We are more than three years into a Conservative-led coalition government. Why, then, did this weekend bring the depressing sight of an apparatchik appointed by Ed Balls promoting the criminalisation of smacking, completely at odds with the Tory principles of personal and family responsibility?
The intervention of Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, is a blast from a bossy, interventionist past that we would rather leave behind. And yet here she is, six-figure salary in pocket, quango platform beneath her feet, delivering a slice of retro leftism like a political tribute band.
(She did tell The Independent that the ban is not her campaigning priority, but that begs the question of why we have a taxpayer-funded official running “campaigns” at all.)
Depressingly, this is a sign that there are large parts of public sector reform that remain incomplete. The “Bonfire of the Quangos” has seen cuts to the overall number, and some welcome savings, but much of the unaccountable empire – funded by taxpayers but outside their control – has weathered austerity and radical rhetoric quite securely.
The fact is that the personnel of these bodies matters, not just the roster of how many quangos there are and what they do.
Maggie Atkinson is such a Labour stooge that the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee rejected her appointment as they feared she would be too obedient to Ed Balls, then Secretary of State. He over-ruled them, trampling on the first attempt by a Committee to use their new powers to hold quangos and ministers to account.
That was bad enough, but it’s all the more frustrating that she is still there – three years after Balls was sent packing and his department was renamed to the more sensible title of “Education”.
Nor is Atkinson alone. Last year it was discovered that 77 per cent of quangocrats were Labour Party people.
This isn’t a healthy thing for Conservatism, or for the Government’s policy agenda.
No-one is suggesting adopting Blair and Brown’s jobs-for-the-boys approach, but the problem of unaccountable bodies exerting power and spending taxpayers’ money is only made worse when the people running them are politically at odds with the elected representatives of the people.
The result is that reform is slowed or blocked – while the left maintains continuity of policy in bodies its people run. We have argued before that this Government stands the best chance of success – and re-election – if it governs as though it only has one term to make fundamental change, and make it stick. That effort is harmed by the continued survival of a left wing establishment in the quangos.
Of course, the best way to deal with the problem is to strengthen the principle that public servants serve everyone best when they are answerable to voters. Francis Maude’s bonfire should continue apace, and the people should regain control of what is done in their name and with their cash.
But in the meantime, the Conservative Party should adopt a New Year’s resolution to reform the quangos which remain: scrutinise the quangocrats to see if they serve the people or their own ideology; correct bias where it exists; and end in 2014 the process which began in 2010 – removing Labour from power, as the people wanted.