Cuts to quangos are political, not financial

The full list of cuts to quangos reveals that it isn't quite the bonfire we were promised.

The full details of the Coalition's "bonfire of the quangos" have now filtered into the public domain (not helped by the fact that the Cabinet Office website has been down since early this morning).

It's a large and unwieldy set of data, but a few things immediately jump out: the Royal Mail is to be "transferred to the private sector over time"; BBC World Service survives to delight its global audience for a little longer (do read the NS's Antonia Quirke on the subject, by the way); and the UK Film Council is indeed to be scrapped.

First, the stats. The future of 901 separate quangos have been reviewed. 192 will be scrapped outright, with at least another hundred merged. The fate of a further 40, including the Student Loans Company, the Judicial Appointments Commission, and the Independent Safeguarding Authority, is still to be determined.

The impression that first Cameron, and now the Coalition, have tried to give through these reforms is of a radical slashing of public inefficiency. However, the really striking thing to me about this document is how many of these bodies will survive in one way or another. Andrew Sparrow, on his Guardian liveblog, has crunched some of the numbers, and it transpires that 380 quangos will survive intact, with a further 118 merged to become 57 bodies. Another 171 will be "substantially reformed", meaning that should the full recommendations of this review be implemented, at least two-thirds of the quangos reviewed will persist in some form or other.

Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude has been on the air today, emphasising how this cull will improve government accountability, although, crucially, he was unable to confirm how much money the reforms will save.

One worrying trend that emerges from this list is that of formerly independent bodies being absorbed into government departments. The Main Honours Advisory Committee moves inside the Cabinet Office, as does the policy responsibilities of the Big Lottery Fund. A host of tribunal services will now fall under the remit of the Ministry of Justice, and a number of health-related advisory committees will be consolidated into "Department of Health/Public Service committees of experts".

As I've argued previously, axing these quangos is less about delivering vast savings than about political positioning. Talk of "bonfires" is all very well, but the document itself indicates that few of these changes will happen immediately. And in many cases, the functions of these bodies cannot be completely erased and will have to be distributed elsewhere -- a remarkable number of entries use phrases like "will continue as a charity with the potential to become a community interest company" -- an operation that will take time, money, and manpower to achieve.

Liam Byrne has just told the House of Commons that at least two-thirds of these reforms were already planned under Labour. Talk of increasing government accountability or "rolling back bureaucracy" through these reforms is just presentation. The deeper objective for the Coalition is undoubtedly to transfer greater power to central and local goverment, and to exploit the public dislike of bureaucracy by appearing to slash through reams of red tape, no doubt as part of the spin strategy in advance of the spending review next week.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue