Leading Article: Power, corruption and responsibility in Wales

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The Independent Online
OF WALES'S 38 MPs, only six are Tories. Britain being highly centralised, that does not prevent the Conservatives from ruling the roost there, through two main instruments: the Welsh Office, under the Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood; and some 90 quangos, whose chairmen and board members the same Secretary of State appoints.

According to a recent University of Wales study, pounds 2.1bn (34 per cent) of Welsh Office spending last year was dispensed by those quangos, which employ some 60,000 people. The report called it 'a formidable system of power, influence and patronage . . . controlled by a minority party'. Few things are more certain in life than that patronage tends to breed corruption, especially when large sums of public money are being disbursed. Welsh quangos have been peculiarly susceptible to such temptations.

That was once again demonstrated on Monday, when MPs on the Public Accounts Committee criticised the lack of disciplinary action following the revelation of malpractices at the Development Board for Rural Wales. Recently the National Audit Office found that more than 200 of the DBRW's tenancies had been allocated on the basis of non-official criteria - including two to the board's housing officer and his former wife.

Yet nobody has yet been dismissed or even reprimanded. Some heads did roll after what the PAC called 'a catalogue of serious and inexcusable breaches of expected standards of control and accountability' in 1991-2 at the No 1 quango, the Welsh Development Agency, then run by Dr Gwyn Jones, a businessman appointed by a former Welsh Secretary, Peter Walker.

After an inquiry the chief executive resigned, one executive director was dismissed and another demoted - and Mr Redwood lectured Welsh quango chairmen on the need for the 'highest standards of probity and fairness'.

The achievements of the Welsh Office and agencies in attracting investment to Wales deserve to be acknowledged. But ministers should accept responsibility for failures as well as successes. The exculpatory formula offered by the Welsh Office is that responsibility for staff errors rests with the quango boards, not the minister. The time has come to ask whether such shuffling-off of responsibility is acceptable. If quango chairmen will not accept responsibility for serious wrongdoing, those who appoint them must.