Effective scrutiny from select committees would ensure that these sometimes shadowy non-governmental organisations would shape up, or be shut down
The bonfire of the quangos became a damp squib for David Cameron. The cuts the Conservative leader announced proved to be something of an oxymoron, because he also planned to create 17 new organisations in a sector which already enjoys much overlap between organisations. This did not fit the mood of much of the media. There is an appetite for blood letting. When the issue of quasi non-governmental organisations crops up, some want savage cuts, massacres, slaughter. For some, quangos are the epitome of all that is bad with modern politics. Bloated, vaguely formed, self-righteous groups that operate in a shadow sub-political world away from direct scrutiny by the voter.
There are certainly a lot of them. Exactly how many appears impossible to establish accurately: estimates range from 700 to 1200. Isn't that ridiculous? If we are to debate the contribution these organisations make to running the country, the first move by the government should be to state their number and size.
To pick one example, New Covent Garden has its very own quango. The Covent Garden Marketing Authority, entirely separate from the local council, has existed as a quango since 1961. New Covent Garden is a hugely popular wholesale market. The Authority is a tempting target for quango critics. Even DEFRA wants to place it in private hands, but has failed to achieve this so far.
Quangos offer plenty of well-remunerated career routes. Spend any time at political functions or summer peceptions, particularly in local government, and you will meet friendly, intelligent people who staff quangos you have never heard of. This is sometimes due to regretful ignorance ofthe part of the journalist but also because the sheer number of quangos means the relationship between many organisations in British political life is so complicated as to be unmappable.
These organisations operate a step behind politicians. Huge power is devolved to them and they are given large budgets. They use their own language and acronyms. The vast majority are completely unknown to the public, but make decisions which affect them. It is easy to see a problem here. There is a lack of accountability. Ministers can speak until they're blue in the face about how they carefully oversee the quangos - but there has been a distinct lack of casualties in the quango world to indicate this is done properly.
As ever, when talk arises of swingeing cuts, there are perfectly good quangos which do a good job and provide value for money. If we do witness a massacre, perfectly effective organisations could be lost alongside the pointless. Quangos themselves are becoming nervous. They are aware the political mood is shifting. Expect a huge amount of activity this autumn as they desperately seek to highlight the good work and ideas they produce. Reports and initiatives will pour out. With a general election less than a year away, there is suddenly a need to justify themselves.
Scanning the long list of quangos, it is easy to feel rather alarmed. The culture of the quango has existed for decades. Occasionally they may be helpful; Government departments can staff them with experts who can concentrate on their speciality, leaving ministers time to take strategic decisions for example. But the endless creation of new quangos must stop - while existing ones must face greater scrutiny.
Select committees, hopefully free of the malign hand of the whips if new reforms are introduced, should report annually on the contribution of quangos relevant to their areas. There should be a careful cull by whichever party persuades the public of their governmental worth at the next election.
The select committees reports would be accompanied by a debate in Parliament and a corresponding report from the Office of National Statistics with simple figures on the number of quangos and their cost. Scrutiny would highlight the good work of the effective quangos and force the poor ones to face up to their failures.