Yes, minister, but where's the job?

David Hunt may have invited members of the public to serve on quangos, but trying to join the `great and the good' can be a nightmare, as Angela Lambert found out
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Until now, quangos (quasi-autonomous non-government organisations) have been about as penetrable to the ordinary citizen as the Hungarian secret police, unless you belonged to the right party and had influential friends. But on Monday, ordinary members of the public were invited to serve. "Anyone who feels they have something to contribute should feel able to nominate themselves," David Hunt said.

Sensing an opportunity, I set about proposing myself. Reader, learn from my experience: it is not easy. You need to be as tenacious as a limpet and, even if you persist, there is only about one chance in 500 that you may be accepted to serve on these mysterious bodies.

In theory, anyone can apply to the Public Appointments Unit (Horse Guards Road, London SW1P 3Al, tel: 0171-270 6217). In practice, the Tories decide who sits on them since, until recently, Labour offered no nominees. Conservative MPs and the Whips' Office are the main sources of patronage and more than 43,000 posts, including some high-salaried jobs, are in their gift.

"I became chairman," admits Sir Derek Barker who heads the Countryside Commission, "as a consequence of sharing a cab with a stranger. Another quango chairman was appointed after a pheasant shoot at which the Secretary of State was a fellow gun. The subsequent chairman of a water authority bumped into a cabinet minister while birding on a Greek island. It is a splendidly capricious and British way of doing things. I am advised that the success-failure rate is about the same as when headhunters are engaged."

It also helps to be married to an MP. The wives of Bob Dunn, Tory MP for Dartford, Teddy Taylor, John Biffen, Cranley Onslow, and Gillian Shephard's husband, all serve on quangos, as do another 20 or so MPs' spouses, none of whom is Labour.

Quangos have acquired enormous power in the past 20 years, dangerous power, because it is unknown, not monitored, and is exercised by unelected people answerable only to those who put them there. They meet in secret, dispense huge budgets (soon they will control £54bn, about one-fifth of public expenditure) and make far-reaching decisions.

The process of self-nomination that David Hunt urged is little used, and - as I found - so demanding that few persist. Before I could apply, I had to discover what quangos exist, their functions, addresses and telephone numbers. None of this was simple. Eventually I tracked down an HMSO publication (ISBN no: 0 11 430077 1; price £12) entitled Public Bodies 1993 - the Bible for the would-be quangocrat.

This publication lists 1,389 "non-departmental public bodies" (it calls quangos NDPBs) under the departments to which they report; the number of members, their sex and salaries. About 28 per cent of quangocrats are female, and 2.3 per cent come from ethnic minorities. About 37 per cent are paid in addition to their expenses, and about 170 earn more than £50,000 a year.

I scanned the index for quangos that might allow me to join. Some are obscure but tempting. The Welsh Office has a Place Names Advisory Committee that I'd love to be on, but it has only £1,000 to spend and a chairman whose salary is a mere £250. It seemed unlikely to need me. The same goes for the Scottish Office's Red Deer Commission whose chairman earns a £17,472 pa. The 12 members are all male, and I know little about red deer. I fear I shall never lend a hand on the Salmon Advisory Committee.

Choosing subjects on which I might pontificate, I applied to the Advisory Committee on Hepatitis, as I have had liver disease for 16 years, with experience of liver treatment; the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges (I have three adult children who went on exchanges and I travelled to the US 10 years ago under the International Visitors' scheme); and the Register of Public Lending Right, which dispenses £4.75m a year to writers. As I have published six books, it seemed a good reason to join.

I spent the better part of two days on the telephone. For my hepatitis quango I rang the Department of Health. I was referred to the Central Guidance Unit on another number. A young man there was bewildered. He gave me the number of another civil servant. When I demurred, he said: "If you care to send me your CV, I could pass on the details to the group concerned: how does that sound? We don't automatically know when a public body is recruiting new members and anyway the Cabinet Office maintains its own data base of appropriate members."

This, I thought, must be the list of "the great and the good". I feared I was not great or good enough. He reassured me: "They may need people with your particular disease. It depends how you would fit in with the existing membership."

My political affiliation? He backtracked quickly: "That shouldn't count...that's all I can say. It shouldn't have any bearing."

The Registrar of PLR comes under the Department of National Heritage. My first call, to the number given in Public Bodies, was a wrong number - I got the drugs unit. A polite voice offered me the main government switchboard, which referred me to the Public Inquiry Unit. A recorded voice informed me that they took calls between 10 and 12am or 2 to 4pm; would I try later?

When I rang later I was told: "Someone will get back to you." Someone did and gave me an address to which to write. Had there been many inquiries since David Hunt made his statement? I was the first she knew of. I would be asked to complete an application form indicating my areas of interest, the amount of time I could offer and enclosing the names of two referees. Ay, there's the rub! Could I produce the Tory great and good to vouch for me? Not easily, but "your political interest doesn't come into it at all".

Finally, to the Department for Education for the quango for Educational Visits and Exchanges. For the first time, a civil servant spoke with a human voice. Hitherto, they had all been polite but distant. This voice laughed, then apologised. "What a surprise!" Why? I asked. "Sorry: I'm just coming out with my political persuasion!" Pause. "I'm wondering who to put you through to. Well, let's try Personnel and they'll redirect you. I'm sorry, no, there's nobody there."

After much ringing round I was transferred to marketing and communications. It wasclear the public rarely offered to serve on NDPBs. Two calls to two numbers later, I was told to ring the policy division. After talking to two more people on two more numbers I was lost. I abandoned the attempt.

I came to the sad conclusion that a member of the public trying to approach a department to offer service will receive courteous treatment but will not be encouraged to apply. Jobs on quangos are still a closed shop, whatever Mr Hunt may say.