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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity