Task force: a quango by any other name

Mark Rowe looks at a phenomenon with some strangely familiar echoes
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MAY the Task Force be with you. More than 20 committees - otherwise known as task forces - have been set up by the Government since its election victory last May, seeking Big Answers to everything from education standards to the music industry and from NHS waiting lists to gazumping. Membership is dominated by people who could be described as Friends of Tony's.

For a government that criticised the formation of countless quangos under the Tories, the task force is a curious invention. The forces have spawned a multitude of review groups, working parties and steering committees, involving hundreds of ministers, civil servants and experts from specialist fields and industry.

Impatient with the traditional structure of Cabinet committees, Labour came up with the task force as a fast-track way of getting something done about the tricky issues of the day. As the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, put it, the Cabinet committees had "sometimes been allowed to become excessively slow-moving and bureaucratic, and a recipe for delays and non-decision as they failed sufficiently to confront powerful departmental vested interests".

Having accused the last government of treating quangos as a means of providing comfortable jobs for its friends, Labour is sensitive to that criticism. But a glance at the list provides ammunition.

Among the Blair boys and girls on board is Christopher Haskins, a long- time Labour supporter and chairman of Northern Foods, who heads the Better Regulation Task Force, which is to look into regulation in government departments and the powers of local government. In the arts focus groups, "Cool Britannia" comes to the fore. The Inter-Governmental Creative Industries Task Force includes artists, managers, record-company executives and retailers, such as film producer Lord Puttnam, Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, who gave Labour pounds 50,000 to boost its Scottish campaign, Paul Smith, menswear designer with an annual turnover of pounds 160m, and Gail Rebuck, Random House UK chairman and chief executive. Pop singer Mick Hucknall was asked to join a forum to review government policy affecting the music industry.

Other people close to Mr Blair and his Cabinet include Adrian Montague, banker with Dresdner Kleinwort Benson and head of the Private Finance Task Force, who will be paid pounds 160,000 a year. He was interviewed by, among others, Malcolm Bates, Pearl Assurance chairman and friend of Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. Mr Bates is understood to be keeping a "watching brief" on the task force.

James Palumbo, the millionaire nightclub owner who provided Mr Mandelson with a chauffeur-driven car during the election campaign, has been appointed to the team of Citizen's Charter judges who decide Charter Mark awards - the gold standard for the public sector. The Old Etonian son of the former Arts Council chairman, Lord Palumbo runs a pounds 20m-a-year leisure business centred on his south London club, the Ministry of Sound. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Unison, is also on this committee.

Richard Branson, who is closely associated with New Labour, is on the task force aimed at alternative sponsors to tobacco firms for sports events, and is also on the Creative Industries force.

However, businessmen who have spoken against Labour have not been excluded. Advising the Cabinet's welfare-to-work committee is Sir Peter Davis, group chief executive of Britain's biggest life-assurance company, the Prudential. He heads the New Deal task force. Before the last general election, Sir Peter added his signature to those of other business leaders urging the country to vote Conservative.

Then there is the former Conservative heritage secretary, David Mellor, who is head of the Football Task Force and thus united with sports minister Tony Banks in a love of Chelsea FC - but, very probably, little else.

Let the Force be with you

MILLENNIUM BUG: The Action 2000 task force is headed by Don Cruickshank, the outgoing Oftel boss. Works independently of Taskforce 2000, the not-for-profit body which originally raised awareness of the potential computer peril.

CREATIVE INDUSTRIES: Chaired by Culture Secretary Chris Smith. Members, including Richard Branson and Lord Puttnam, are not paid.

MUSIC FORUM: Not officially a task force but aimed at analysing the health of the music industry. Mick Hucknall was asked by Mr Smith to advise it.

HOUSING MARKET: Estate agents, solicitors and others will try to ease the problems of moving.

TAX AND BENEFITS: Martin Taylor, Old Etonian chief executive of Barclays, is its unpaid head. Its remit is to increase work incentives, reduce poverty and strengthen community and family life.

NEW DEAL: Chaired by the Chancellor and headed by Sir Peter Davis, group chief executive of the Prudential.

LITERACY: Led by Professor Michael Barber, aimed at improving younger school students' literacy skills.

NATIONAL STANDARDS: Chaired by David Blunkett, looking into standards across education.

NUMERACY: Headed by Professor David Reynolds.

NHS WAITING LISTS: Looking at ways to meet the manifesto pledge to cut 100,000 from waiting lists.

MINING AREAS: How to revitalise the former coalfield communities.

FOOTBALL: Aimed at ensuring a fair deal for fans.

DISABLED: Civil rights for people with disabilities.

SKILLED WORKERS: Tackling the shortage.

BETTER REGULATION: Headed, unpaid, by Christopher Haskins.

PRIVATE FINANCE: Headed by banker Adrian Montague. He will be paid pounds 160,000 for his full-time job.

TOBACCO SPORTS SPONSORSHIP: Richard Branson will help to seek alternatives.

PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION: Inquiry under Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

YOUTH JUSTICE: Aims to tackle juvenile crime. Chaired by Norman Walker, special policy adviser to Jack Straw