Quangos have a bad reputation, something which I think is due, to a large extent, on the name, which sounds woolly and bureaucratic before anyone actually considers what they do. I don’t want to launch into a full-scale defence of quangos – I don’t know enough about them individually to comment. This is the inherent problem here. One quango runs British Waterways, the network of canals across the country, while another monitors the use of legal aid. To bundle them together is utterly meaningless.
My concern about the report today which abolishes a large number of quangos is that the government has failed to properly make the distinction either. The argument used by Francis Maude for the scrapping of 192 quangos is that they are not properly accountable.
The problem with this “accountability” line is that it is essentially nonsense. If a quango’s functions are rolled into a ministerial department, how does that make it more accountable to individuals? Are the people who live in that minister’s constituency going to say “Well, the work done by the Renewable Fuels Agency, under his department, hasn’t been up to much, I think I’ll vote Green”. We certainly can’t get a situation where the heads of these bodies are directly elected, since most functions of quangos are essentially non-political.
I am actually all in favour of expert bodies, outside government, being responsible for specific areas of activity where appropriate. As long as the work is important, I’d much rather it was done by people who know what they are doing than being notionally “accountable”.
Scrap useless bodies of course, but bringing things under ministerial control and basing this review on “accountability” is ridiculous. Michael Gove can’t get a list of schools right, why on earth would we want additional important responsibilities falling to him?
I think the accountability approach is most likely a cover for more ideological cuts to services which people already think are wasteful, despite not really understanding what they are. It’s an easy target and like most easy targets, there are usually much more difficult consequences not far behind.