The Tories shouldn't be planning new quangos

Well, it's the second day of the unofficial 2010 election campaign and already it appears that the Conservatives have pledged to create a new quango. In a speech today to the Oxford Farming Conference, Shadow Environment Secretary Nick Herbert is pledging to create a "Supermarket Ombudsman". Sigh. So much for a "bonfire of the quangos".

The basic idea of such an ombudsman is itself flawed - we don't need any Government representative to decide the terms of sale between farmers and supermarkets. As John Blundell of the IEA pointed out some time ago, we used to have centralised control of food prices in shops in this country as a hangover of World War One rationing - it was called Retail Price Maintenance.

What it produced was not some glorious paradise where every price was magically "fair", it produced a sluggish marketplace which restricted opportunities for shops and consumers alike. Amazingly, it lasted as late as the 1970s, until Ted Heath abolished it. (This, I must concede, deserves to go on the short list of "Good things done by Ted Heath").

What was the result of that abolition? Well, it allowed flexibility, competition and innovation in a way that hadn't been seen for decades. As a direct result, successful supermarkets sprang up offering new foodstuffs and cheaper prices - which have been of huge benefit to millions of consumers (and employees) since.

So the last thing we need is for that failed World War One policy to be reanimated. As much as people like to huff and puff about the "scourge" of supermarkets, in a manner reminiscent of Bremner, Bird and Fortune's dinner party sketches, they have prospered because they provide customers with things they want at an affordable price.

In effect, what we have today is the sight of a Shadow Minister a few months or weeks before an election, arguing that recession-hit Britons should be made to pay higher food prices. In short, not a great idea.

There is a much wider issue here, too. Even if such a policy was a good idea, it is wrong to create a quango to oversee it.
David Cameron said back in July:

The problem today is that too much of what government does is actually done by people that no-one can vote out, by organisations that feel no pressure to answer for what happens and in a way that is relatively unaccountable.

This is a big part of the reason why people feel so powerless in Britain today. They don't have enough opportunity to shape the world around them. And it leads to the anger, suspicion and cynicism that I described in my Open University speech.

I'm convinced that the growth of the quango state is one of the main reasons so many people feel that nothing ever changes; nothing will ever get done and that government's automatic response to any problem is to pass the buck and send people from pillar to post until they just give up in exasperated fury.

And he was right - so why on earth did this proposal even make it out of the starting gates?

Another example appears in yesterday's draft Tory Health Manifesto. Here is a selection of quotes about accountability, democracy, bureaucracy and so on (numbered by PDF page):

Page 4: "In the post-bureaucratic age people expect to be in control of their lives, not have their lives controlled for them by distant politicians and bureaucrats. We need a shift in power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street, through decentralising power, introducing a strong line of
democratic accountability, and bringing in a new era of transparency to government."

Page 5: "...we need to give people real power and control over their lives..."

Page 6: "A decade of top-down, bureaucratic mismanagement has consistently undermined the professionalism and motivation of NHS staff and skewed NHS priorities away from patient care..."

Page 7: "Instead of bureaucratic accountability there will be democratic accountability. We will decentralise power, so that patients have a real choice."

Page 8: "Our reforms will devolve decision-making closer to patients, removing the need for expensive layers of bureaucracy to oversee the NHS."

All good so far. But then...

Page 8: "To make sure the NHS is funded on the basis of clinical need, not political expediency, we will create an independent NHS board to allocate resources to different parts of the country and make access to the NHS more equal."


So we have another new quango, explicitly designed to remove the people's control of how the biggest budget in British Government is spent. Of course, when you want to make democracy sound like a bad thing you call it "political expediency", rather than "accountability" as it was termed earlier in the very same document.

It seems that despite all the speechifying about the post-bureaucratic age, the Conservatives are yet to shake the temptation to slam everything into a quango and then wash their hands of responsibility. Not exactly change we can believe in.

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