La la la, I can't hear you

When there's a policy failure, a tragedy or disaster the default setting for government departments is to establish a semi-autonomous public body (SAPB) to deal with it. The inquiry into the Nimrod crash has bred the Military Aviation Authority. The tragic Soham murders saw the savagely unpopular Independent Safeguarding Authority formed. Need to distribute EU money to farmers? No problem, the Rural Payments Agency can sort that out. Or not, as the case may be.

So in the fallout of the SATs fiasco, which saw a heated battle between Ken Boston of the QCA and Ed Balls of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it was only natural that a new ‘independent’ regulator would follow to pick up the pieces. And lo, Ofqual was born. We’d have a new, truly independent and robust regulator, to ensure exam standards are up to scratch. It was seemingly quite easy to do; setting up new bodies does not need any real ministerial justification, as the recent document Smarter Government tacitly admitted. But at least we are safe in the knowledge that pre-selection hearings of senior public roles – quango bosses – by cross-party select committees are used to retain a notion of independence. That way Ofqual can remain at ‘arms length’ from the department when it is up and running next year.

Predictably enough, the opposite has happened. The new chair and chief regulator of Ofqual, Kathleen Tattersall, was shoehorned in last week without the consultation of the Children’s Committee. Barry Sheerman, the Committee chair, called it a ‘shabby’ act.

The Department’s excuse is that Ms Tattersall was the interim chair of Ofqual, and this therefore constituted a re-appointment, for which parliamentary vetting was not needed. Nonsense: the Select Committee should have been given the opportunity to decide whether she had performed well in this interim role, and if she would be a high-quality chief regulator going forward. They weren’t, and they are rightly peeved.

This episode merely compounds other examples of the Secretary of State holding his fingers in his ears to block out the Committee’s views. A few months ago Mr Sheerman was moved to call Balls ‘a bit of a bully’, when he effectively ignored the Committee’s rejection of his choice of Children’s Commissioner. If Ofqual is supposed to be truly independent then its head can not be the appointment of an all-powerful Secretary of State, openly flouting the recommendations and opinions of other parliamentarians. 

So if Ofqual were to follow many other SAPBs and proceed to fail who would be accountable? Would we blame Ms Tattersall and the rest of the board? Or perhaps, the ministers that chose them? Hard to say, really. A cynic would argue that the board members would find themselves a job at another quango, and that ministers do not last long enough at departments to be around when the mud slinging starts.

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