There has never been an effective bonfire of the quangos nor is one likely. The number of these beasts varies – the best estimates are around 2,000 just for central government, but it could be more, depending on definitions. The powers they exercise vary: they may give advice, or just design forms, or administer an area of law, or may actually make law. They may meet twice a year and consider a niche field, or they may have a billion-pound budget and more staff than a major company.
The landscape of quangocracy
The existence of any given body may be unknown to any but a small circle – some may not be known even to the ministers nominally responsible, and certainly responsible ministers may have little knowledge of what “their” quangos are doing. The scope for corruption is high; the scope for forceful members to usurp authority is limitless.
A body which is not watched will step beyond its scope, and individuals will gravitate to it who have their own agenda, which is likely to differ from the instincts of the democratic element of government.
All this is well understood by government, but with little idea of how to control it. The occasional little bonfire makes a minister feel good, but barely dents the system, and as one head is cut off the hydra, three more arise to fill the space, each time a politician wishes to be seen to be doing something.
Private business contrasted
To open the system, let us apply principles applied to private business.
Limited companies are under a single system contained in a single Act of Parliament (currently the Companies Act 2016) which is intuitive and well understood, and which applies comfortably to all limited companies, from a one-man enterprise to a multinational conglomerate. Each is registered at Companies House, whereupon it receives legal personality and limited liability in return for a degree of openness: it must have a registered office and publish its accounts and the names of its directors, amongst other details. This is so that that those doing business with the company can see what they are dealing with when they sign a contract.
A ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation’ may be entrusted with a huge budget and legal powers without the same degree of openness. Freedom of information requests may prise the lid off, but it is slow and you need to know where to look. If a quango were a company, all this would be on a database published on-line.
Quangos are not all of a type: one may be established and organised by its own Act of Parliament or statutory instrument, royal charter or ministerial fiat. Some are essentially just committees, others vast bureaucracies and most in between, and most are run by part-time commissioners who may sit on many boards and flit across the public sector; a professional tax-eating class who have been dubbed the ‘quangocrats’: in the meantime, the real control is in the hands of unaccountable employed staff. A public body may have legal personality or not, with more official autonomy or less. A new body may be an old one renamed or two merged, inheriting the debts and duties of the predecessors, or a fresh invention.
For a member of the public faced with a faceless quango which may or may not legally exist and may or may not be the same body they started dealing with, the prospect of redress from an uncertain entity is daunting.
A Minister too cannot be expected to keep track of what is being done and spent in his name. Whenever he wants to trim of bureaucracy, he can have no idea of what that bureaucracy is. He may also find that the individuals who are set to lose one of their salaries can subvert that change using several other bodies, hiding behind their anonymous notepaper.
In such an unpoliced system, a driven individual can impose their radical ideas, ‘leading beyond authority’, with little chance of being stopped.
Register the establishment
Therefore, let us register the quangos at Companies House (and resist the Whitehall habit of establishing a new, expensive quango-over-the-quangos that has to work things out from scratch with an expensive new system and new commissioners).
Every public body other than main ministries, whether incorporated or not, must register. As is expected of every private company however small, it must have a name, a registered office at which it can be contacted or sued, and be issued with a unique company number which will follow it through all its changes of name and shape. Its nature must be clear: is it incorporated or not, and with Crown immunities or not. As a company must register its Articles of Association, we must know the constitution of every quango, and its directors, and the ‘shareholder’ who appoints and dismisses them: he too must take responsibility. The public should know too what the quango’s duties and powers are, or state where they can be found. Finally, the accounts must be published at Companies House, available to all.
None of this is new information nor any burden to provide. It might even help the staff of the quango to have the information at their fingertips, as sometimes even they may forget what they are and what their job is.
The sanction for failure in a private company is a fine, and eventual dissolution. For a quango it should be this: unless their registration is complete and up to date, they may not receive any public funds, they may not levy any fee, and their officers remain unpaid.
It may be embarrassing to find that, say Birmingham City Council has failed to file its accounts on time and so is barred from levying council tax, but there must be discipline.
There will be arguments over what is and is not a registrable public body, which itself tells us something of the undesirable complexity of modern government. A simple answer may be that if it has an independent budget and is not just a task group of civil servants, it must register.
We may go further too and make the creation and the dissolution of quangos more systematic, which must simplify the process and save waste in repetition. Further, if a public body is established for a particular task, it must dissolve at the end of it, and that end date be flagged up on the register.
There has never yet been a successful bonfire of the quangos, but until they are all registered in one place, with an understood procedure for dissolution, it is not even contemplatable.