Its revelation came just before the publication of a major report by Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock and Burntwood, tomorrow on the scale of ministerial patronage in Britain. The study, which includes calls for a radical overhaul of Whitehall, shows that all but a handful of quango jobs are distributed by ministers in secret to men and women who are often vetted by the Conservative Whips and Prime Minister's offices.
Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, yesterday said that the Cabinet Office figures showed that Government claims, reiterated last week, that any member of the public could be selected on merit for a quango job were a "confidence trick".
In the face of growing allegations that jobs in the "quangocracy" are going to political placemen who support the Conservative Party, ministers have made much of the ability of members of the public to apply for posts through the Cabinet Office's Public Appointments Unit.
The unit has maintained a list of 5,000 members of the public it considered well qualified for quango jobs for 20 years. There is also a reserve list of 20,000 hopefuls. The unit has encouraged new candidates to join the list by distributing leaflets in Citizens Advice Bureaux.
In evidence last week to the Nolan Committee inquiry into standards of public life David Hunt, the minister responsible for the Civil Service, said he wanted more applications from the public. Mr Straw said the fact that only 134 people on the unit's list had got jobs in the year ending 31 March 1994, the last for which figures are available, showed that ministers were inviting people to put their names forward "under false pretences".
A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office denied that the system was a sham. She said that although only 134 people on the list had been appointed there had been inquiries from Government departments looking for quango members from about 349 members of the public on the list in 1993-94.
Dr Wright says in his study for the Labour-supporting Fabian Society that ministers have used their powers to create a "new patronage state" in Britain. "Unfettered ministerial patronage is a direct and central expression of a political system that is poorly constitutionalised, lacking a secure framework of checks and balances, giving too much power to government and too little to those who should hold government to account," he argues. "The end of patronage is the beginning of a new constitution."
The Labour Party is now drawing up plans on what to do with the "quangocracy" if it returns to power. Mr Wright calls for an independent Public Appointments Commission to take over responsibility for all quango appointments. Advertisement and competition would then replace "secrecy and cronyism", he says.
There is growing support for his ideas. In December the Brit-ish Medical Association called for a similar body to bring accountability to NHS trusts and regional health authorities after a series of corruption scandals.
Last week the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-ofcentre think- tank, called the Whitehall-appointed governors of the BBC "unrepresentative" and "unaccountable" and said they should be elected.
n`Beyond the Patronage State' by Tony Wright is available from the Fabian Society, 11 Dartmouth St, London SW1H 9BN, £3.50Reuse content