A quango sounds like a monstrous beast conjured from the imagination of Lewis Carroll. There is something inherently preposterous about the very word. No wonder the public love the idea of the culling these quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations and their hordes of politically correct bureaucrats. Until, that is, you ask whether it is a good idea to keep politics out of issues better decided by experts – like whether a new drug is value-for-money for the NHS. Or to keep politicians away from matters that require impartiality – like the news values of the BBC, one of the most precious quangos on the British national landscape. Some of the things that quangos do suddenly seem rather a good idea.
The Government said at first that abolishing quangos would save hundreds of millions. But then the Institute for Government suggested otherwise. Some functions would have to be taken into government departments. There would be big costs in redundancy, relocation, retraining and recruitment. The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, announcing the end of one in four quangos yesterday, tried to insist that the changes were not about saving money but promoting accountability by removing decisions from unelected officials and restoring them to ministers. He set out three criteria to distinguish a good quango from a bad one. They must perform a technical function; deal with something that requires political impartiality; or need to act independently to establish facts. Those are sound theoretically, but the dissolution of the quangos is already throwing up some muddling practicalities.
Some of these changes are to be applauded. The Food Standards Agency has failed to protect consumers from the lobbying of big business. Others, like the Children's Commissioner, seem to have been set up in response to the cry that "something must be done" rather than discharging a need for practical change. Some, like the Design Council, will be better off turned into charities.
But it is hard to see what will be gained from scrapping the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority – which is funded by users not taxpayers – and which has been an effective watchdog. And how will local trading standards offices have the clout to tackle cavalier treatment by big banks when they inherit responsibilities from the Office of Fair Trading? Babies and bathwater come to mind. Reform of the quangos must be judicious rather than headline-chasing. Otherwise many will suspect that ideology rather than efficiency is the Government's true motivation.