes to specialist areas of policy such as the environment, the disposal of nuclear waste, human fertilisation and embryology, the regulation of pensions or the independent analysis and verification of the UK’s public finances there are clearly benefits to drawing upon the insights of appointed experts rather than elected politicians. The question is really one of proportionality and balance rather than abolition and attack.

The coalition Government has generally accepted this argument. They have abolished hundreds of small advisory bodies, have merged some quangos and in some cases have abolished bodies and drawn their functions back into departments. Not only is the quango state more streamlined and less fragmented but it is also more visible as a whole host of transparency measures have been put in place.

The internal controls placed upon quangos by their sponsor departments have been tightened to the extent that many quangocrats complain that “the “arm” in “the arm’s-length relationship” is now more like an “arm-lock” as Ministers seek to increase efficiency and get more bang for each buck of public spending. Details of how much officials are paid, every line of government spending above £25,000, every contract worth over £10,000, plus other measures are all monitored by a new Public Sector Transparency Board.

The issue of efficiency brings this article full circle and back to a focus on recent party political pronouncements regarding the huge amounts of money that can be made by simply abolishing all those big bad quangos. The problem is that when you look at each of these bodies one-by-one you generally find most do a pretty good job in times of increasing demands and limited resources and that even if you abolished the quango you could not simply abolish the function it fulfils.

So if we are to have a sensible debate about the future of quangos, parties like Ukip who promise pain-free public sector efficiencies need to move from the general to the specific and pinpoint exactly which quangos it plans to abolish and what will happen to those public services. Where will they start? The Big Lottery Fund, the Civil Justice Council, the Atomic Energy Authority, the Youth Justice Board? The public deserve a detailed answer and a grown-up debate, not more of the same old quango bashing.