The Government’s plans for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ have today come under fire from a committee of cross-party MPs. The Public Administration Committee (PASC) has published the results of their inquiry into the Government’s plans to shrink the quango state, arguing that they have been “poorly managed” and "created a false expectation that the review would deliver greater savings".
Streamlining the number of arms length bodies (ALBs) has long been a point of political argument and one which has gained almost unanimous public support. In addition, this has been an issue on which (in rhetoric at least) there has been relative political consensus across the parties for some time. In 1995, as Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown called for “a bonfire of the quangos and greater democracy” and in 2005, as Chancellor, he repeated the trick, resulting in a renewed cull. In 2010 both David Cameron and Nick Clegg made their own promises the end of the quango state. Why, then, has this aim proved so difficult to achieve?
The notion of removing bureaucracy and saving money is generally at the centre of the argument for cutting down the number of ALBs. However, actually quantifying expected cost savings has proved a tricky task. Take the Department of Health for example, which plans to abolish five of its 18 ALBs and bring the functions of many other advisory groups back in to the Department. Labour’s shadow health team has questioned the Department on associated staff numbers and planned redundancies, but few details about the financial implications of the reforms are actually available. In fact, Health Minister Simon Burns stated that “the Department is not yet able to produce robust costings of the changes arising from this re-organisation”.
Alongside this is the fact that some quangos and ALBs fulfil an important role and one which would be hard or costly to reorganise or recreate elsewhere. The Government’s review took this into account, asking of each body: does it perform a necessary function and does that function need to be independent of political influence? While important questions, these are not exactly free from subjectivity. As the PASC report argued, these tests, "may have seemed superficially plausible at the outset, but they are hopelessly unclear". Making a decision on which quangos to keep and which to throw on the bonfire is rarely going to be a clear cut decision.
So what next for the reforms? The report, though highly critical, is likely to have little impact on the Public Bodies Bill which has already begun its passage through Parliament. That doesn’t mean that the debate on the issue is over. Expect to see further scrutiny on the cost and service implications of the reforms, and an opposition party (and media) eager to criticise the Government for the creation of any new ‘independent bodies’. This may be one policy area that seems much easier to handle from outside of Government.