Thursday, 21 October 2010

Never let the facts get in the way of a good headline

In the last few weeks, we’ve all been treated to media headlines about government plans to ‘slash the number and budgets of quangos’. I expect most people’s immediate response was to think that was a good thing. But, all is not as it seems.

Why do we have quangos? There are different types:
• where government control of decisions would be wrong – like the Crown Prosecution Service
• executive agencies, which are given a degree of operational control to drive innovation and efficiency – like the Land Registry
• advisory bodies – like the Low Pay Commission, which makes recommendations on the minimum wage
• executive bodies – like the British Museum.

Anyone reading the headlines would think they’ve been growing like topsy. They haven’t. There were 1128 in 1997 and 752 now – a cut of 40%. And, last year, the Labour government announced plans to cut another 140, with a budget saving of £500m. That is as it should be – government must continually review ways in which it can be efficient, effective and responsive.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the Conservatives promised in their manifesto to set up 20 new quangos and, then, in the emergency budget, to slash spending on quangos. But last week, as more and more information came to light that their proposals wouldn’t actually do what they said, the government minister responsible, Francis Maude, told us that ‘the main purpose was to increase accountability’.

It is now clear that the proposals were designed to produce lots of populist headlines – certainly achieved – but that they hadn’t been thought through.

Let me take just one example from my area of special interest. Completely out of the blue and with no consultation, Eric Pickles announced that he was going to abolish the Audit Commission and save £50m.

The Audit Commission is responsible for auditing the accounts of councils, health authorities and other public bodies. That work still has to be done in the future, so Mr Pickles says it will be done by private-sector auditors instead. Well, all the evidence, from tendering exercises over the last 10 years, tells us that that is going to cost more.

The Commission has also driven the really successful performance improvement programme. That may go to the National Audit Office, but it won’t cost any less.

And, now it has been revealed that, instead of saving £50m, the way in which Mr Pickles is proposing to wind up the Commission may actually cost £200m.

I’ve already asked a number of Parliamentary Questions to try to get all the facts on the table. The Select Committee, which I chair, will certainly be investigating further.

But, the real lesson is that good headlines are no substitute for good government.

CLIVE BETTS MP [Sheffield South East]