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Beware Coalition's attack on quangos

The government and Conservative ministers have been able to abolish significant and valuable bodies for ideological and personal reasons.

Quangos are friendless creatures.  Some while ago, Tony Blair curried favour with the Labour Party conference by vaingloriously announcing a "bonfire of quangos".  Nothing came of this boast. Now Conservative ministers are piling the bonfire high as they abolish and cut quangoes, and in the process demonstrating both how retrograde and foolish Blair's original boast had been and how open our governing arrangements are to ministerial diktat. 

I bear some blame.  In 1994, I published a Democratic Audit reportEGO TRIP, which for the first time published a full account of the size and diversity of the quango state and an estimate of its cost. The report provoked a media frenzy which lasted for nearly a decade and even now the Sunday Times phones for news of quangos just in case.  Quangos became fair game.  However, our report did not suggest that quangos were intrinsically bad creatures because they are not. Our goals were to:

1. Reveal the host of new local and sub-regional quangos that Mrs Thatcher's governments were creating to remove significant public services from elected local authorities to unelected and more biddable appointed bodies; 

2. Demonstrate the secretiveness and near total absence of accountability, both to the public and government, for the great majority of quangos, even to the extent that many of them had no reporting duties and were free from public audit; 

3. Show how exclusive the membership of their boards was, both in terms of class and geography, and how biased the appointments process was; and additionally to identify a handful of quangocrats who sat on more than one board and indeed had more responsibilities than they had time to discharge; 

4. Propose a series of measures of accountability for all quangos, including where appropriate, the introduction of elections to their boards. 

Well, Mrs Thatcher's local bodies have survived. But thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and detailed work by Cabinet Office, the Committee for Standards in Public Life (itself a quango) and the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) - using Democratic Audit's accountability framework - most quangos are now far more open and accountable and make genuine efforts to consult and inform the public. The appointments process has been reformed (though abuses remain). 

One constant worry has been how easy it is to establish new quangos and one reform on the stocks will open up scrutiny of proposals for new quangos to PASC.  But there is no provision for scrutiny of decisions to abolish quangos - and so the government and Conservative ministers have been able to abolish significant and valuable bodies for ideological and personal reasons as well as on stated policy grounds.  One motive has been to remove regulation on behalf of business interests; another to take policy making back into the depths of central government where key decisions about the quality of people's lives can be removed from the public debate which reformed quangos actively encourage. In this sense quangos are instruments of an informed and participatory "big society" - but in areas where ministers want to take control in the centre.

About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.


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