Andrew Haldenby is Director of the independent think tank Reform.
There must be a general election coming. Every time a politician mentions a good idea, their opponents leap onto exactly the same square of territory. Invitations for today’s speech by David Cameron for Reform were sent out last Thursday. On Friday, Liam Byrne, the reforming Labour Minister, briefed the Times that quangos were in his sights – indeed, he had sent letters to his colleagues “demanding an urgent review of all quangos to assess which can be abolished, merged with other bodies or taken back directly into their ministries”.
Quangos might seem an unusual choice of target. After all they spend only 5% of the whole government budget (£35 billion out of £675 billion according to the Cabinet Office definition, which is itself arguable). Given the fiscal crisis, why not target the big ticket items instead – benefits (over £150 billion), the NHS (£110 billion), education (approaching £100 billion)?
But the thing about quangos is that they show the problems in UK government in their purest form. Taking on quangos means setting out the principles that will underpin the wider agenda of reform of government.
The most important principle is accountability, highlighted by David Cameron in a speech last week. Reform described the lack of accountability of the civil service earlier this year (and advocated giving Ministers powers to appoint senior civil servants, making them democratically accountable). Quangos are even less accountable than Whitehall.
This is supposed to be their unique advantage – that they are completely independent organisations free from political or commercial interest. But in practice they are laws unto themselves. They live in a kind of twilight zone, which is the reason for the bad performance of so many quangos (Reform has researched those in education and policing). Some quangos should be accountable to Parliament and voters. In some cases this means taking them back into government departments. In others, local councils or new locally elected bodies will take charge (the Conservative ideas for elected police commissioners being a model for the latter). Other quangos should be accountable to shareholders or charitable trustees, as independent organisations living in society.
Another principle is value for money, close to Reform’s heart and also that of Steve Bundred, writing powerfully yesterday. Quangos need the same pressure to deliver new and better services at less cost as the rest of the public sector. Accountability will achieve that.
Another is the reinvigoration of politics. Quangos reduce MPs to glorified lobbyists, peering in through the windows of organisations that run large part of our daily lives. Reforming quangos will strengthen the role of Parliament and help to restore MPs' credibility.
This all takes political leadership. Plenty of Ministers before have taken the easy way out – create a quango as evidence that they are “doing something”, “something different” from their predecessors and something “politically independent”. In the new politics, Ministers have to resist temptation, and be brave enough both to take personal responsibility and to end bits of government that have served their purpose.
So reforming quangos means smaller, better government, which should now be the only game in town.