Axing quangos is really about political capital

As the spending review approaches, a leaked list of doomed quangos suggests that these cuts are about political gains more than financial savings.

A list leaked to the Telegraph reveals the 177 quangos that are allegedly to be the first on to David Cameron's "bonfire of the quangos".

The full list includes a dazzling array of bodies, with examples as varied and esoteric as the Agricultural Dwelling House Committees (comprising 16 bodies), the Public Guardian Board and the Teachers TV Board.

It's easy to react with bemused horror to the array of obscure-sounding titles. But the list does demand slightly closer scrutiny -- also marked for burning are the Audit Commission, British Waterways, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and the Women's National Commission, to name just a few. Baroness Deech has already gone on the offensive this morning's Today programme to point out that much of the £5m budget for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority comes from patients, not taxpayers, and that axing it thus achieves very little in budgetary terms.

As we get closer to October's Comprehensive Spending Review, the debate surrounding the future of these bodies and others is obviously going to intensify. Other high-profile examples, such as the BBC World Service, the British Council, the Office of Fair Trading and the Carbon Trust, are still under review.

But while these bodies await their fate, I thought I'd share a small insight into one of the bodies that is reportedly going to be axed: the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine. A while ago, consumed with curiosity as to what this committee was actually up to and how much of taxpayers' money it was spending on wine, I put in a Freedom of Information request, and discovered the following:

  • The government calculates that it will use around £90,00-£100,000 worth of stock (wines, spirits, beers, etc) a year for "high-level events".
  • Government Hospitality, the department within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that administers the committee, spends roughly one-eighth of its £800,000 annual budget on restocking the wine cellar.
  • The committee has five members, who meet four times a year and are not paid for their time (apart from travel expenses). It is chaired by Sir David Wright, the former British ambassador to Japan.
  • According to minutes, tastings take place during meetings. Recommendations are then made about purchases.

None of this is of anything other than passing interest. But it does provide a small amount of background to one of the entries on the baffling list of soon-to-be-extinct quangos. It also raises a bigger point about the motivation behind the coalition's war on quangos.

Wines will still need to be purchased, so it is unlikely that major savings will be made there, and the existence of the committee itself costs almost nothing, so "burning" this quango achieves very little in the way of saving costs. Without having investigated them all, I still would wager that a significant portion of the rest of the list falls into the same category -- fulfilling functions that will go on being necessary, at relatively small cost.

A senior Whitehall source told the Telegraph that "these reforms represent the most significant rolling back of bureaucracy and the state for decades. Our starting point has been that every quango must not only justify its existence but its reliance on public money."

This connection between abolishing quangos and "rolling back bureaucracy" is the real story here. Getting rid of these quangos isn't going to eliminate the Budget deficit, but it will give the coalition political ammunition once more against the "bloated bureaucracy" instituted by Labour, and put the government on the offensive as public support for the spending cuts wanes and the spending review itself approaches.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.