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Standing up for for the role of quangos

It is a very odd fact that somehow abolishing quangos is regarded per se as a good and even democratic action. But the leaked infomation that some 180 quangos are to be axed, and 124 merged does put in question the motives and good sense of ministers.

It is a very odd fact that somehow abolishing quangos is regarded per se as a good and even democratic action. But the leaked infomation that some 180 quangos are to be axed, and 124 merged does put in question the motives and good sense of ministers. Clearly many of them will be advisory quangos and until we know which are to go, it is hard to judge the process on both counts. Advisory quangos do not cost very much so some other motives must be at work - possibly only simply the wish to demonstrate symbolically that the government is "reforming the quango state".

It may also be that Eric Pickles is settling some old scores, as he has done in abolishing the Audit Commission, a body that made sensible contributions to local government, but also got up Pickles's nose.

There is also the fact that many quangos perform tasks that it is entirely inappropriate for government to take to itself. The work that Ofcom does for example needs to be independent of government, especially given the symbiotic relationship between politics and the media. Its decisions are also "out there" in the open, not made in the obscurity of a government department, and so are open to public debate. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which is to be demolished, very ably and openly conducted pubic debates on sensitive moral and emotional issues. Then there are quangos, like the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and health and safety quangos, which can call governments, businesses and public bodies like the police to account.

Government can also of course sabotage the work of inconvenient quangos. The leaked information suggests that Ofcom, a regulatory body which the Conservatives distrust and dislike and perhaps, more to the point, that young Master Murdoch loathes, is to be shoved into an inappropriate merger. The Food Standards Authority, which performs a vital function in safeguarding the health of the population, is apparently to be given a revised brief. Let us hope that it is not to go easy on food manufacturers.

Ministers can also greatly reduce the budgets of awkward quangos so as to cut their wings. It seems that the EHRC faces swingeing cuts which Trevor Phillips is ready not only to accept but to anticipate - which could for example bring about the body's enforcement activities - a central part of its work - and greatly reduce advice giving by local groups.  If the Big Society is actually a genuine project, then local centres providing human rights advice would seem to be an essential ingredient.

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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