"Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth [yesterday] announced the creation of a new military airworthiness authority to ensure aviation safety standards are of the highest order at all times." (Government News Distribution Service)
The loss of 14 armed forces personnel in the Nimrod disaster of 2006 was a national tragedy. A review of the crash by Charles Haddon-Cave QC (which reported in October) roundly condemned the "lamentable" failings of the MoD and BAE Systems. Noting problems with the design of the aircraft and a culture at the MoD where safety had become
secondary to cost, it concluded that the disaster could have been avoided if those in charge of ensuring the safety of RAF aircraft had been more responsible.(Guardian, 28 October 2009.)
The creation of the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) was one of two key strategic recommendations to come out of Haddon-Cave's inquiry, (the other being a revised arrangement of safety
responsibilities for those personnel charged with ensuring the safe
operation of military aircraft). In this respect yesterday's announcement by the MoD is welcome; it further acknowledges culpability for the crash, and reflects a commitment to prevent future disasters. However, while Mr Haddon-Cave's inquiry was both thorough and considered, one might question the strength of the recommendation to create the MAA. Change is clearly needed in both the MoD and the Air Force, but quangos are rarely the mechanism with which to achieve that change.
Consider the very different disaster wrought by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) in recent years. Earlier this week the Public Accounts Committee - for a third time - tore apart the RPA as an example of "comprehensively poor administration on a grand scale"; (for more detailed look at the PAC's report, see here). Yet the RPA was set up specifically to enable better administration of farm subsidies. Under pressure to improve the way it handled the EU's farm subsidy system, DEFRA chose to hive off that particular function into the giant quango that is the RPA. It would be able to respond to farmers better, be more dynamic in its delivery, embody a single responsible entity. No longer would people or problems fall through the gaps, because now we had a quango.
The end result has been failure on a massive scale, all the more galling because responsibility for that failure appears to fall between two stools. Are the RPA's failures its own, or DEFRA's? Who do we hold to account, the RPA's Chief Executive and board, or the Ministers that chose them, and supposedly oversee them?
Time and time again, we have been shown that quangos are not the tools with which to 'improve' governance. No one can question the logic that lies behind such 'agencies' and 'authorities', and no political party is to 'blame' for their increasing dominance in British government. (Indeed the first 'next-step' agencies were established by John Major.) 'Independent', 'dedicated', 'leadership'; it all makes so much sense, why wouldn't politicians set them up? (Although don't forget that they afford ministers a wonderful barrier from public accountability too.)
The MAA is therefore not a bad idea. Instead, it embodies a bad principle. The principle that the only way to really get something working properly depends on us devolving it out of a department to a semi-autonomous agency. It's a bad principle because history informs us that it often doesn't work any better. In many cases it works worse. It's also a bad principle because it is fundamentally undemocratic. Why are we not recommending that the people currently responsible for air craft safety be made public, and in some way personally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of aircraft? Why are we not suggesting that those ministers elevated to make sure people on the ground are doing their jobs, face real political accountability when it emerges that they haven't.
Of course nothing is so simple. For one, ministers change so frequently that those clearing up after a disaster are rarely the same ones who were in charge when the disaster occured. But there is more to be gained from increasing scrutiny, accountability and responsibility, than in creating further bureaucracy. Let's hope that in ten years time the Public Accounts Committee are not tearing apart the MAA for gross incompetence. If it fails, more than farm payments are at stake.