The City has taken over the quangos under New Labour

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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR'S New Labour Government is re-inventing patronage. The credo of "jobs for the boys", too often trade unionists, under Old Labour governments in the Seventies is dead and gone; Mrs Thatcher's "one of us" test is utterly eclipsed. Blair and his ministers are putting real flesh on New Labour's politics of cosying up to the City, big business and other major interests through a huge shift in the people they are appointing to man the quango state which in headier days Blair vowed to abolish.

Blair's "big-tent" politics are beginning to make their mark both in the new elite which runs the Government's new-style quangos - task forces, policy forums and the like - and on more traditional quangos. Old Labour ministers John Prescott and Frank Dobson have managed to place Labour members on local bodies such as health authorities and the new regional development agencies. But a quick check on large national bodies, such as the Environment and Countryside agencies, shows just how widely the tent is now being cast. Both agencies are now headed by rich land-owners and past presidents of the Country Landowners Association. Neither Lord De Ramsey, the Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, nor Ewen Cameron, who doubles as a member of the regional development agency for south-west England, are natural Labour allies.

The bias in the Labour's new patronage state is, however, revealed most starkly in the composition of the 2,500 members - two-thirds of them men - of the 320 task forces for which Labour ministers have been wholly responsible. At first sight, this elite group of functionaries looks like the Government's public-private partnership in action. But, as research by Democratic Audit (to be published tomorrow) reveals, nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of them represent producer interests, private or public. Only one-in-seven members belong to consumer bodies. A derisory 2 per cent are trade unionists.

This bias becomes even more alarming when you look closely at the private business interests. The City and big business tend to predominate. They dominate the most significant task forces and are often the sole outside interests represented. For example, the banker Adrian Montague and 11 assorted City folk act as a project team alongside five Treasury officials on the Private Finance Initiative task force. You might imagine that, given the deep disquiet over PFI deals in the NHS and public sector, there would also be places for, say, representatives of the NHS, medical profession, schools, trade unions or consumer interests on this task force. There is not one in sight. Overall, private business and financial interests take 96 of the 108 places on Treasury task forces.

The position is hardly any more balanced on the DTI's 26 task forces. Some three-quarters of the places are occupied by private business. Policy forums on exports and export promotion are confined to outside members representing private business and officials of various kinds. Moreover, the old British Overseas Trade Board, a traditional quango on which private business was influential under Conservative governments, has been revamped under Labour into British Trade International with a new chief executive and a similarly strong business orientation.

Business interests tend to dominate significant task forces, if not so fully, set up by other departments. Take, for example, the Better Regulation task force, probably the single most influential of all these bodies. Labour peer Lord Haskins, of Northern Foods, leads this body and from his room in the Cabinet Office has more power and easier access to Tony Blair than most ministers. Nine of the task force members are from private business. Similarly, a motor industry spokesman, Ian McAllister, of Ford, is joint chair with a minister of the Cleaner Vehicles Task Force, established to promote environment-friendly motoring. McAllister is one of nine members from relevant private business interests on the group, along with three ministers, one public transport man and a single environmentalist.

It has taken the best part of a year for Anthony Barker, of Essex University, and Democratic Audit researchers to map out this new promontory of the patronage state. Ministers and officials can summon up task forces, like genies out of a bottle, as and when they please, ungoverned by Nolan or any other rules. It is true that most are meant to be temporary, to produce a report and then expire. But they are in operation at a critical point in Whitehall's policy advice and development cycle, and can undoubtedly exercise real influence.

Lord Haskins's Better Regulation task force has, for example, a "roving commission" and has questioned the regulation of old people's homes and removed the financing of the Food Advisory Agency from the retail food industry to general taxation. Task force dealings and debates are generally confidential and they are under no obligation to consult interested parties and the general public. Quite a few now look set for a long life.

You can see why task forces are so attractive to ministers. They are flexible friends, cheap and easy to set up, and equally easy to disown if they come up with an unpopular proposal. But the informality of their birth, their confidential nature and the absence of rules of conduct open up the dangers of undesirable patronage - of which there are signs in Labour ministers' appointments - and, alarmingly, of undue influence. After all, ministers have invited a host of interested parties to advise and develop policies in their own spheres of interest without employing enough disinterested experts and consumer representatives to keep an eye on them. The Government has created the conditions for improper influence without the democratic safeguards that could prevent abuse.

In opposition, Labour politicians argued vociferously for an opening up of the quango state. In office they have expanded the quango state under a new form of select corporatism and are avowedly about to make it more impenetrable yet under Jack Straw's draft bill for freedom of information. Straw has pitched clear exclusion zones around policy advice and development in central government and government's dealings with outside commercial interests. These are precisely the spheres in which the Government's new-style quangos are most active. The need is to create new laws which, as in the US, give the public real access to quangos and other public agencies, and to make them open to scrutiny by Parliament, the media and the public.

Labour often passes off this new hidden level of government as the stuff of a new "inclusive" politics. But, close up, task forces look dangerously exclusive. The voices and eyes of consumers and citizens are absent. Absent voices go unheard and any vices present go unseen.

Professor Stuart Weir is Director of Democratic Audit, Essex University

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