Today’s Daily Telegraph news story which leaks Government plans to close circa 170 Quangos (that’s Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation for the uninitiated) will sharply divide the political classes. Those on the left of the political spectrum will foam at the mouth over the cutting. Those on the right will rejoice.
I suspect the reaction in the country will be far more apathetic. Those with experience of dealing with the Advisory Committee on the Government Art Collection or the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (presumably a left-over from the Great War) will potentially mourn their loss, but I suspect most of us will read the list of Quangos under threat and ask the perfectly reasonable question of many of them, what do they do exactly?
There is a wider issue. Labour at their party conference next week will present this as a threat to public services, but many of the bodies scheduled for the axe sit between Government and those actually implementing on the ground. From my experience many of those on the ground regard the elongated chain of command as cumbersome and a direct threat to effective implementation.
Let’s take the Health Protection Agency for example. I remember speaking to the Director of Public Health for one of our major cities during the height of the swine flu outbreak. I was told that in order to temporarily close a school or even send out a press release informing the media of outbreak numbers, she had to seek permission from the Health Protection Agency, who in turn asked the Department of Health. The answer normally came back about a week later.
Now I’m assuming that the Director of Public Health for one of our major cities is paid quite a nice salary and knows what he or she is doing. But with that salary must come responsibility (to be fair she wanted responsibility just wasn’t allowed to have it). There is little point in paying for a Director of Public Health if even their minor decisions have to be signed off by a quango, which in this case was even unwilling to take responsibility itself.
One of the most interesting parts of Andrew Marr’s recent interview with Tony Blair was the former Prime Minister’s admission that, with hindsight, he should have turned off the cash tap in 2005 and started to drive value through public services rather than continue to spend. I’m not anti Quango and there are legitimate concerns about who will pick up responsibility for key issues, such as waterways protection with the decline of British Waterways, but it is vital that the public gets value for money. If that is what Cameron now has in mind, rather than just slash and burn, I suspect it will find favour with large swathes of the electorate.