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
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
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
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
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
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
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.