Redwood out on a limb over quango reform

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The Independent Online
JOHN REDWOOD, Secretary of State for Wales, is planning new guidelines to govern the operation of quangos in a move which could put him at odds with Cabinet colleagues.

The minister, who has faced criticism over the appointment of a Conservative sympathiser to the Welsh Development Agency, wants to publish details of political offices held by members of government-appointed bodies. He is also keen to review their overall structure and give them greater freedom from his department.

Mr Redwood is expected to acknowledge for the first time early this week the need for reform in Wales. His plans are creating tension with William Waldegrave's Office of Public Service and Science, which has responsibility for English counterparts. Any changes in the principality would have 'knock-on' effects in the rest of the country, ministers say.

Mr Waldegrave's department has not been preparing similar plans. Colleagues fear that a Redwood initiative could open up Cabinet divisions.

The Welsh Office has been at the forefront of increasing public concern about the operation and democratic accountability of quangos. In October last year three Welsh Development Agency executives were disciplined and Philip Head, the chief executive, resigned when the chairman accepted all 43 recommendations of an internal inquiry into the findings of the Commons Public Accounts Committee report published in July.

The irregularities highlighted then included redundancy payments, free petrol for private trips by senior directors, the appointment of a convicted fraudster as marketing director and the use of more than pounds 800,000 of public money to finance an investigation into the agency's possible privatisation.

Last month there were calls for Mr Redwood's resignation after he appointed as chairman of the agency a former fund- raiser for the Conservative Party in Monte Carlo.

The minister said he had no idea of the political affiliation of the appointee, David Rowe- Beddoe, but the shadow Welsh secretary, Ron Davies, and Plaid Cymru MPs claimed that Mr Rowe-Beddoe's CV had stated clearly that he was a Tory fund-raiser.

Mr Redwood's proposal for redressing the 'democratic deficit' is to make publicly available any declared political affiliations of quango members. This would primarily affect local councillors, parliamentary candidates or party agents.

But in a move likely to anger opposition parties, the minister wants to give quangos more autonomy over their management. He would be keen to see the ultimate responsibility for accounting errors or fraud taken away from the permanent secretary of government departments, making the quangos themselves responsible.

Critics of Mr Redwood's plans argue that the political affiliation of appointees is difficult material to gather. They also believe that giving the quangos more autonomy would break one of their few lines of accountability - that which runs through the department and minister to Parliament.