Simon Carr: Unelected, yes, but very handy for passing the buck

Sketch: One interesting thing was said, but I don't think he had wanted to say it
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The Independent Online

A top-down restructuring isn't going to work. To reform quangos we need a painstaking reality check against principles of efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Aching Nora, we'd come all the way to Canary Wharf to hear this. It's not even in Zone One! It must have cost me – I don't know exactly – over £4 to get there and back. I don't have Tube expenses, you know. That's four quid I'll never see again.

One interesting thing was said, but I don't think he had wanted to say it. David Cameron had come to address a meeting on kicking these independent state-created bodies into shape. It was held by the think-tank Reform and was surprisingly well-attended.

Cameron laid out the bones of the public discontent on quangos. These little centres of command and control are the reason why nothing changes – from Ofqual to the Arts Council. Unelected and unaccountable to ministers, they are the triumph of the political class. No one even knows how many there are. The official estimate is 790. The Taxpayers' Alliance has counted over 1,100.

Their principal raison d'etre, Cameron said, is to get politicians off the hook. A difficult decision has to be made, the government sets up a "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation" and pays them big public money to take the heat. No wonder the public doesn't trust politicians, he said, they've farmed out the big choices – about medicines, academic standards, media ownership – that should be taken by brave politicians.

He listed a dozen acronyms ending with his favourite, the SFA: "I'm told the S doesn't stand for Sweet." (Laughter.)

But, a questioner asked, what about this way of helping the deficit that's being mooted? No pay increases for state employees. What did Dave think about that?

Ah. Yes. Exactly. But that's more complicated than it sounds. A pay freeze. No more money for 6 million voters. When private sector workers have taken big cuts, it's important not to alienate them. And if Labour has to carry the can for a public sector pay freeze they might end up the other opposition party.

Here it comes: "Pay review bodies are there to look at this." Oh, there was a sharp pang then for Cameron fans. That sounded like something Gordon Brown might have said to delighted derision.

For pay review bodies are themselves quangos, set up to shield politicians from taking unpopular decisions.

A brave, accountable leader would have said: "Next year, everyone at quango board level is going to get HALF what they got this year. And if they want to quit we'll replace them with one of 25 applicants for a third of what they're getting now."

Ah, but then Gordon would accuse him of cutting. No, it'll need a quango to do something that controversial.

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