David Cameron has been vying with the government in the battle to be nastiest to quangos. Embarrassingly for the Conservative leader, Labour has shown that his plans would involve another 17 quangos, including an independent board to run the NHS – removing ministerial accountability from one of the most sensitive public services.
Beneath the rhetoric, there is some sense to the Cameron justification for a quango’s existence, that it should offer technical advice, impartial decisions and transparency. And there are undoubtedly too many quangos, not least in areas such as regional policy and skills.
But, why then did Cameron pick on the curriculum authority and Ofcom as his two shibboleths? TheQualifications, Curriculum and Development Agency, currently the QCA but due to transfer its regulatory arm to Ofqual, will be responsible for the
national curriculum, qualifications and national tests. All these are areas where it is unwise for politicians to take decisions, although, of course, ministers should be consulted on important changes. They all involve technical advice, impartial decisions and transparency. What this implies is a much more hands-on (dare one say it, centralist) role for government under a future Tory administration.
Similarly, it makes sense for communications regulator Ofcom to be at arm’s length from ministers, given the sensitivity of decisions about the BBC. It is simply daft to suggest that such an organisation should not have a small research and policy arm – and it is a lot better at it than most departmental research units.
Of course, ministers should make decisions and be accountable for them. And the lines of accountability for quangos could be better drawn. But the truth is that once Cameron really tries to wield his axe, he’ll find it is a lot harder – and less palatable – than it looks.
Do also read Will Straw's analysis showing how Cameron can't make the promised savings from axing quangos, at Labourlist.
Tuesday, 7 July 2009
Spare us the Quango-bashing
I've posted at the Public Finance blog on David Cameron's plans to cut quangos, where I question the main examples chosen by Cameron.