Alison Payne: ‘It is not what quangos do, but the way they do it that is the problem’

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IN SCOTLAND in 2010-11, £14 billion of taxpayers’ money was handed out to quangos by the Scottish Government, representing almost half the entire Scottish budget.

Although a large element of this was health spending, even when money given to health bodies is stripped out, the figure is still more than £5bn.

The problem with quangos, or non-departmental public bodies, is that they are neither fully democratically accountable nor fully independent of government. Using arm’s-length bodies to carry out key activities can lead to a lack of transparency and accountability.

A democracy should have an established and clear chain of accountability to the electorate. Civil servants tend to work in a government department headed by a minister who is accountable to the Scottish Parliament between elections and to the public at elections. Therefore, there is a clear line of accountability between public sector action and the electorate.

Equally, independent organisations which enter into contractual relationships with government to deliver certain services also offer greater clarity and transparency in the delivery of government objectives.

However, the growth of quangos has distorted accountability because such organisations have less direct ministerial involvement. This also allows government to hive off difficult decisions to non-government bodies and reduce the consequences.

Over the years, there have been many attempts by governments at Holyrood to cut the number of quangos. However, they have failed because they have focused on the wrong target. They have looked at the functions of the different bodies and tried to simplify or merge them to reduce waste and bureaucracy. This ignores the real problem.

It is not what quangos do, but the way they do it that is the fundamental problem.

This needs to change because the power exercised by government in our democracy derives from the consent of the people and should be exercised in their interests.

Reform Scotland believes there needs to be a presumption against quangos because of a lack of accountability. We believe there is plenty of scope for functions to be devolved to local government which would deliver the double benefit of enhanced accountability and real devolution.

• Alison Payne is research director at Reform Scotland.