by Kieran Neild, grassroots assistant at the TaxPayers' Alliance
The TPA has tirelessly campaigned to cut back the quangocracy. We recognise that quangos are unaccountable, a burden to the taxpayer and often not fit for purpose. David Cameron's promise of a bonfire of quangos in 2010 has been well and truly forgotten. The bonfire has not been lit and instead has become a pile of dead wood - allowing quangos to remain in British politics for too many winters.
Let’s look at 10 quango cock-ups to remind us why we still need to clean up the state.
1. BBC - Eastenders set overrun
Many of us love to curl up on the sofa, with a cup of tea in hand and watch Eastenders. But the biggest duff this year was not related to a soap storyline - it was the egregious cost of the show’s new set. The BBC has gone £27 million over budget on a new Albert Square, with the current cost of the set estimated to be £86.7 million. It beggars belief that the cost of a fake pub and a cafe could spiral so far out of control. Had the programme been funded by a private channel, which received its revenue based on the consumption of their product, we would have no qualms about the cost. However, the BBC is taxpayer-funded via the license fee. Every television watching household in the country has been left to pick up the tab for this project overrun.
2. Ofqual - exam results disaster
Ofqual and the government are responsible for the exam results fiasco this year, which left students and teachers in limbo. Reports suggest 40 per cent of A-level grades in England were downgraded under an algorithm devised by Ofqual. Despite the Royal Statistical Society offering to aid the development of an algorithm, Ofqual failed to respond to their offer of assistance.
Ofqual cost the taxpayer £19 million in 2019/2020 and before her resignation, chief regulator Sally Collier was on a salary of £200k. Collier, held responsible for the quango's failures, has jumped ship in an attempt to evade scrutiny by the education select committee. This is yet another example of the unaccountable nature of top quangocrats.
3. Public Health England (PHE) - pandemic fiasco
Despite having an annual budget of a whopping £300 million, 242 staff on a remuneration of over £100k and 6 members on £200k plus, PHE has been deemed unfit for purpose. PHE’s main purpose was to ‘protect the nation from public health hazards’ and ‘prepare for and respond to public health emergencies’. Despite this clear mission statement, PHE has spent most of its seven year existence lecturing the British people on the ‘correct’ portion size of a Christmas dinner rather than preparing the nation for a pandemic.
PHE published advice in February saying that it was ‘very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected’. However, this Covid-19 advice was found to be wrong and they failed to withdraw their catastrophic guidance until March. With no useful strategy to fight coronavirus and poor advice, it's no wonder that the government has merged the quango.
4. Transport for London (TfL) - fiscal incompetence
This year TfL begged the UK government for a £1.6 billion bailout after the coronavirus lockdown cost them 90 per cent of their custom. But the taxpayer bailout was one of many costs TfL has levied on the taxpayer this year. TfL has an over inflated wage bill, with their boss Michael Brown receiving £508,301 in total remuneration, including a gigantic bonus of £133,586. In addition, TfL are over-staffed with diversity non-jobs and happily hand out perks like free travel passes to their staff.
TfL must begin to streamline their operation and achieve better value for money - for the sake of the taxpayers who saved them.
5. HS2 - hidden costs
The TPA has tirelessly campaigned against the white elephant project HS2, urging the government to abandon the project and invest in regional infrastructure to connect rural communities to the growing northern cities. Our chief exec John O'connell warned that the current estimated cost of £106 billion will be blown out the water with a mammoth £150 billion bill for the project. Evidence of soaring budgets and runaway costs has vindicated the TPA’s fear of a cost explosion and as such, we demand that MPs keep a close eye on the cost-benefits of the expensive taxpayer funded project.
Common sense may have lost the battle to scrap the project, but we are determined to wage a war on the cost of HS2 - ensuring taxpayers are not taken for a ride. HS2 ltd has gotten it wrong on the estimated cost of the project before, hoodwinking the public, shielding MPs from the true burden on taxpayers. This cannot happen again.
6. DVLA - stolen logbooks
This example is a blast from the past, but proof that quangos have always been prone to blunders which cost taxpayers dearly.
Criminal gangs were somehow able to steal blank log books from the DVLA, allowing them to sell cloned cars on the market. This resulted in £13 million worth of cars being stolen. The DVLA had V5 forms and blank log books stolen in 2006, but nothing was done to preempt the criminal activity that followed. Why were these documents not under lock and key? Surely the DVLA should have been aware of the potential danger of forgery of certain documents.
Whatever their excuse, quango failures have had a huge cost for the people who lost thousands of pounds buying forged cars, and the taxpayers who funded such mismanagement.
7. NHS - failed IT projects
Despite calls for a digital revolution in the NHS and a budget of £4.7 billion, the NHS has failed to update their crumbling IT systems. Reports by the National Audit Office before the pandemic have criticised the slow and inadequate digital transformation which has left NHS trusts in the dark ages. NHS trusts were revealed to still own 9000 fax machines in 2017. Despite being given a handsome amount of spending money, the NHS was the largest buyer of a technology “that was in popular use about the last time England were in a World Cup semi-final.”
Automation is the future for the health service. NHS England needs to stop bungling and get on with it.
8. Environment Agency - hypocrisy
The Environment Agency is responsible for the protection and enhancement of the environment. They have proudly asserted that the so-called climate emergency is the most important issue driving their operation at the moment. However, the organisation does not lead by example. Despite having a budget of almost £1.4 billion, the taxpayer funded agency has a fleet of fuel guzzling vehicles. 53 per cent of their fleet is fuelled with diesel with only 1.8 per cent being purely electric vehicles. The agency's £205,000 a year chief executive, Sir James Bevan, seems oblivious to the massive contradiction between what the agency practices and what they preach.
Not only have they failed to lead by example, they have let down residents in flood risk areas with inadequate flood defences. Carlile residents have argued that the agency is cutting costs in flood defences, leading to foreboding from locals terrified of the next bout of heavy rainfall. The quango should cut its chief execs enormous salary and focus on the flood defences they are paid by the taxpayer to build.
9. Ofgem - smart meters
Ofgem, the UKs energy regulator, is the architect of the national effort to install smart meters in millions of homes across the UK. But smart meters are another expensive waste of money, facilitated by a quango.
Despite the promise of allowing consumers to save money by switching energy providers, Ofgem’s grand expectations have fallen flat. The meter measures energy usage, giving the provider and the consumer information on where savings could be made and where energy prices are highest. But it cannot switch to better deals on behalf of the person, nor can it automatically regulate when to turn off power when it is being wasted.
The smart meter push originally cost £11 billion, but has gone over budget by £1.5 billion. With the technology faltering on many occasions and energy firms failing to install the metres, smart meters have been a disaster for the quango. Next time a bureaucrat gets any bright ideas, maybe they should think about the value for money they are delivering for the taxpayer.
10. Highways England- safety failure
Any motorist will know the horror of joining a ‘smart motorway’. They are a mumbo jumbo of road signs, tight lanes and painfully slow speed limits. In August this year, Highways England boss Jim O’Sullivan was criticised for underplaying the safety risk smart motorways pose on drivers across the UK. Despite statistical evidence that removing the hard shoulder lane has caused dozens of deaths, Highways England ignored calls to pause the construction.
Eventually the quango was forced to oust their own boss in order to draw a line under the issue. British taxpayers, of whom many will be motorists, will be glad to see the back of O’Sullivan. Highways England must get itself into gear and ensure their next chief executive is not (over)paid to put drivers’ lives at risk.