Unelected bodies creating 'crisis of accountability'

A NON-ELECTED elite is taking control of many services, producing a crisis of accountability, a leading academic said yesterday.

The quangos created in education, health, housing and social services - often the result of market mechanisms being introduced - are turning the clock back 100 years to the 1880s, before control of local services was transferred from magistrates to elected authorities, according to John Stewart, Professor of Public Policy at Birmingham University.

In a paper for the European Policy Forum, a market studies think-tank, he says: 'A new magistracy is being created in the sense that a non-elected elite is assuming responsibility for a large part of local governance.

'They are found on the boards of health authorities and hospital trusts, Training and Enterprise Councils, the board of governors of grant-maintained schools, the governing bodies of colleges of further education and Housing Action Trusts.

'There is no sense in which those appointed can be regarded as locally accountable. Indeed the membership of these bodies is largely unknown locally. Nor are they necessarily subject to the same requirements for open meetings, access to information and external scrutiny that local authorities are subject to.

'Accountability, such as it is, rests upon the accountability of these bodies to central government, although even that appears uncertain in the case of governing bodies of, for example, hospital trusts and grant-maintained schools.'

The result is to place 'an ever increasing burden' on a single line of accountability to ministers and through them to Parliament - a burden Professor Stewart says ministers are unlikely to accept. Indeed, his warning comes as MPs are complaining that the growing number of agencies is making ministers less accountable to Parliament as ministers say figures are not held centrally, or that questions should be referred direct to the quangos.

Professor Stewart argues that it is difficult enough to expect ministers to accept responsibility for the acts of civil servants. The burden of being properly accountable for an increasing range of local services is 'probably beyond their capacity to bear', he says.

Market accountability and contracting cannot alone replace public accountability, as there are difficulties over access to information and for many services there are in practice no individual customers, only unaccountable purchasing and contracting bodies.

As the number of agencies grows, no one has responsibility for co-ordinating their actions, while even within well-defined areas such as schools, the latest plans will see six different bodies running different types of school.

The 'crisis of accountability' means that when children fail to obtain school places, or people are not consulted over issues, or an institution fails 'it is not clear who should be held responsible'.

The growth in appointed bodies has paralleled the weakening of local government as an increasing range of responsibilities have been removed to non-elected agencies and organisations. But a simple return of power to local authorities, who have tended to limit their accountability to periodic elections, is not enough.

To re-create accountability, Professor Stewart suggests strengthening links between agencies and councils; having more elected members; introducing freedom of information laws both nationally and locally; creating a right to be informed and heard as part of a Bill of Rights; and more monitoring of public action.

Accountability to the Public; European Policy Forum, 20 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AA; pounds 5.