As Treasury Minister Liam Byrne limbers up to axe a few quangos next week, he will be hoping no doubt that the public does not discover the truth about our quango state. It is scary stuff. I am told that up to 90 per cent – 90 per cent – of our government is carried out not by ministerial departments, which are the tip of the iceberg, but by a vast quangocracy operating below the waterline and beyond the ken of the rest of us or of our MPs.
The quangos go by a dozen different names, there is no democratic rhyme or reason to them and they have been with us for centuries, as have vain attempts to bring them under control. Oh, and – just to cheer you up – if they did not exist we would have to invent them.
The frightening evidence of quango power comes in a book by Matthew Flinders called Delegated Governance and the British State: Walking Without Order. Yes, I know the title is a bit of a mouthful but it won Professor Flinders an award from the Political Studies Association last week and I understand that Liam Byrne and his so-called smarter government team have been poring over it for months. (As have the Tories apparently.)
Prof Flinders does not mince his words. “The delegation of power to quangos is not a bad thing as such but not when they are allowed to grow willy nilly, some of them spawning new bodies of their own,” he tells me. “There are about 5,000 nationwide and some 1,500 centrally. The issue is how to control these tentacles of the state – the monster has so many legs you don’t know if it’s walking forwards or backwards.”
The history of the quango in his book makes grim reading. The first ones appeared at the end of the 17th century and the numbers, like Topsy, just growed. By 1941 one Whitehall report said: “We shall soon reach the stage where it can be seriously asked whether we have democracy when we are governed by a vast array of boards, commissions, corporations, companies and authorities remote from parliament and the people.”
Then came Margaret Thatcher campaigning against “the croak of the quango”. By dint of relabeling some and merging lots of smaller ones, the Tories cut the quango count by 50 per cent. No, do NOT cheer – the cost of the remaining bodies went from £6bn to £22bn! Labour, in its first 10 years in power, then created 300 new bodies.
Mr Byrne is at least talking about “arm’s length bodies”, which covers most forms of quango. He asked Whitehall departments to come up with lists of quangos for culling. Professor Flinders fears officials will simply put up a few sacrificial lambs and protect the rest.
“Delegated power is part of modern government,” he says. “It brings in outside expertise, creates a buffer zone round political hot potatoes and cuts ministerial overload. But instead of muddling through, we need a clear framework so that everyone understands where power lies and who is making the decisions so that parliament can properly oversee the state.” He says there has never been a big enough crisis to stimulate real reform of the quango state. (Do not hold your breath for Mr Byrne’s plans.) Let us hope that the pressures on public spending will at last force a fundamental rethink.
Good to hear so many Whitehall knights singing like canaries to Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq war. As I forecast last week (you read it here first) many want to set the record straight not for themselves but for the damage that Tony Blair’s methods caused to public trust, to Whitehall and the military.
Yet have they no fear that the Tories will not go in for Blair-style sofa government? “No,” says one senior insider. “The Tories will have to take such tough decisions that they will need to bind everyone in – including cabinet ministers and their officials. If they try to rule with a tiny group of political advisers there will be more resistance this time round. The civil service will not let it happen without a fight. Besides, no future PM will want to repeat Blair’s mistakes.” Quite.
Meanwhile, in the Number 10 bunker I learn that tempers are still being lost, phones thrown etc, etc. I am told that in the middle of saving the world from economic disaster, Gordon Brown was so incensed by one middle-ranking official daring to disagree with him that he rang not once but twice to shout at him.