Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State - Public Administration Committee Contents


Written evidence from Tom Burkard, Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies

    — In principle, NDPBs are wrong: no unelected body should have the rights to spend public monies, impose levies, make regulations which have the force of law, and use the courts to fine or imprison people who fail to conform.

    — One of the principle reasons for the creation of NDPBs is to enable ministers to implement policies for which the Civil Service has little enthusiasm.

    — However, NDPBs soon develop according to their own internal logic: most of the educational initiatives we have studied have involved `integrated delivery' between a number of bodies.

    — In recent years, some civil servants have blatantly usurped ministers' functions by briefing against policy proposals. Any attempt to reduce the role of NDPBs which does not take the above factors into consideration will prove futile. We believe that Commons Select Committees should play a greater role in advising ministers: by broadening the base of political support for policies, civil servants would find it more difficult to act unconstitutionally.

    — The remit of the PASC should be extended to oversee detailed reports on individual quangos submitted by the relevant Commons Select Committee.

1.   In principle, NDPBs are wrong: no unelected body should have the rights to spend public monies, impose levies, make regulations which have the force of law, and use the courts to fine or imprison people who fail to conform

  From this principled position, we do not argue that all quangos should be abolished with all possible dispatch. Those which are merely advisory, and those which have negligible access to taxpayers' monies, may in fact be worth saving. Nor should principle ever be pursued blindly when the consequences would be demonstrably disastrous. It will clearly take a lot of time to wind down NDPBs, and this needs to be done in a considered manner that does not entail needless expense, curtailment of essential public services, or adverse political consequences.

  However, we do believe that there should be an automatic presumption that government business—especially when it involves the exercise of the above-stated functions—should always be conducted under the direct control of ministers. The coalition's first two criteria for disbanding NDPBs do not make sense: there is no reason why ministers and their officials cannot deal directly with persons who have the ability to perform "precise technical operation[s]". They do not need a highly-paid quangocrat to do it for them. Secondly, any time the Government gives my money to someone else, it is a political act, plain and simple. This feeling is widely shared; hence the overwhelming public sentiment against quangos.

2.   One of the principle reasons for the creation of NDPBs is to enable ministers to implement policies for which the Civil Service has little enthusiasm

  When the TTA was formed in 1994, ministers hoped to circumvent civil servants in the DES who had blunted the effects of Kenneth Baker's reforms. Following the publication of Reading Fever: Why Phonics Must Come First—a 1996 Centre for Policy Studies publication written by Martin Turner and myself—the TTA called us in for consultations on the curriculum they were drafting for initial teacher training courses. Our suggestions, which were quite radical (they were finally accepted in 2005) were duly incorporated. However, after the 1997 general election, the new curriculum was hastily dropped, and the TTA would not even reply to my e-mails. This demonstrates how quickly quangos will revert to consensual positions, and how resistant they are to ministerial innovations.

3.   However, NDPBs soon develop according to their own internal logic: most of the educational initiatives we have studied have involved `integrated delivery' between a number of bodies

  Once the initial purpose of a quango has either been achieved or forgotten, those involved will quickly find ways to insinuate the new quango into any government initiative which is remotely concerned with their original brief. In our review of the Children's Plan, we found one initiative—the Family Intervention Project—which involved both the Home Office and the DCSF, 11 quangos, and countless charities and agencies in 150 local authorities. The principle of "integrated delivery" ensures that responsibility is diluted to the point of invisibility. And indeed, the confusion extends to those who staff our quangos: our investigations were seriously hampered by the difficulty we had in finding anyone who even knew that their quango had a role in a given initiative—let alone what the role was. Government business is already quite complex enough without having such duplicated effort and muddied lines of communication.

4.   In recent years, some civil servants have blatantly usurped ministers' functions by briefing against policy proposals. Any attempt to reduce the role of NDPBs which does not take this—and the above factors—into consideration will prove futile. We believe that Commons Select Committees should play a greater role in advising ministers: by broadening the base of political support for policies, civil servants would find it more difficult to act unconstitutionally

  Under these circumstances, it is understandable that ministers have the urge to create new quangos to execute their policies. We believe that the only way this kind of obstructionism can be overcome is to strengthen our representative bodies to ensure that they more accurately reflect both informed opinion and the will of the electorate.

  In the first instance, we need to think more about limiting the role of government—the present level of control and regulation has clearly gone far beyond what is fit and proper in a free society composed of responsible citizens. Whenever possible, the functions it can and must perform should be devolved to local authorities, which in turn need to be something more than an administrative arm of central government.

  The most important reform would be to grant Commons Select Committees a stronger constitutional role in advising ministers and shaping policy. They have the ability to act reflectively, without the pressures of daily government business. They can admit inconvenient truths, whereas ministers must be guarded lest they offend any more people than is absolutely necessary. Select Committees have the ability to call on a wide range of expertise and opinion, which lends authority to their recommendations.

  We believe that such a move would help restore the prestige and the authority of Parliament. Francis Maude has made an important step in this direction by his remit to the PASC.

5.   The remit of the PASC should be extended to oversee detailed reports on individual quangos submitted by the relevant Commons Select Committee

  The Civil Service is not the appropriate body to advise ministers on the abolition of NDPBs, because they have an interest. We believe that Commons Select Committees should assume this role for quangos which are relevant to their brief, and that this should be done under the overall direction of the PASC, with each Committee entitled to request such documentary and oral evidence from both the relevant NDPB and the department as it may require.

November 2010





 
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