Friday 24 September 2010

Culling quangos

It is a strange notion that because an organisation is a quango, it is inherently worse than something run by the civil service. Yet that seems to be the sole rationale for Francis Maude's zealous cull of these arm's length bodies. Reading through the list leaked to the Daily Telegraph, an organ guaranteed to back Maude over timid ministers, one is struck not by the absurdity of many of the bodies to be axed, but by their obvious usefulness.

Baroness Deech provided an elegant defence of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority on the Today programme this morning, quietly correcting a sneering John Humphrys over her remuneration for chairing this august body: a modest £8,000 a year (and many other chairs are unremunerated despite bringing huge experience and expertise to the subject that most certainly does not exist in the Civil Service). The HFEA has allowed an honest independent scientific and ethical analysis of some of the thorniest dilemmas of recent years, far more usefully than had it been left to the civil service or ministers.

But look beyond the HFEA to the School Food Trust, under Prue Leith's leadership transforming school dinners or the Audit Commission, offering independent assessments of council standards. The National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts - which is largely funded through a ten year-old endowment rather than recurring government funding - has a global reputation for its championing of innovation, something key to our economic recovery. Some quangos certainly may usefully be merged, scrapped or their functions absorbed by others: but if that is so, then we must hope that the final list is rather more explicit about what is really happening than the gung-ho tone of Maude's letter to Nick Clegg on the subject, also published in today's Telegraph.

For example, the Legal Services Commission may be unloved, but someone will need to administer Legal Aid, and the functions of the General Teaching Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency will both be absorbed into the Department for Education or other agencies, as they will have to continue.

When the government - so committed to transparency and value for money - publishes its final list of axed quangos, perhaps it could provide the following information for each quango
* What it did and why
* What it actually cost and what remuneration was paid to its board, if any
* What functions, if any, will tranfer elsewhere
* The genuine net cost or saving from abolition of each quango, after redundancy and the cost of delivering services elsewhere
* An independent analysis of the net wider economic, social, cultural or other costs of abolishing the quango

Simply because the generic abolition of quangos appeals both to right-wing newspapers and to civil servants (who always disliked them) does not make each individual case right. But perhaps we will have to wait until their absence is lamented to realise that.

This posting also appears on the Public Finance blog and has been picked up at Stumbling and Mumbling.

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