Abolish a range of quangos - 2/5

Shortly before the last General Election, the TaxPayers’ Alliance produced a manifesto. Here is the latest in our series of posts looking at how the Coalition Government has performed in relation to our recommendations.

The full TaxPayers' Alliance manifesto can be found here.

Click here to see the full series of posts.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance published a series of research papers in 2008 and 2009, exposing the unseen government carried out by quangos. These organisations operate at arms-length from their parent departments, existing to implement government policy and offer expertise.

In the first year of the Coalition Government, 902 quangos were assessed. 200 of these were earmarked for abolition, with over 300 others recommended for mergers or reform.

Some of the organisations abolished included the Standards Board for England, BECTA and the Sustainable Development Commission – all recommended by the TPA in How to cut public spending and still win an election.

But the point of scrapping quangos should be to reduce the scope and size of government. Indeed, scrapping a large number of smaller advisory bodies could actually be counter-productive – the concept of a small group of experts meeting periodically to assess the implementation and impact of government policy is no bad thing.

It would be far more effective to scrap the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for instance, than abolishing lots of small scientific advisory bodies that operate on budgets that do no more than facilitate meetings and research.

There is evidence that the reduction in the number of quangos since 2010 hasn’t actually reduced the scope of government:

“most bodies abolished thus far have been smaller advisory bodies and many functions have survived, being transferred into departments, executive agencies or merged into the remit of other bodies. Accordingly, while the numbers of arm’s length bodies is reducing, the scope of government is not necessarily shrinking.”

What actually seems to have happened is a rearrangement of the deck chairs. When the UK Film Council was scrapped – to the consternation of film stars and art luvvies – many of its functions were simply rolled into the British Film Council.

Too many quangos have been set up in reaction to a policy failure, a tragedy or disaster. The inquiry into the Nimrod crash bred the Military Aviation Authority. The tragic Soham murders saw the savagely unpopular Independent Safeguarding Authority formed. The Rural Payments Agency - leaving a long record of failure and mismanagement behind it - was set up when payments of EU cash had to be made to farmers. Jamie Oliver turned up on the steps of Downing Street with a petition, and the School Food Trust was born. Setting up a quango has too often been used an expensive way of being seen to be dealing with a problem.

Much more needs to be done to improve accountability, too. Many quango bosses are paid very high salaries. Quite often they fail, but continue to receive their high wages and bonuses anyway. The row about Network Rail bonuses is the most recent case in point. It’s even worse when they then head off to run another organisation on equally lucrative terms.

But in direct response to our manifesto proposal, we have given the Government a score of two out of five. There has been a lot of willingness to assess what bodies do and get rid of some. But unless this underpinned by a desire to shrink and re-shape the state, then the number of bodies scrapped doesn’t matter as much as scrapping the right ones.

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