Unelected, unaccountable and still unchallenged

Every year thousands of undemocratic organisations spend vast sums of public money. Labour has promised to `sweep away the quango state'. But is it doing enough?
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Opening the debate following the Queen's Speech setting out his new government's programme, Tony Blair said that "a Britain that is young of mind and confident of its future must change a situation in which unelected quangos spend more money than elected local government". This is one area where Labour has raised expectations but which it looks set to disappoint. Already Blair was stepping back from his strong speech, two years ago at a Labour Party conference, in which he said, "It is time to sweep away the quango state."

Labour's promises are echoes of those made by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s when their commitment to do away with these unelected organisations which administer vast sums of public money proved to be pure bunkum. They created hundreds of new quangos by removing powers from local government or devolving central government functions. But Labour, despite its rhetoric, looks as if it will be hard-pressed even to reduce the number of quangos by the end of its first term of office. We now live in a quango society and only very radical action would change it.

It would help if we knew the number of quangos and the extent of their powers, but this is part of the problem: the information is not published centrally. The Government does issue a booklet called Public Bodies but this only lists those which are non-departmental, that is, are not part of a specific government department and only includes national bodies. Whole swathes of the quango state, such as Training and Enterprise Councils, universities and the executive agencies that have been hived off from government, are all omitted.

Stuart Weir and Wendy Hall, in a series of pamphlets for Charter 88, have managed to outline the extent of the quango state. They estimate that there are some 5,750 executive quangos, crudely defined as those which do something and spend money doing it. In addition, there are some 674 committees which have an advisory role. There are, of course, multiple problems of definition about which bodies qualify as quangos. For example, Training and Enterprise Councils generally are excluded because they are private companies. But with the bulk of their income coming from taxpayers, this is illogical.

Spending by these executive quangos is a significant proportion of overall government expenditure. Weir and Hall put the figure for last year at around pounds 64bn, more than a third of total government spending. (Local government spending, they estimate, was pounds 73.4bn). The public are kept in the dark about where all the money goes. A third of the quangos - including many major and controversial bodies such as the Funding Agency for School and the Public Health Laboratory Services Board - do not even bother to produce an annual report. Only 2 per cent of the 5,000-plus quangos have open meetings of their boards or ruling bodies.

While the spending by advisory committees is small beer by comparison, they are even more unaccountable and secretive. The reasoning behind appointments of the great and good to these committees is rarely given and a derisory 4 per cent of them bother to produce annual reports. Some of the committees have been derided for using taxpayers' money for such lofty purposes as deciding which wines to choose for official dinners, or which polar explorers deserve medals.

The spread of the quango state is opposed because of their lack of accountability, their secrecy, and their fundamentally undemocratic nature. So what could Labour do if it were in radical mood? Even critics of the quango state, such as Weir, admit that they are a necessary part of modern Western democracies. Instead of attempting to abolish all of them, Weir says the Government should "make them more transparent, whether through election, audit, or ombudsmen as well as through Parliament. The notion of ministerial accountability for such bodies is far too frail."

Labour has promised to review the appointments procedure to ensure that the reason behind particular selections is made clear, signalling an end to cronyism and the "Tory wives" syndrome. This will mean changes. Indeed, there are thousands of appointees, particularly chairs of major bodies, who must be resigned to their fate. At one time there was talk of a Labour list of their own "great and good" to replace the Tory appointees, but this has been quietly dropped. Now Labour politicians are steadfastly refusing to answer questions about how they will deal with the issue. While they want to resist accusations of large-scale political patronage, they don't want to leave the Tory placemen in position.

Labour has also promised to make quangos more financially accountable by ensuring that members can be made responsible for the misallocation of funds, in the same way that local councillors can be surcharged.

Welcome as these moves may be, they fall well short of a radical challenge to the quango state. John Stewart, a Birmingham University academic and quango watcher, does not expect much from the Labour government. "Labour," he says, "has long criticised the democratic deficit but it has never given any details of what it plans to do about it." There are suggestions that local authorities should draw up community plans involving the democratisation of local quangos and that the mooted regional assemblies may be given scrutiny powers over quangos. But Stewart adds: "On the whole, they are not going to go for direct democratic control."

It is only in London where there is a real challenge to the quangocracy that was created by the abolition of the Greater London Council. Here Labour plans an elected mayor and all-London assembly. But this will merely make up some of the democratic deficit resulting from Mrs Thatcher's famous act of municipal vandalism in the capital, where the lack of a strategic authority has been particularly damaging. In Scotland and Wales, too, there will be a reassessment of quangos.

But nationally, Labour needs to take the bull by the horns. The best way would be through a thorough review of the functions of each quango, or type of quango, and an assessment of how it could be made more accountable.

But such a democratic audit would only be worthwhile if Labour were to overcome its mistrust of local government and begin to give back some of the powers taken from local councils in the past two decades.