Steve Richards: A question of power and responsibility

David Cameron could become a forensic reformer of the way government works

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As I listened yesterday to David Cameron repeating his call for fewer quangos, those non-elected semi-independent bodies that run large chunks of the country, I had three thoughts. First, Cameron continues to take the painless path in relation to detailed public spending cuts. Few voters start to twitch nervously when they hear a quango or two will be scrapped. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, was bolder on future stringency when he warned about public sector pay, an issue that does get a lot of voters twitching, at least those in the public sector.

Second, Cameron's broader analysis of the economy, although virtually detail-free in terms of where the axe would fall, suggests his government would cut deeply and speedily in a manner that could kill off the economy rather than lead it to recovery.

Third, his assessment of where quangos are necessary and where they are not was the best argued I have heard on the subject and suggest that he is capable of being a forensic reformer of the way government works. The first two thoughts can wait. They lead us on to important, but familiar terrain. The third takes us to less explored ground.

Cameron argued that the two key issues in relation to the huge numbers quangos are their accountability and purpose. He pointed out that a lot of them perform functions without any accountability, functions that could and should be handled by elected politicians instead. He added with the slightest echo of Tony Benn that "too much of what government does is done by people that no one can vote out".

Not surprisingly, this is what happens when power is handed to bodies that are not elected. A lot of the cock-ups in recent decades have been the responsibility of well-paid members of quangos who are not held to account by voters or by the media. Our media culture somehow cannot cope with the idea of challenging figures who are, in some cases, more powerful than puny elected ministers held to account around the clock. Anonymity is conveniently unglamorous. Members of quangos are unknown and therefore of little interest.

The expansion of these bodies has illuminating origins. They began to spread when Margaret Thatcher set about destroying local government. She preferred dealing with bodies accountable to her government rather than to local voters. At the same time, local authorities continued to be generously staffed, even though they had a lot less to do. The response of New Labour in 1997 was characteristically chaotic. Some inexperienced ministers who had never been close to power had little idea who was in charge of what.

To give one example of many, the new Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, said that he was going to re-prioritise the way some of the lottery cash was spent, only to discover that the powers for such a move were in the hands of a quango. He could sack the chairman of the quango, but could not directly change the policy. Another cabinet minister who briefly occupied the Ministry of Agriculture was horrified to discover that at his department virtually every policy seemed to lie with limitless semi-independent bodies; he counted more than 70.

But, on the whole, ministers in the New Labour government were so insecure they were almost relieved that the tiny amount of power they theoretically possessed was actually wielded by quangos. They were already scared of taking decisions because of the total dominance of the Blair/Brown duopoly. They welcomed the fact that other nonentities would take the odd decision on their behalf and were able to do so away from the media spotlight.

Blair and Brown viewed local government with such wary disdain (to some extent with justification, because it took a peculiar type to want to lead a council after Thatcher had run amok) that they also became fans of quangos. They set up quite a lot more on the assumption it gave them a safe control over some policies, but at a distance.

Cameron argues that there are only three justifications for quangos: to carry out work that is necessarily independent of government; to offer transparency on the work of government; and for technical expertise unavailable in government. That would still leave quite a lot of quangos and, as Labour was quick to point out yesterday, Cameron's small state instincts would lead him to create a lot more, from the proposed "office of budgetary responsibility" upwards or downwards.

But at least he seems to recognise that central and local government should carry out tasks performed by many of the quangos, not least because they are held accountable for the policies. He could have also added that, in too many areas, the functions of the Civil Service seem to be duplicated or in some cases are carried out by more than one additional agency. There are also consultancies in the private sector growing rich carrying out projects in which they do lavishly paid work that should be undertaken by the vast Whitehall machine. The Home Office is a fruitful area; so is the Department of Work and Pensions. Either there should be a much smaller Civil Service or savings can be made in these areas too.

Cameron said ministers should be held responsible for the implementation of policy at all times. He is asking for the impossible. The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank had a much more interesting idea in a recent report in which it argued that permanent secretaries in Whitehall should be held to account for implementation of policy, interviewed in the media and questioned more regularly by MPs in public, while ministers should be responsible for the actual policies themselves. So if the Conservatives win the next election, George Osborne would be responsible for the economic policies but we would hear much more from the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, among others, about their implementation.

I return via Osborne to the first couple of thoughts. There are some savings to be made by governing in a different way, with more robust lines of accountability and lower pay for those with relatively undemanding remits. But this represents no more than a pebble thrown in a sea of whirling gloom if the Conservatives believe the answer to Britain's indebtedness is to cut deep and quickly.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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