VOTERS can be forgiven a wearisome sense of déjà vu on reading the latest call for a proposed "inferno of the quangos".
It follows a long line of similar earnest declarations from politicians to bring the ever expanding machinery of government under control. It is perceived as a generally right-of-centre battle cry. But the first reference to a "bonfire of controls" was, in fact, made by the former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson when serving at the Board of Trade in 1948. It was met with popular enthusiasm at the time. And there is little doubt that a similar bonfire, this time of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, would be equally popular.
In a paper published today, Reform Scotland argues that the bonfire should become an inferno, with virtually all of Scotland\’s 115 public bodies scrapped in order to drive transparent and accountable government. The general advice is that they should be made fully independent bodies, brought back under government control or scrapped altogether.
Quangos have grown insidiously over the years, multiplying across civic Scotland like some self-seeding knotweed. Together with the manifestly unaccountable NHS boards, with their breathtakingly large salaries at the top, they accounted for some £13 billion of Scottish Government expenditure in 2008-9, or 43 per cent of the total. They thrive in a political no man\’s land – broadly constituted and appointed by government, semi-independent of government, but not accountable to the electorate.
The Reform Scotland proposals are not quite the clarion call to smaller government that has fired previous critiques of the quango state. Indeed, the critique is aimed not at quangos per se but at the opaque way in which they operate. There is thus much here that should attract broad party support. It does not, for example, call for the abolition of Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and VisitScotland but rather that they should be brought under the direct control of ministers. Some functions should be handed to local authorities. And it recommends other bodies, such as National Museums of Scotland, should be granted full independence from ministers, entering into a formal contract with government to provide services for a fixed term.
However, while there is much here with which many will agree, searching questions remain. Why have quangos persisted for so long? What explains their resilience to previous culls and bonfires? One reason is that they are able to attract informed, experienced and independent advice and support that might not otherwise be available to government. And, by virtue of their constitution, they can provide greater civic involvement and participation. Equally, some activities are best undertaken at arm\’s length from central and local government. Those that perform well should not be scrapped just because they do not neatly fit into the government machine.
That said, many have outlived their usefulness and are in need of review and cull. This is a welcome step towards an overdue weeding out.