Birthing and slaying quangos rationally

A quango founded in response to a newspaper shock headline, tomorrow’s chip-wrapping, needed only to the end of the news-cycle. It may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.

Parliamentary practice to establish public bodies is ludicrously complex and accordingly abolishing or reforming them is complex. The usual practice is for an Act of Parliament to set out at length, over several sections and schedules, every aspect of the new body’s constitution, typically in exactly the same terms as every other quango. Consequently alteration or abolition requires another Act, laboriously pushed thrice through each House over a course of months.

A logical approach would be either to leave it for the relevant minister to constitue a body, or to pass one Act which lays down a general code for all future public bodies, so they can be created, and ended, in a single line. It is obvious logic. The Parliamentary Counsel, learned as they are, are not known for simple logic.

Anything created by any Act or instrument as a ‘public body’ shall have the following characteristics and be constituted as follows…..

Then any new Act in response to the latest news cycle can say “There shall be a public body called X“, and not fell a Norwegian forest describing it.

In the same way, Parliament should enact a general code for abolition or merger of a body, and achieve it each time in one line.

It would help if we knew what and where all these bodies are. I have urged that they all be registered at Companies House, with all members and accounts, and that none should be permitted to receive money unless registered. One could go further: if a private company is late with its filings it gets a warning and is then dissolved. I would not quite advocate that for bodies commanded into existence by Parliament, but such a failure could suggest redundancy and trigger a process towards abolition.

Quangos come and should go but are tenacious in justifying their own continuance, or growth and transformation into a new body; the same but with a new name. Greater Manchester County Council was created in 1974, abolished be an Act passed eleven years later: its residuary body lasted until 1989. The London Residuary Body endured for over eleven years. Someone was paying their salary, so why not make the job last?

The complexity of dissolution or merger discourages it. There is no need for the complexity.

If a private company is dissolved, there are known procedures laid down in the Insolvency Act, the Companies Act or the Friendly Societies Act determining how a company may dissolve itself or be dissolved, or merge, or be transformed, and then what happens to the assets, how creditors are paid and so forth. It is a rational set of procedures. Every high street accountant and lawyer is familiar with it. It is astounding that there is not the same sort of established procedure for quangos. Apply to public bodies the same code or an analogous one, and then a body may be dissolved by Parliament or the Minister with at a word.

Without such a procedure, quangos are left to muddle on redundantly, finding work for themselves, drinking taxpayers’ money and getting in the way, because it is easier to leave them there.

Registration would make it easy to identify quangos and who is responsible for them: having identified them their redundancy is more easily detected.

These are matters which can be achieved with a Powers and Bodies Act: codification, rationalisation and registration.

A new codifying Act would not just by all this sweep unwanted quangos away. It still needs positive ongoing action to identify and eliminate them.

To motivate quango members to finish the job so they can be abolished – that is the challenge. How to you motivate turkeys to vote for Christmas?

The first thing would be to give each a maximum lifespan. It could be a life ending when set tasks are achieved, but will just encourage them to delay finishing the work, which is the last thing you want. A fixed duration would concentrate in the minds of staff that they are out on a certain date, so they will be looking for new jobs as the date approaches, and are encouraged to finish the work properly to get a good reference. The Code could leave a slot to fill in a maximum duration.

For indefinite quangos, with no obvious term as they have a long-term mission, there is no termination date. They nevertheless will often fade into irrelevance: they may be kept on their toes by the threat of sudden abolition. A review process across the whole of quangoland – a proper one, with an assumption of abolition – is needed. It could only be effective though if the Code establishes a simple method of legal abolition. As long as each quango has its own private Act of Parliament and no way to be simply unwound, it can sit back and bask in its own immortality.

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Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes