A Question of Power and Responsibility

Article excerpt

As I listened yesterday to David Cameron repeating his call for fewer quangos, those non-elected semi-independent bodies that run large chunks of the country, I had three thoughts. First, Cameron continues to take the painless path in relation to detailed public spending cuts. Few voters start to twitch nervously when they hear a quango or two will be scrapped. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, was bolder on future stringency when he warned about public sector pay, an issue that does get a lot of voters twitching, at least those in the public sector.

Second, Cameron's broader analysis of the economy, although virtually detail-free in terms of where the axe would fall, suggests his government would cut deeply and speedily in a manner that could kill off the economy rather than lead it to recovery.

Third, his assessment of where quangos are necessary and where they are not was the best argued I have heard on the subject and suggest that he is capable of being a forensic reformer of the way government works. The first two thoughts can wait. They lead us on to important, but familiar terrain. The third takes us to less explored ground.

Cameron argued that the two key issues in relation to the huge numbers quangos are their accountability and purpose. He pointed out that a lot of them perform functions without any accountability, functions that could and should be handled by elected politicians instead. He added with the slightest echo of Tony Benn that "too much of what government does is done by people that no one can vote out".

Not surprisingly, this is what happens when power is handed to bodies that are not elected. A lot of the cock-ups in recent decades have been the responsibility of well-paid members of quangos who are not held to account by voters or by the media. Our media culture somehow cannot cope with the idea of challenging figures who are, in some cases, more powerful than puny elected ministers held to account around the clock. Anonymity is conveniently unglamorous. Members of quangos are unknown and therefore of little interest.

The expansion of these bodies has illuminating origins. They began to spread when Margaret Thatcher set about destroying local government. She preferred dealing with bodies accountable to her government rather than to local voters. At the same time, local authorities continued to be generously staffed, even though they had a lot less to do. The response of New Labour in 1997 was characteristically chaotic. Some inexperienced ministers who had never been close to power had little idea who was in charge of what.

To give one example of many, the new Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, said that he was going to re-prioritise the way some of the lottery cash was spent, only to discover that the powers for such a move were in the hands of a quango. He could sack the chairman of the quango, but could not directly change the policy. Another cabinet minister who briefly occupied the Ministry of Agriculture was horrified to discover that at his department virtually every policy seemed to lie with limitless semi-independent bodies; he counted more than 70. …