by Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance
Back in June, I laid out the case for abolishing ten quangos in an attempt to reignite the “bonfire” that former PM David Cameron failed to keep going. Plenty of TPA supporters have been asking me: were those to be reduced to ash, which ones should be next for the pyre? With such a huge and wasteful quangocracy to choose from, surely there must be more? So here’s another ten that aren’t giving taxpayers bang for their buck.
Many people aren’t aware that it’s not just the BBC that is a publicly owned broadcaster. Established in 1982, Channel 4 became the fourth channel in the UK. It is currently a not-for-profit public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Although slightly different in the early days, the channel is now funded in the same way as many other privately owned stations.
Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is exposed to commercial risk, as it doesn’t force millions of taxpayers to pay £157.50 each to keep the lights on. According to the most recent annual report, Channel 4’s finances are in good shape - they had a £5 million financial surplus in 2018 and cash reserves of £180 million. Even the current chief executive Alex Mahon has put it on the record that she won’t ask for public cash to keep the channel afloat.
So, what’s the point of C4 being publicly owned? Well, quite simply, there isn’t one, . To all extents and purposes, Channel 4 is already operating like a private company. Let’s go one step further, unshackle it from taxpayers and let this channel roam the airwaves on its own two feet.
Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA)
Set up by an act of Parliament in 1961, the CGMA is responsible for the running of Covent Garden Market. It is accountable to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and, similarly to Channel 4, it doesn’t receive any “direct public funding”. Putting aside the obvious question of why the hell central government owns a market in the first place, here we have another example of something that is running perfectly well on its own in the private sector. In 2018-19 the CGMA made a post-tax profit of £1.4 million. There is clearly no need for this quango to exist in its current form. Let it operate free of government interference.
Pay review bodies
These quangos advise the government on salaries for public sector workers, such as nurses and teachers. At last count there were eight pay review bodies. On paper they appear to be a useful way of restraining the wage demands from unions. Their recommendations on pay are evidenced based and independent. The government and unions are expected to abide by them and in doing so avoiding economically damaging strike action.
The problem however is the notion that pay for all areas of the country can be determined on a national scale. Pay bodies fail to take into account the economic differences between the regions. For example, staff living and working in London will often see their salaries topped up by a few per cent owing to the higher living costs associated with the nation’s capital.
But if we accept this variation here, why not elsewhere? It might be the case that the North West is significantly cheaper to live in than the South West. Consequently, it is unfair and a waste of taxpayers’ money that public sector workers in the North West can see pay rises disproportionately generous compared to others in the public sector (and of course the rest of us in the private sector!). Getting rid of national pay review bodies and allowing pay to be determined on a local level would bring huge savings to the taxpayer, while allowing public sector pay rises to better reflect the cost of living in an area.
British Business Bank (BBB)
This publicly owned bank is responsible for handing out taxpayer-funded loans to a range of businesses across Britain. It’s fair to say there have been problems with private banks being reluctant to lend money. Indeed, during the coronavirus crisis the BBB has been a lifeline for many. But after the pandemic has passed it should be wound up.
The fundamental problem is that taxpayers’ money is put at commercial risk. The public has no say in which companies are given loans. The government shouldn’t be in the business of effectively picking winners and losers. If it wants to increase commercial lending, then it should explore other options.
National Citizen Service (NCS)
Set up in 2011 by then Prime Minister David Cameron, the NCS is a “voluntary personal and social development programme for 16 to 17 year olds in England and Northern Ireland”. It was part of the “Big Society” initiative and founded on the not unreasonable premise to stop teenagers going off the rails. The problem with NCS ultimately comes down to outcomes. As Michael Gove recently said at the Ditchley Annual Lecture:
“I helped set up National Citizen Service in the UK. It is a noble ideal. But by what criteria do we judge it a success? The numbers who have signed up, and the warmth they feel about the programme, are welcome. But what has society, measurably, achieved for that expenditure?”
Looking at an evaluation report from 2018, it’s fair to say the answer is not as much as the coalition government at the time hoped,with the report admitting that “when it comes to social cohesion, there is a mixed picture with regards to the impact of the programme on the measures examined.” An article published even before lockdown shows that the number of participants in the scheme had fallen by nearly 10 per cent. Questions have to be asked about whether this quango is delivering what it says on the tin.
Social Science Research Committee (SSRC)
The SSRC provides independent advice to the Food Standards Agency about “how it gathers and uses social science evidence.” When we already have seven research councils this superfluous committee, with eight members and associated staff, makes no sense at all. Why not let the Economic and Social Research Council take on their duties? This quango is ripe for the chop.
Low Pay Commission (LPC)
The LPC advises the government at what levels to set the National Living and Minimum Wages at. As far as I can tell, no government has ever declined their recommendations. So what’s the issue? More importantly, I would ask: what’s the point of it then?
One could argue that it’s a handy get out of jail card for ministers. By passing the buck and handing a complicated decision to faceless quangocrats they can absolve themselves of responsibility if wages are set too high or low. Ministers should axe this quango and take responsibility for decisions – after all it’s exactly what they were elected to do. Better still, it will save taxpayers nearly £1 million a year.
According to their website, Literature Wales is the “national company for the development of literature.” It organizes awards ceremonies for writing such as Wales Book of the Year and National Poet of Wales. A plethora of privately funded book awards and bodies existed long before Literature Wales. Do we really need government funded book prizes?
When the Welsh government is constantly complaining it doesn’t have enough money for social care, should Literature Wales really be sucking up taxpayers’ cash? Indeed, a damning report commissioned by the Welsh government described the quango as "lacking the skills and experience" to spend public money. As a result its funding was cut, but it still received over £1 million from the taxpayer in 2018. Why not remove all funding and focus funds on essential services instead?
Design Commission Wales
The aim of the Welsh Design Commission is to promote good building design. There are already many, many hurdles that architects, builders and developers have to jump over when it comes to erecting new structures. At a time when it is important that we build as much housing as possible, we don’t need another level of bureaucracy. With over 40 staff making up its team and design review panel, the Welsh government should axe this quango and leave it to the planning departments at local authorities to make decisions.
Like Literature Wales, Creative Scotland is a public body that supports the arts and creative industries. In 2018-19, it spent £79.2 million of taxpayers’ cash. During covid it has faced heavy criticism for only providing emergency funding to a “wee clique” of highbrow venues. One disgruntled theatre owner described the quango as “snobs”. It’s not hard to see why he was annoyed. According to their most recent accounts, the chief executive received taxpayer-funded remuneration in excess of £140,000 for 2018-19. In 2017 it spent £6,000 of public cash sending a singer to the United States to record music.
Like Wales, the Scottish Government is always pleading poverty - so how can it justify such expenditure? We are in tough times and difficult decisions have to be taken about how best to spend money. Private individuals and indeed business have always supported the arts, and plenty of commercial funding exists (as long as the creative industries are once again allowed to open up!). With the tax burden at a 50-year high, the taxpayer can’t afford such a grandiose scheme.
What else should we throw on the pyre?
There are countless other quangos that deserve to be culled. It is clear that in post-pandemic Britain, prudent financial management of the public purse will be essential and the massive state interventions should be quickly reversed. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must trim back the endlessly increasing size of government, and that includes the quango sub-state. Let’s get the bonfire lit and keep it burning!
Cabinet Office Public Bodies 2018-19 Report https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/786954/2017-18_ALB_Financial_Datasets_.xlsx