Monday, 6 July 2009

End of the Quangos

Quangos need looking at. So says David Cameron, whom, we must assume, is blissfully unaware that Maggie promised the same, and so did Blair.

New Labour's beef was the supposed anti-democratic tendencies of the quango state, and its solution was devolution. By accident or design, this is what happened, at least in Wales, where the Assembly government brought functions such as tourism and arts in house. Something similar may have happened in England, but the voters decided that they didn't want regional government.

Cameron echoes Labour's democratic argument, saying that too many quangos are responsible for making policy. He has a point, but it only goes so far. Civil servants are, in many cases, the very worst people to be solely advising on policy. The cult of the generalist, and the relatively closed world of Whitehall sees to that.

In any case, civil servants and politicians will often need to call on expert advice, and often you want that to be arms' length from the state. So I can see a case for retaining NICE, or even the Advisory Council on Historic Shipwrecks

It's interesting that the Tories have begun to attack quangos. The previous tactic of alleging public spending was not delivering service improvement has been shelved - too vulnerable to Labour charges that the Tories will cuts schools and hospitals. But they still want to reduce the tax burden and attack the government. Quangos is the key to this.

It is fraught with difficulty. Maybe not politically and in the short term. The argument resonates with the public, and that is perhaps why right wing commentators are linking quango CEOs pay and benefits with the MPs' expenses row.

But will it deliver the savings the Tories seek? Unlikely. The Tories will find they need independent advice, and that function will remain.

As for executive and regulatory agencies, the question is not whether these functions are best done by a quango or directly by local or central government. If the Tories want to see savings then the question is whether the function needs to be done at all. Hiding behind the quango issue is the decision over whether or not particular services and functions should be cut.

The quango debate is, to an extent valid. Are certain functions of the state best undertaken directly or at arms' length? That is a question about efficiency and effectiveness, and sometimes democracy too.

For all Cameron says, this is not what the Tories are about. Unable to press home the attack on public spending in the manner of their choosing, they are doing so obliquely with an assault on the quango state. Politically, this is likely to be highly successful. In reality, though, the next Tory government will get nowhere the public sector savings it dreams off through shutting some quangos. Indeed, the bleating about "efficiency savings" across government has already begun.

However it is dressed up, cuts are coming.


Andrew Brown said...

I'm not sure that Cameron has any significant plans for quangos, rather he's just trying out the mood music.

As you say this sort of thing chimes with a certain audience, but once you get past the headline I don't see any substantial promises.

In face reading Nick Robinson's blog you'll see that the 'bonfire of the quangos' line didn't even make it to the point where the speech had been made.

Andrew Brown said...

Sorry that should have been "In fact" in the third paragraph.

William Canynge said...

Indeed, but he knows what he's implying, even if he knows he can't do it. That wasn't innuendo.