The quango cull that David Cameron promised before the election had two purposes. The first, and most important given the parlous state of the public finances, was to save money. As Christopher Hope has pointed out in The Telegraph, leaked reports to a Sunday newspaper in July suggested that the bonfire could save as much as £500million.
It now looks like these saving now won’t appear. Liabilities from pensions, redundancies and rental contracts could outweigh any of the savings for years. It’s a significant embarrassment for the government. As David Clark has argued, no council would dream of announcing detailed savings plans without substantial work having been undertaken to establish the real costs of the cuts.
In response, Francis Maude has shifted the argument. He’s said it’s not about saving money, but about reducing bureaucracy. In some departments, there’s a strong argument to say that the government has delivered. In CLG, in particular, Eric Pickles has emerged dripping in red ink after slaying some surprisingly big beasts, not least the Audit Commission which has friends on both the left and the right. He’s been bold by any standards.
But even Public Chum Number One has to make some concessions to the quangocracy. The Audit Commission, which seemed to have its cards marked a long time before the election, will have some of its functions transferred to the private sector and civil service. Some number crunching by the LGiU shows that this pattern has been repeated across government. Just 9 per cent of quangos have been abolished outright. In contrast, 26 per cent have been abolished as a quango but will have some or all functions transferred and 47 per cent have been retained.* Others are still awaiting a decision.
You’d have to say, then, that the bonfire has been a bit of damp squib. The government’s neither taken a sword to the bureaucracy that gives succour to the quango state, with a couple of honourable exceptions, nor driven down costs. But perhaps the tasks was never feasible anyway. As Ronald Regan put it, “governments programmes, once launched, never disappear. A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth."
* A note about calculations: we’ve treated quangos of one type as one: for instance the 8 RDAs, 15 Agricultural Wages Committees and 160 Drainage Boards. It’s not perfect, but it’s messier any other way.