The Conservative party are not meant to like quangos. These bodies are unelected, expensive, unpopular and quite difficult to hold to account. However, they are also politically useful. Politicians unwilling to openly confront difficult issues or be associated with unpopular decisions can create the illusion of progress by creating a new quango. This is why they have proliferated. It is also why they will endure whoever wins the next general election.
The Conservatives have pledged a bonfire of the quangos. These entities employ over 111,000 people in Britain. There are between 700 and 1100 of them and they spend between £34 billion and £60 billion per annum (depending on your definition of what a quango is). Perhaps for this reason the Conservatives list of quangos to be abolished is a work in progress. Few politicians want to inform voters that a vote for their party is a vote for your job to be cut. In contrast, the Conservatives have pledged to create numerous new quangos on entering office (seventeen at the last count). How then can these two states of affairs be rectified? How can we have a bonfire of quangos and create multiple new ones?
It would be foolish to say that all quangos should be abolished. There are some areas where quangos could provide real value e.g. the production of independent national crime data and independent national budget data would prove useful. Furthermore, some of the weaknesses of quangos are shared by some of their likely replacements e.g. independent enquiries are frequently neither independent nor do they usually have a sufficiently wide remit to conduct much of an inquiry. However, it is disheartening that the Conservatives have not made a more clear commitment to eliminate clear cases of waste e.g. the Regional Development Agencies (RDA’s).
The political benefits of quangos can be seductive to some politicians. They can kick difficult issues into touch and allow allow our people independent experts to obscure to conduct a thorough wide ranging review of issues where our opinion is unpopular or where we have not decided our approach yet complex issues. They can remove the debate ‘politics’ from unpopular contentious decisions. This makes the decisions not out fault neutral and considered. They are a good way of rewarding utilising the skills of loyal party members. Used correctly they can ensure that party opponents have the opportunity to be diverted from criticising the Government serve the public interest in a productive way rather than being principled concentrating on the national interest narrow sectional interests. They are essential if the left wing agenda public policy is to be implemented expensively effectively without consulting the people people ‘playing politics.’
However, there are genuine costs to maintaining the quango state. The majority of these organisations are institutionally left wing. Their answer to problems is to spend more taxpayers’ money and create more frameworks/rules/regulations and guidelines. Quangos act as taxpayer funded lobby group for the expansion of Government. Without this expansion many of them could not justify their existence. If we are genuinely to reduce the budget deficit we need to fulfil quangos functions through other organisations. I believe a Conservative Manifesto for the post bureaucratic age should include the wholesale transfer of budgets and responsibilities from unelected quangos to the existing elected local councils.
- A review of all quango functions should be instigated: Central Government should list all of them and then list all their functions in a publicly accessible way e.g. a website.
- All unnecessary quangos should be abolished: Central Government should assess whether each of the functions they fulfil is necessary/justifies the expenditure on enforcement. Once a new list of essential functions is compiled all quangos fulfilling defunct functions should be immediately culled.
- Relevant quango responsibilities and budgets should be passed to local democratic control: All the quangos which remain and have functions relevant to local government should have their powers devolved to the local authorities.
- Local Authorities should be given the maximum flexibility possible to decide if they wish to fulfil these new functions or pass the savings back to local taxpayers.
The Conservative party must direct and control this process of de-quangoisation. The employees of these bodies are adept at defending their corner e.g. the Audit Commissions lobbying of the Conservative party. If quangos are assigned the task of identifying possible spending cuts they will identify the savings that will cause the maximum amount of political damage to our party.
We need to take a year zero approach to quangos. Each of them needs to justify their existence and expenditure. Asking them to shave twenty per cent off their costs will not be enough. We need a fundamental review of all the quangos in the first year of a new Conservative Government. Quangos should only exist if ordinary citizens, local councils or Government Departments are incapable of fulfilling a particular function. Difficult decisions need to be made and we elect our politicians to make them. They should defend their chosen path rather than pass the buck to unaccountable bureaucrats.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.