Duncan Simpson is Research Director at the Taxpayers Alliance.
Change is afoot. From smashing the scam that is defence procurement, to making it easier to ditch woeful bureaucrats (with their overgenerous pensions) and also reforming aid spending and folding it into the Foreign Office, uncertain times are seemingly ahead for the UK’s 430,000 civil servants.
Much of this is welcome. Complacency within civil service institutions has gone on for too long, with taxpayers repeatedly on the hook for bureaucratic bungles. Officials are rarely held to account for their mistakes.
Despite this, those who have wished to reform how the civil service operates have rarely succeeded in their mission. The reasons for this are numerous, but there are three significant issues that must be near the top of the new government’s agenda if they are to buck the trend.
The first is getting to grips with the babbling coterie of quangos that wield extraordinary power. This is the mixture of non-departmental public bodies and executive agencies which form an ever-growing part of the British state. In spite of David Cameron’s repeated assurances to introduce a bonfire of the quangos in 2010, there were at least 301 in the year to March 2018, according to official figures, which received over £210 billion of taxpayers’ money.
Many of these quangos are ad-hoc, very cheap and self-explanatory: the Ministry of Defence’s Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors springs to mind. But too many quangos and their staff go well beyond their narrow remit and directly try to influence central and local government policy. Indeed, some of these bodies have more influence on the national debate than political parties.
These bodies should have their budgets – and, crucially, their remits – assessed annually by the relevant parliamentary select committee, while some that have specific jobs to do should have sunset clauses. Powerful positions in the quangocracy could be time limited, exit payments capped (a TaxPayers’ Alliance policy recent governments have already embraced) and have their salaries annually approved by ministers.
The second change is finally bringing an end to the egregious practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying and campaigning. This trend is long-running. The TaxPayers’ Alliance first exposed in 2009 that more than £37 million (now almost £50 million in today’s money) was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying by public sector bodies and campaigning groups in just one year. That’s nearly as much as the £40.1 million that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dem combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. Conspiracy theorists tweet about the so-called ‘dark money’ influencing British election campaigns, but what about the actual millions spent by blinkered and biased groups in receipt of taxpayers’ cash?
As you can probably guess, most of these groups advocate higher spending and a bigger state. For the record, the TaxPayers’ Alliance doesn’t take a penny of taxpayers’ cash. Unlike a multitude of think tanks on the left, we don’t lobby to feather our own nests. If you don’t like what we say, then fair enough – you don’t have to give us a penny. Just like, by the way, other groups like Greenpeace. And more power to them. But many of the groups that spend their time filling the airwaves of the Today programme with their demands for more cash are able to do so because they are subsidised by taxpayers.
The third is tackling public appointments. Again, this is a problem that the centre-right has identified for years but nothing has been done, despite nearly a decade of Conservative-led governments. Our examination of appointments as far back as 2012 showed that Blair was ruthless in getting his allies in place: the last full year of Labour’s time in power showed 70 per cent of appointees with a Labour allegiance were winning public positions. That compares to just 14 per cent with a Tory affiliation in the first couple of years of the coalition government. That matters, as these institutions tend to dominate culture – which, as the saying goes, is upstream from politics. This website of course performs a great service by publishing a weekly list of appointments and that will play a part in turning the tide.
Those who run quangos and public bodies are both unaccountable to Parliament and the people who pay their salaries. So voters elect a government with a specific agenda, only to meet the quangocrats who fundamentally disagree and undermine it. The public appointments commission should be more muscular in demanding full disclosure of individuals’ political activities and affiliations. More positions should also be subject to select committee or parliamentary approval, not merely ministerial diktat and the rubber stamp from toothless Cabinet Office bodies. And perhaps the Conservatives ought to consider appointing more Conservatives to run reviews and inquiries.
Cleaning up the state won’t be a quick and easy task. It may take time to change the bureaucratic cultures and scrap enough quangos that the taxpayer-funded lobby blob gets the message. But if Boris Johnson doesn’t grasp the nettle, it will certainly come back to sting.