Now that it has happened, it feels as if there was something inevitable about Theresa May’s scramble for a legacy leading her to try to create at least one new quango.
They’re the ultimate ‘legacy’ vehicle: a publicly-funded body which will continue to pursue your agenda – proudly independent of political oversight from your usurpers or political opponents – long after you have left office.
Even as an example of the genre, however, the Prime Minister’s mooted ‘Office for Tackling Injustices’ is an eye-poppingly bad idea. As Guido Fawkes points out, as currently planned it would simply duplicate a range of data-gathering functions already performed, at public expense, by bodies such as the Office for National Statistics.
But its worse than that. Like so much of May’s “burning injustices” agenda, ‘OfTI’ implicitly prejudges its own data. Its very name conflates disparate outcomes – which can arise from a huge range of factors, not all of them linked to discrimination – with ‘injustice’. Moreover, since these trends will take decades to solve (to the extent that they are soluble or need solving) its reports will inevitably and indefinitely be a stick with which to beat future Conservative governments and apply leverage to Labour’s levelling-down agenda.
Yet the problems with OfTI go beyond the specific flaws in the design of one particular quangos. This last gasp of Mayisme reflects a broader, deeply problematic trend of politicians outsourcing responsibility to the quasi-independent sector.
Another recent example of this is Jeremy Hunt’s idea of an independent infrastructure commission to make decisions on matters such as airport expansion. Whilst it is easy to understand where this comes from – successive governments have proven utterly woeful at making big calls in this area – it is nonetheless deeply flawed. Not only would it be wrong in principle for voters to have nobody to hold to account for such decisions, but experience suggests that politics would get in the way in any event. Just look at how MPs reacted when the independent body they created to set their pay recommended an increase.
Over the past few years I have written about several dimensions of the quango problem, such as how it erodes political accountability and ministerial responsibility, and suggested possible remedies such as making quango appointments explicitly political.
But I have also written about the fact that Conservatives ought to be much more willing to reverse bad measures when they get the chance, rather than just resigning themselves to any policy which makes it over the line.
To that end, May’s successor should not just kick OfTI “into the long grass”, as the Sun reports. They should scrap it – and get a taste for scrapping quangos whilst they’re at it.