Unloved institutions that grew like Topsy 4/48pt in 4 deck yes

Chris Blackhurst and Ian MacKinnon look at the growth and scope of quan gos across widthy
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The Independent Online
Ever since they took off under the Wilson government of the Sixties and grew like Topsy in the Seventies, quangos - quasi-autonomous non-government organisations - have been the object of suspicion and loathing. Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher came to power in 1979 to dismantle excessive government. Now quangos represent for the Opposition political patronage and the values of commerce applied to public service.

It is no coincidence, government critics say, that one of the worst cases of mismanagement under Tory rule, prompting a Commons select committee report, concerned a quango - the Welsh Development Agency.

In spite of the constant furore, official quangos have fallen in number, from 2,167 in 1979 to 1,389 in 1993. In addition, in 1993 - the year covered by the figures published yesterday - there were eight nationalised industries, eight public corporationsand 629 National Health Service bodies. In all, 42,606 people serve on public bodies, including NHS boards and trusts - 28 per cent of whom are women and 2.3 per cent from ethnic minorities.

About 37 per cent receive remuneration other than expenses. Most of those paid receive a daily rate, but about 170 earn more than £50,000 a year. One-third of quangos have their accounts audited privately - they are not subject to the scrutiny of the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog.

Many of the bodies most closely identified with radical government policy are strictly speaking, not quangos. Whitehall executive agencies, utility regulators such as Ofwat, Ofgas and Oftel, NHS trusts, governing bodies of grant-maintained schools and training and enterprise councils should not be bracketed as quangos.

However, many are. The Government is acutely aware of the public perception and is moving, as David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said yesterday, to try to ensure appointments to all public bodies are made transparent.

The measures announced yesterday will do little to dispel the widely held notion that some appointments to quangos are political. Ministers tacitly acknowledge it is so. But they point out that when they came to power they had to sack political appointees from Labour quangos. Labour has only recently lifted its ban on party members serving on quangos - another factor, ministers argue somewhat disingenuously, that has restricted their choice to Tories.

Unelected bodies wielding great power are bound to arouse controversy. In the absence of sweeping reform - Labour is talking about a "bonfire of the quangos" - Labour may find just how much in its turn.

The largest spender among the quangos is the Legal Aid Board which dispenses £1.28bn on legal advice, assistance and representation for those who cannot afford it.

Similarly, the Medical Research Council is a government agency which funds medical research by direct grants.

Not far behind in the budget stakes is the English Arts Council, whose role is to distribute arts funding at arms length. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority disperses compensation to the innocent victims of crime.

However, the Welsh Development Agency, established by an Act of Parliament in 1975, is more like a classic quango, attracting investment into Wales.