Monday, July 06, 2009

Taken For A Ride In Quangoland

Taxpayers are being taken for a ride in quangoland. Now the Tories are hoping to sweep some away with another "bonfire of the quangos". But it'll be a tough job lighting the bonfire when the tentacles have spread everywhere.

In quangoland, the unelected and unaccountable face of New Labour touches everyone's lives with a worthless, useless and wasteful quango or three.

Cameron is promising to cut back the powers of unelected quangos to save cash and increase accountability as he tries to get to grips with post-election public spending. But a roaring bonfire is unlikely. More likely a few will be picked off to stoke up the public spending cuts fire.

He would not be the first opposition leader to call for a "bonfire of the quangos". Way back in 1995, bushy-tailed Brown, as shadow chancellor, famously promised a "bonfire of quangos", until that incoming government realised what a useful tool they were to mask public spending, hand out jobs for their pals, pass the buck and squander billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash.

The Tories won't fall into the trap of empty promises but sacking or reducing the numbers of quangos is a small step. Cost and accountability are equally important. Every little helps. But it's not just the size and cost of these nightmares to New Labour. At the heart is the issue of democracy, where the unaccountable are run by the unelected chosen ones.

Who's in charge in quangoland? Elected ministers hide behind unelected, unaccountable quangos knowing full well this arms length approach gets them off the hook. Stuffed with New Labour cronies at the top, ministers usually have an easy ride while the quango rides rough shod over people, passing the buck instead of sorting out problems.

Nowhere is this more shamefully and starkly evident than with schools secretary, Ed Balls, hiding behind faceless bureaucracy over the SATs fiasco and Baby P scandal.

In biology that would be called a symbiotic relationship. In a democracy it is called a disgrace leading to widespread cynicism and anger about the state of our public affairs.

Everyone's been quangoed. Officially there are a staggering 790 quangos in England and Wales squandering £34 billion. But that's just the tip of a masssive quangoberg. Where is the public scrutiny?

Hiding behind the organisation’s strange acronym, any kind of questioning is treated as meddlesome intrusion. People are fed up of being bossed around and patronised by arrogant and pompous jobsworths, not least by people with questionable levels of competence and changing goal posts.

Equally galling is the cosy relationships between the quangos and the big-name consultants and the way money is splashed around on life's little lavish lunches and luxuries.

The solution is simple. Cut out the expensive quangos and delegate responsibility straight back to local authorities, which are democratically accountable and tightly audited, overseen by a now sidelined civil service.

But adding 1,000 jobs to the civil service is not a "good thing". An increase in 1,000 quangocratic jobs goes at worst unnoticed and at best applauded.

Quangoland is a cure all for all the government's ills. Whatever the problem, if in doubt set up another quango. Inevitably the problem gets worse. But with a quango, a minister can show action with yet another body with a strange-sounding name and costly logo.

Keeping tabs on the rise of the quangos and getting to grips with the sheer numbers is no mean feat. A dirty job but someone had to do it as the government continues to stoke the quango fires.

Back in 2005, Dan Lewis from the Economic Research Council made a start with his Essential Guide to British Quangos.

Quango duplication is common. In 2005 Lewis estimated there were 529 "useless" quangos that either did very little or duplicated each other. That's on top of quangos that are working is direct opposition to each other in the crazy world of quangos.

But the main problem with quangos is not that they waste money but that they suppress democracy. The quango has developed into a tool to support the ruling political class where time and again the top jobs with obscene salaries and pension perks are handed out to government cronies knowing they'll toe the line.

At last there are signs of a proper debate on quangos, highlighting those that come up to scratch and those that do not. And if some do get the boot, all the quango-bashing will have been worth it.

Not to be outdone by the Tories, chief secretary to the treasury, Liam Byrne, reckons the government would review quangos to try to "make sure every penny of public money goes to frontline services". At a stroke that totally misses the point.

Quangos are an expensive and cumbersome extra layer of bureaucracy. What is needed is a less centralising and shadowy government that has more faith in local democracy and governance.

The government will do nothing to solve the problem, because at its heart New Labour prefers to rule by cronies, rather than democracy.

However, with Sir Alan Sugar set to climb aboard Brown's sinking ship, ministers could take Siralan’s lead. Time to say to some of the quangocrats, “You’re fired”.

Top graphic: Taxpayers' Alliance

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