After exam fiasco we need a bonfire of the 412 quangos undermining MPs

THE way government works is at best a mystery to many of the public, who believe they go to the polls every few years and elect a government who will be judged on whether they deliver on promises.

After all, it should be simple — ministers are in charge and if something goes wrong, they must carry the can.

Yet over the last few weeks, finger- pointing and a blame game by ministers seems to suggest they believe someone else should carry the can for failure.

Whatever happened to “advisers advise and ministers decide”?

David Cameron promised a “bonfire of the quangos” before he came to power in 2010 — but it seems on the surface little has really changed.

Recently, two public bodies have become household words and not, it seems, for positive reasons.

Public Health England (PHE) and The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual).

The former because it has been responsible for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the latter because it produced the policy for the overseeing of this year’s A-level and GCSE grades.

For PHE, the list of problems with its handling of Covid-19 is a long one.

From poor provision of PPE, and testing problems, to the tracking app that had to be abandoned and over- stated death figures.

In turn, Ofqual has faced fierce criticism of its role in the A-level grades fiasco which resulted in the Government having to junk its algorithm and do an embarrassing U-turn.

The Government now publicly says PHE is not up to the job and wants to replace it — and at the same time criticises Ofqual, blaming it for the exams debacle.

These two spats shine a light on the level of quangocracy in government, with confusion over the chain of command and who should shoulder the blame when it goes wrong.

A look at the list reveals an astonishing number of these bodies.

In fact, there are 412 Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) and executive agencies and public bodies, not to mention the non-ministerial departments.

This myriad of semi-detached bodies have confusing lines of responsibility.

For example, NDPBs are not part of government departments.

In effect independent, they operate at arm’s length from ministers. Yet despite this independence, ministers are meant to be accountable for them and meant to exercise control.

Then there are Executive Agencies, more accountable to ministers, yet ministers should not be involved with their day-to-day operations.

Finally, Non-Ministerial Departments, which have no direct ministerial accountability, are very independent yet have a “sponsor minister” who has responsibility for their policy, even though the minister does not have a say in their operations.

Confusing as that may be, what is not confusing is what happens to salaries once such bodies become semi-detached.

These are astonishing. Some 356 people who work in public-health roles across the country earned in excess of £100,000 in 2018-19.

That amounts to a staggering £35.6million. Twenty-one of them earned more than the Prime Minister.

Dr Adrian Mairs, acting director at the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland, earned £311,500 and Public Health England’s London director, Yvonne Doyle, was paid £257,500.

At the top of the salary list sits Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2, whose pay package was £659,416 including a £36,743 performance bonus.

In comparison, the outgoing head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, with wide responsibilities, earns just over £200,000.

This significant growth in these arm’s- length government bodies and their operation has come in for criticism.

In 2015, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee reported on relationships between government and these bodies.

The committee found that while the Cabinet Office stated that public bodies should inform Parliament of their activities in annual reports, at the time only 63 per cent did.

The report concluded: “Lines of accountability need to be clarified and in some cases altered” and, importantly, “the Government must focus on relationships and engagement with public bodies.”

It went on to make an important point that relationships should be high-trust and low-cost, but too often are low-trust and high-cost.

As we witness the breakdown in relationships, that critique still stands.

There are too many semi-detached government bodies exercising significant control over the way we live our lives and at high cost.

It is time we reappraised how government should work and lit a bonfire under many on this list.

Governments are elected to take responsibility for what happens on their watch and ministers should shoulder that responsibility and not shirk it.

Instead of moaning about decisions taken by such bodies, we need to reform the system.

There is no escaping that ultimate responsibility must lie with government.

But for that to work, where ultimate authority lies must also be clear.

To be a minister is a privilege and should come with a sign on your desk saying: “The buck stops here.”

So if we don’t think the system works like that, reform it and stop the vanity of finger-wagging and blame.

  • Sir Iain is a Tory MP and ex-party leader.

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