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Culling the quangos

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Asking councillors to choose which are their least-favourite quangos comes perilously close to letting people choose their own Christmas presents. Or, to be more precise, to allowing friends and relatives choose which gifts they do not want to receive.

The results of LGC’s research suggest regional development agencies, and the Infrastructure Planning Commission are the Christmas present equivalent of reindeer-embossed socks that play ‘Jingle Bells’.

Also unloved, like odd-tasting turkey leftovers in the first week of January, are Partnerships UK and the Homes & Communities Agency.

Ministers favour quangos because they offer direct Whitehall influence, yet with sufficient ‘arms length’ distance to get ministers off the hook when things go wrong.

Remember all those escaped prisoners and dirty hospitals? The secretary of state was responsible for overall policy, but was able to off-load the blame for failures onto a bureaucrat.

In addition, quangos offer the possibility of patronage. Many government supporters are, however coincidentally, appointed to such bodies.

Constitutional experts and council members have become very suspicious of the growth in the number and scope of appointed bodies.

There has long been an acceptance that organisations such as the BBC or the Arts Council can most appropriately be run by independent appointed members at arms-length from the government. Functions such as university funding and the regulation of utilities can also, reasonably, be put in the hands of quango-appointees.

But the quangoisation of further education, the NHS, skills training, the regional economy and the delivery of public sector capital projects goes well beyond the necessary limits of what nationally-appointed bodies should do. There has been a particularly exotic flowering of regional quangos in recent years.

The time of reckoning, like the festive season, is almost upon us

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

It is hardly surprising that councils feel their territory has been invaded when, for example, planning powers are handed to RDAs, mini arts councils or a national planning commission.

Both the Conservatives and Labour are now committed to a cull of quangos. Many appointed bodies will already know their number is up.

During the years of plenty it was easy enough for ministers to respond to a tabloid-induced scandal by the creation of a new public body. Regulators and safety quangos have proliferated as a response to the ‘what are you doing about x?’ question, where ‘x’ could be anything from patient safety to the behaviour of adults towards children.

The Audit Commission still has strong support. Even battered OFSTED is more popular than many appointed bodies.

The time of reckoning, like the festive season, is almost upon us.

Local authorities, like children allowed to choose their own Christmas presents, can (as they have via LGC) say what they like and what they do not like. By this time next year, more than a hundred quangos will be no more. Mr Scrooge – at least at the start of the story – would have been delighted.

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics                                                                

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