Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance rejoices the Scottish Parliament has backed spending transparency – but despairs that on Quango bonuses the Parliament is a cow'rin tim'rous beastie.
Events in the Scottish Parliament in the last few days have thrown some interesting light on the political battles that are to come – for local and national government. Whilst anyone listening to the political rhetoric in Westminster might assume that all the parties are broadly in agreement on the urgent need to extend transparency and rein in public sector excess, events in Holyrood suggest things are nowhere near as certain.
The Public Services Reform Bill has been before the Parliament, and so far the votes have been quite a mixed bag.
First, some good news. Conservative MSPs put forward a plan for Google Government, meaning that many Scottish public bodies would publish online all spending over £25,000. This is a carbon copy of the national Conservative policy and encouragingly it was voted through – a major development for openness and taxpayers’ right to know.
Also encouraging was the announcement that several quangos are to be merged, which will save a decent amount through the elimination of duplicated back office functions. (As a comparator, Wednesday’s Westminster Budget announced plans to save £500m by merging over 100 quangos into others).
Unfortunately, it was on quango bonuses that progress foundered.
There have been a number of scandals in the last couple of years over massive and inappropriate bonuses being handed out in Scottish quangos. Probably the most notorious example was a hefty batch of bonuses handed out to the senior management of Scottish Enterprise despite the body making a loss the dire state of the employment market.
As a result of both this and the dire fiscal situation in general, the Lib Dems proposed a motion to forbid quango bonuses from being paid out in the next couple of years. It wasn’t a perfect plan, since the remit of the proposal was relatively limited in terms of the bodies it covered. Nor did its proposition make the Lib Dems flawless heroes, given that their old coalition administration in Scotland actually approved a number of excessive quango payments.
However, this was a clear money-saving measure. Furthermore, it was the first time the Scottish Parliament had tried to assert its democratic authority over the largely unaccountable army of quangos.
Disappointingly, the measure failed to pass. Labour abstained, unhelpfully sitting on the fence. Worse, the SNP and Conservative MSPs united to vote it down.
Their justification was fear of the possibility of senior quango staff suing the Executive for their banned bonuses. This is a timorous excuse, which disregards the legal and moral authority held by elected representatives of the people. More worryingly, it is a sign of unwillingness among politicians to stand up for what is right.
The fiscal current situation is dreadful. Whether in quangos or other parts of the public sector, pay will need to be cut in many cases, unaffordable perks must be scrapped, bonuses must be restricted to the truly excellent and many employees are going to be angry. There will undoubtedly be hard lobbying to put off the necessary measures, and threats of legal action from individuals and unions, and politicians must be prepared to face down that pressure.
If Scotland’s legislators are anything to judge by, we have a long way to go before we can be sure that the political class are willing to fight the tough battles that are essential to protect taxpayers.