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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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