Mark Wallace of The TaxPayers' Alliance takes heart from the increasing number of quangocrats who are attacking each other in order to justify their own existence. You can join the TaxPayers' Alliance for free here.
When David Cameron committed to cut back the size of the quango state, there were doubts among many political commentators that he meant it. That’s understandable, given the fact that Thatcher, Blair and Brown all promised similar initiatives that they subsequently failed to deliver when in office. Quangos themselves, though, seem to be taking his pledge extremely seriously.
There was encouraging news this week that the quangos have started to fight amongst themselves. Of course, empire building by quangocrats is nothing new – to a large extent it has been the major driver of the growth in the unaccountable parts of government. The flavour of this fighting is different, however.
If you ever have the misfortune to meet some of the nation’s most senior quangocrats – the Chief Executives and Chairman of larger quangos in particular – you will find that by and large they are a pretty oleaginous bunch. Sycophancy and Sir Humphrey-style wheeling and dealing are key skills in such a job, and thus normally whilst they may loathe each other they keep it behind closed doors. They generally prefer to undermine and accrue power to themselves through charm offensives and cosy Whitehall meetings.
That is why it is remarkable to see their knives glinting in the daylight. In the most recent case, Steve Broomhead, the Chief Executive of the North West Development Agency, has openly tried to hijack the new Skills Funding Agency, which replaces the disastrous Learning and Skills Council.
This is a big change of tone. Last summer, when I and some TPA colleagues met Steve Broomhead to discuss the findings of our damning report into the failure of the Regional Development Agencies, he was more than happy to put the boot in to the Learning and Skills Council in an attempt to escape our fire. That was in private, though – that he is now openly attacking other quangos in an attempt to gain control of their power and budgets is a remarkable shift.
That the quangos are now fighting openly amongst each other is not a sign that they feel confident in their ability to influence the public debate, it is a sign that they are becoming increasingly desperate to secure their own futures. Growing public anger at the bloated quango sector, new revelations in TPA and other research about the largesse and indulgence going on in their costly offices and most recently David Cameron’s pledge have really put the wind up them.
This latest flare-up is part of a growing trend. Last autumn, hot on the heels of the TPA’s report recommending their abolition, Gordon Brown trimmed £300 million of the budgets of the Regional Development Agencies (to spend elsewhere, naturally, rather than deliver the cut in small business tax that we advised). Immediately, the RDAs went on a major lobbying offensive – including spending £285,000 at the three party conferences alone.
With Alistair Darling’s announcement in the Budget of unprecedented levels of public borrowing, the media spotlight has begun to fall more and more on quangos as a good area to wield the axe. Even the Mirror recently ran a week long series investigating different aspects of the quango state which are wasteful, inefficient and indulgent.
On the day that David Cameron made his speech, I was invited to debate his quango proposals on Newsnight against Chris Humphries of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Amazingly, his pitch was not that quangos are useful but that many are pointless and should be abolished – though his was of course an exception. Paxman put him on the spot and he was happy to recommend the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority for the chopping block.
This is excellent news, both for taxpayers and for Cameron. The fact that the quangos are choosing to fight each other for survival rather than reject the criticisms of them indicates that they are feeling vulnerable. They cannot refute the facts that have been exposed about their wasteful inefficiency because they are accurate. They know that the public agree that quangos can and should be cut. Best of all for democracy, the in-fighting suggests that they believe this pledge of abolitions, mergers and cutbacks amongst quangos is entirely feasible. Their terror at the sound of the axe being sharpened should spur Cameron on.