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9 April 2001

The quangos just grow and grow

Despite the promise of a people's government, the country is increasingly run by unaccountable, secr

By Stuart Weir

Tony Blair and his colleagues have been full of promises to abolish the quango state and make “bonfires of quangos”. But there are no dead quangos among the slaughtered sheep and livestock in the funeral pyres and trenches that disfigure the British countryside. No, the quango state is alive and well.

The select committee on public administration, under Tony Wright MP, has just completed a major “mapping” exercise of the quango state. It found 823 central government quangos – known officially as non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs). It discovered a new growth at regional level – 111 regional quangos in England, 94 in Scotland, 55 in Northern Ireland and 47 in Wales. It uncovered 5,338 largely appointed rivals to local authorities throughout the United Kingdom.

At the centre, ministers have contrived a cut in the quango count by culling 74 advisory bodies on the fringes of government. But the big beasts of quasi-governance – the executive NDPBs that directly serve government departments – are on the increase. The Commission for Health Improvement, the Strategic Rail Authority, the Learning and Skills Council, the National Lottery Commission and the Electoral Commission are but a few of Labour’s new creations.

Furthermore, Labour has created hundreds of task forces: the select committee found 303 at the time of its census in April 2000. Supposedly temporary bodies, these task forces are not subject to the procedure of scrutiny of appointments as recommended by the Nolan committee, yet they wield great influence because they advise ministers at the critical moment in developing government policies. They can also become powerful bodies in their own right. For example, the Treasury’s task force on the private finance initiative (PFI) has become Partnerships UK (Puke for short), a central policy-making body for public-private partnerships. But Puke eluded the select committee’s inquiries altogether, because the Treasury does not acknowledge it as a public body. This important group of Treasury mandarins and City of London suits was reconstituted as a limited company – and thus, despite its public significance, stays off the public record and Nolan rules.

At local level, there are about 90 fewer quangos than there were in 1997. But this does not represent a gain in local accountability. For example, the government has replaced 72 training and enterprise councils with 47 learning and skills councils, which operate over a wider area, more remote from local authorities and under the charge of a major new national quango. Moreover, Labour has introduced a new mutation of the quango state at local level – local partnerships, action zones and “cross-sectoral” bodies, all with appointed boards. The select committee counted 2,295 of such bodies.

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Quasi-governance has grown under new Labour and is set to grow even further. The select committee’s survey, confined as it was to quangos, found that Labour in government had pursued the policies towards quangos that it inherited from the Tories. But the regional and local quango states could be transformed by the introduction of elected regional authorities and elections, say, for local health authorities. And why shouldn’t patients elect representatives on to the new primary care groups and trusts? Why shouldn’t local authorities take back some public services in the elected sphere?

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Election is as far off Labour’s agenda as it was under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but some progress has been made towards subjecting quangos to ombudsmen of various kinds, introducing complaints mechanisms and websites, bringing the National Audit Office into play. Yet on the whole, these bodies remain black holes as far as public access and openness are concerned. A quango is rarely obliged to hold a single annual public meeting; and even where the public are entitled to attend board meetings, they are often denied access when, for example, controversial PFI schemes are on the agenda.

Who are the quangocrats? The Nolan committee recommended that they be people of “merit” – and that there be a balance between the political parties. Partial inquiries reveal that they are predominantly private business and professional men; there is very limited representation of the public sphere, trade unions and consumer organisations. Too many appointments belong to crony networks, especially at local and regional level.

Having trumpeted their credentials as a “people’s government”, Blair and his ministers remain remarkably unwilling to trust the people to choose their rulers, or even to make them properly accountable.

Professor Stuart Weir, of Democratic Audit, University of Essex, was adviser to the select committee on public administration for its report, “Mapping the Quango State”