How the Conservatives Learned to Love the Quango

joseph jones

New Labour was often accused of creating a “Quangocracy” (as in quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation). Want to put up some bunting? Better be trained in step-ladder safety.

How about hiring new staff? Oh dear, that’ll cost you in pens and paper. Whether this red-tape, anti-common-sense, image was perpetuated by the media or based in fact, it was not a great surprise when David Cameron promised a “bonfire of the Quangos”.

The Prime Minister argued that Quangos were costing £64bn a year at a time of recession and that they are unelected and unaccountable, yet to the public are just as much an instrument of government as the Treasury. Furthermore, it was posited that they fragment the delivery of services, the people who head them up are paid handsomely – sometimes more than the Prime Minister (that great benchmark of civil service pay) and they stray into territory that often seems easy to cut – the UK Film Council is perhaps the most prominent martyr.

Initially the Coalition Government did cut. 192 of 901 public bodies reviewed were chopped and 118 were due to be merged. However, as they realised that pension contributions and redundancy packets would mean that cutting cost money, the focus changed to providing accountability rather than savings. At the same time the Conservatives were implementing policy and creating Quangos in the process. According to Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Jon Trickett, the government’s health reform creates “the greatest Quango in the sky”. After all, how do you ensure that budgets are responsible without creating an Office for it?

The slowdown in cuts to Quangos was due to more than just accelerating expenses and inadvertent bureaucracy. The government started to spare the axe. Many Quangos due to be merged were not (Sport England and Sport UK remain separate), others, such as the Forestry Commission, were saved through public opposition. However, perhaps the final nail in the coffin was when The Public Bodies Bill, which would have let ministers cut Quangos without requiring legislative consent, floundered in the Lords and was eventually abandoned.

One explanation of why the government took its foot off the pedal is that its ideology changed. The “arms length” nature of Quangos can provide an easy solution for difficult or contentious problems. David Cameron is in the process of handing over the decision on Heathrow’s third runway to a commission, the freedom of the press will likely be protected by commission and Education Secretary, Michael Gove, stated in the Commons last week that Ministers getting involved in “Qfqual’s decisions would be meddling where they should not interfere”. That is quite a change from allowing Ministers to cut Quangos with relative impunity.

I make no judgement as to Quango’s effectiveness (though I suspect it requires a case by case analysis); however, it is interesting to note that the trajectory this government has taken is nothing new. In opposition Tony Blair promised to leave “The Quango-state in history’s dustbin where it belongs” yet ended up creating far more than he cut. Margaret Thatcher’s cull was more severe but her review stated that “The PM is aware that there are many Quangos which cost very little indeed and which keep particular interest groups happy”. True to her word many Quangos, such as the Women’s National Commission, were saved.

The question remains whether the tendency to soften policy on Quangos is due to politicians realising how necessary they are, or realising how easy it is to govern at an arm’s length. The message to new arrivals in the corridors of power keen on tackling the Quango appears to be; cut now, but you’ll build later.

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