November 8, 2010 6:26 pm

Fears on threat to autonomy in quango shake-up

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Quangos whose prime function is to operate independently of ministers may be less willing to do so in future, the Institute for Government has warned.

Bodies such as Ofcom, the Office of Fair Trading and the Inspectorate of Prisons risked losing the “fearless independence” they needed because of powers that the coalition is taking in its public bodies bill to scrap almost 200 quangos and modify many more.

Under the bill, Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, is seeking powers that would allow the government to abolish, merge or modify any quango in future – not just those already identified for revision or the chop.

Bodies listed in the bill that could be subject to those powers include the Low Pay Commission, the Climate Change Committee, the Competition Commission, the Parole Board and others that are currently set to survive.

These bodies performed “highly delicate public functions, which require them to act and be seen to act independently of government and with self-confidence”, the institute said.

Such organisations “scrutinise government performance, give regulatory certainty and protect public standards”. They needed to be able to perform such functions “without the implicit threat that the government can, at any time, through secondary legislation, modify their powers or abolish them. The danger is that they will become more circumspect in exercising their duties.”

Calling on ministers to think again, Lord Adonis, the institute’s director, said: “The hidden threat will inevitably affect relationships with departments and ministers – because fearless independence could lead to loss of function.”

Bodies that genuinely needed independence should be removed from the list of those that ministers in future could scrap by secondary legislation, he said.

The sweeping nature of the bill, whose second reading in the Lords is due on Tuesday, has already come under fire from the Lords constitution committee.

Many of the bodies to be scrapped were the subject of extensive parliamentary debate when created, the committee said. “We fail to see why such parliamentary debate and deliberation should be denied to proposals now to abolish or redesign such bodies.”

Mr Maude has said that all remaining quangos will be subject to a review every three years to ensure their functions were still required. However, the bill made no provision for that, the institute noted. Instead it contained “catch-all powers” to let ministers abolish quangos at will in future.

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