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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital