Leading Article: Quangos prosper amid secrecy

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The Independent Online
STOPPING the rot within the British state will not be easy. A spoils system of government has become firmly established. Conservative Party loyalists can expect to reap the benefits of overseas aid contracts, sinecures on quangos, not to mention official honours, as reward for furthering and financing the Tory cause. The Independent's two-day investigation has revealed discreet but widespread connections between business and the ruling party that mean decisions are made with little reference to Parliament or voters.

MPs look impotent and irrelevant beside the biggest quangocrats, who hold multiple unelected posts and are responsible for spending millions of taxpayers' pounds. Nor do members of the Commons learn much about the real nature of often shady overseas deals to which the Government is party.

Oversight of what has become an 'alternative government' is cumbersome, haphazard and inadequate. Select committees labour reactively over scandals unearthed elsewhere. A few earnest backbenchers ask awkward questions, all too often diverted by ministers to some largely unaccountable agency. There is a sense of amateurishness about Parliamentary regulation.

Yet Britain must clean up public administration. The first step should be creation of registers detailing the membership, salaries, political affiliations and other interests of those charged with spending public money. Quangos should be open to the same public scrutiny as local authorities. There is no reason why their meetings should be closed or minutes secret. Systems for making appointments should be developed and jobs advertised: at the moment ministers are free to install whomever they like.

The most senior posts should be subject to vetting, perhaps by a select committee, and their holders open to surcharge in cases of maladministration.

Parliament cannot afford to shy from these measures. The House of Lords pointed the way by limiting the Home Secretary's powers to appoint members of police authorities. The same strictures could be applied to development agencies, NHS bodies and in the field of education. An enlarged National Audit Office should be charged with policing all quangos, many of which are still permitted to appoint their own auditors.

The challenge to the Civil Service is to reconcile commercial dynamism with the principle of public service. The same issue is raised, even more obviously, by the corruption of trade, aid and Tory party fund-raising. MPs must insist that the Government co-operate with international moves to stamp out commercial bribery overseas.

The Government is unlikely to adopt such a reformist agenda. Patronage equals power and power is never surrendered easily or willingly. Until there is a clamour to deal with the abuses of power that have been highlighted over the past two days, the sleaze, the back- scratching and the favours will carry on unabated.