Dame Watsernames and Mr Thingies - the dutiful strangers who run our lives

Last week's lottery review showed how powerful Britain's quango class has become
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The Lottery Franchise, affecting all of us who fork out £1 in the hope of untold wealth, is to be stripped from Camelot. This important change was announced by Dame Helena Shovelton.

The Lottery Franchise, affecting all of us who fork out £1 in the hope of untold wealth, is to be stripped from Camelot. This important change was announced by Dame Helena Shovelton.

By whom? Dame Helena Shovelton. Chairman of the Lottery Commission, of course. We heard her on radio and television, reading out the shock announcement.

We may not have not heard of her before, but her type is familiar - the cultured, modulated voice, the intelligence, breeding and authority. She is yet another of those people who run our lives, tell us what's good for us - and of whom none of us have ever heard.

The other members of the commission are from the same class. Public service is no doubt in their blood, in an old-fashioned, patrician way. All bar one are female. The lone man is Brian Pomeroy, an accountant and charity chairman. There is Harriet Spicer, who helped to set up Virago Press; there is Rosalind Gilmour, once chairman of the Building Societies Commission, a director of Moorfields Eye Hospital, once even tipped as the first female governor of the Bank of England. There is Hilary Blume, founder of the Charities Advisory Trust - you could hardly ask for a more appropriate title than that. "Charities" shows social conscience; "Advisory" shows that you know better and can tell others how to run things; "Trust", because, clearly, you are someone who can be trusted to do the right thing. Headmistresses of girls' public schools used to be turned out from the same mould as that. These are the Great and Good who never appear on Question Time.

Other franchises will fall in time, and be announced by other equally unknown public protectors. Richard Branson doubtless loves Dame Helena, but may not feel so well disposed to Tom Winsor should Virgin Trains lose its franchise; that man is head of the rail regulators. Sir Robin Biggam, at the Independent Television Commission, will tell us if Carlton Television is up to the job - good for him, we cry, though we have never elected him.

Who's Who is full of such people. Quangos are even fuller. Watchdogs, Commissions, boards, New Labour task forces - anything whose acronym begins with "Of-", for Office of Fair, as in Ofwat and Oftel, has such people on them.

Nor is it always obvious what qualifies them. Should not the National Lottery Commission contain people who know about gambling? Ex-bingo callers, perhaps?You search in vain for such talent among Dame Helena's comrades.

Sarah Hogg was on the board of the National Theatre. Is she a thespian? No. She is, of course, known as the super-brain who unofficially ran the treasury under the Tories.

Nor do such people stick to one quango. Dame Helena's past and present list features 10 of them, and her total is not untypical. Oh, and many of these people serve on NHS trusts in their spare time.

She, and doubtless all the people we have mentioned, obviously qualify as a safe pair of hands. They form a thin stratum of society that can be trusted, under either administration, to look after us, and their skills are adaptable to almost any discipline it seems. Just as you might find yourself Health Secretary one day and Foreign Secretary the next, so Britain's elite gliedes effortlessly from one spehere to another. Suzanna Taverne, one the youngest of our great and good, was in the news last week when the British Museum of which she is managing director was embarrassed by the construction of a portico in the wrong stone. Ms Taverne is a former investment banker.

But the great and good fight on our behalf - or, at least, they are meant to. And now and then they do topple the arrogant and powerful, as Dame Helena has shown. How do these people get these jobs?

Chris Smith appointed her. "Nolan Committee rules were followed," says the spokesman for the Ministry of Culture, Sports and the Arts - under whose bailiwick the Lottery comes - "the same as for all quangos. You are nominated - or you can nominate yourself. You fill in a form, of your interests, your areas of expertise. That gets you on a Cabinet Office list. You will be contacted. They want people who by and large are of 'noted integrity'."

Can anyone apply? "Oh yes. I could nominate you, you could nominate me." Some people obviously apply more than others, or put in multiple applications, or else are so obviously suitable that they are selected time and time again.

Would I, a journalist, count as of "noted integrity"? Somehow, I doubted it. "You are with the Independent on Sunday? I am sure you would pass." Which is reassuring to know. 'They want good committee people," adds the man from the Ministry of Culture. "And with skills they think would be useful for a regulator. It would seem that it was Dame Helena's financial and auditing expertise - her history at the Audit Commission - that was wanted; it is the financing of Branson's bid that the questions are about."

But is there a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here? You get the Lottery quango because you were good at the Audit Commission; you got the Audit Commission because you were good at the Competition Commission; you got the Competition Commission because you did well at the Banking Codes Standards Board, you got ...

How does one climb aboard this bandwagon? Let us not worry about that. Let us just be thankful that there are people who like serving on committees - at £6,192 per annum - which is what Dame Helena's board members get for three days' service a month. Dame Helena, as chairman, is paid £32,064 for, on average, eight days' work a month.

Is this democracy in action, or is it old-style patronage as crude as that the Georgians used to indulge in?

"There are some that are blatant political appointments," says Martin Mcelwee of the Centre for Policy Studies. "NHS Trusts are notorious for politicians putting their own people in. But there are some people who got a toe-hold in the quango world under the Tories and have eased their feet very nicely under the New Labour table as well."

Mcelwee, author of a book entitled The Great and Good?, explains. "They are in most cases capable people, doing good jobs - which is one difference from the sort of patronage that used to happen under George IV," he says. "But some of them wield huge power. Howard Davies has been appointed to the FSA, the Financial Services Authority. Here is a man who will be headmaster of the financial institutions of the City. He has been made both chairman and chief executive, so there is no proper command or control structure there. Nor is there any parliamentary scrutiny of his appointment."

"The point about these people," says Mcelwee, "is that they take authority one more stage away from ministers, and from Parliament. No minister is going to resign over anything the head of a quango does. No parliamentary committee scrutinises their appointments. Ministers use them as a hugely useful cut-out. The Scottish Education Minister has not resigned over the Scottish exam- inations fiasco, even though he is supposed to be in charge of Scottish education. Only the chap at the quango went.

"You would have expected, over a matter as important as the Lottery franchise, that a minister would announce the change in Parliament. That didn't happen. Instead, it is this unknown woman, whom we have never heard of.

"She may well have done a good and excellent job; but there is no parliamentary accountability there - or in any of the other thousand quangos run by any of the 35,000 people in them." Mcelwee wants to see proper parliamentary scrutiny of those who have been appointed to these bodies. Then at least we would have a chance to hear these people's names before they enjoy their moment in the sun.