John Walsh: 'Quangos are absurd little organisations with large amounts of cash to splash'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

The search goes on for more people to blame for wasting taxpayers' money. After the bankers, the MPs and the BBC, it's the turn of quangos. Absurd little organisations with pompous names and large amounts of money to spend on party balloons and champagne flutes, they're being blamed for blowing too much cash on celebrity guests. Not just because they're celebrities, but because their relevance to the quango seems hard to fathom. "It shows how out of touch these organisations are," fumes Susie Squire of the TaxPayers' Alliance, "that they think it is right to waste money on celebrities in the current climate and is particularly pointless when there doesn't seem to be any obvious connection between the personality and the cause."

Has she a point? Was it a legitimate expense for Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, to dish out £73,000 to sign up Michael Portillo, Sir Alan Sugar and Midge Ure to hand out prizes at the Yorkshire Forward dinner dance? You could point out that Portillo comes from Bushey in Herts, Sugar is famously of East End London stock and Midge Ure is comprehensively tied to Lanarkshire, and none of them has the faintest trace of north-England grit about them. But then, which boring, York-shire-born, non-celeb deadbeat could knock 'em dead at the prize-giving the way Sir Alan could?

Was it right, I hear Ms Squire enquire, for the Learning and Skills Council to wave cheques totalling £400,000 of public funds to sign up Konnie Huq and Richard Bacon, former Blue Peter hosts, and Jill Halfpenny from Strictly Come Dancing, to represent them? I don't see why not. After all, Ms Halfpenny had to employ considerable amounts of imaginative learning and skills when she left EastEnders to learn to pose in tight basques and scanty black pants for the lads' magazines. And Mr Bacon, after he was fired from children's TV for snorting cocaine, clearly must have utilised a great deal of skill in getting another job with the Corporation and keeping it.

Of course journalists sulk to find that radio and TV hacks, like Evan Davis and Kirsty Wark, Jonathan Dimbleby and Martha Kearney, are paid thousands to chair NHS conferences and host wild, unbridled soirees with the Technology Strategy Board. But frankly, a fee of £5,000 sounds a little on the low side given the excruciating boredom they're likely to encounter. It's always fun, though, to listen to people tying themselves in knots to justify their actions. Like the chap from the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which signed up Myleene Klass for "an undisclosed figure" to front a campaign. A spokesman said that, because she was studying astronomy at the time, she was "a legitimate and relevant choice as part of the drive to encourage more science teachers". Couldn't he just have said "because Ms Klass is dead pretty and has chestnut hair which tumbles all over her front, and is most famous for wearing a white bikini and standing under a jungle shower looking cute, she is a legitimate and relevant choice for our campaign to attract more teachers. Oh yeah, and her name is Klass, which teachers teach in ... " Wouldn't the truth have been better?

Secret paternity is a big favourite in the plots of Charles Dickens. Poor and unfortunate children routinely turn out to be the offspring of the rich and fortunate: Lady Dedlock in Bleak House springs to mind. But even Dickens might have balked at the plot twist in the continuing story of Michael Jackson. I mean of course the declaration by the former child actor Mark Lester that he is the real father of 11-year-old Paris Jackson. He told the News of the World that the King of Pop asked him "in a private conversation" if he would donate sperm on his behalf. As you do in private conversations (and what a mercy it wasn't a public one). On first sighting, this story is ridiculous. But then you remember that Mr Lester is famous for playing a certain Dickens character, and it starts to make sense. Of course Michael Jackson would have liked to have a daughter fathered for him by Oliver Twist, the eternally doe-eyed, put-upon, victimised-then-victorious nine-year-old boy. It would have played straight into his Peter Pan fixation. But I wonder if Mark Lester got tired of night-time calls from Jackson, or his then-wife Debbie Rowe, saying, "Please, sir. I want some more ... "