Scotland's quangos: Top executives' earnings that breach public pay rules invite close scrutiny – Scotsman comment

The Scotsman today begins a series of articles about quangos with an investigation into the salaries paid to some senior executives

Quangos really do matter. If you start the day by splashing water on your face, then travel by train to work in a foreign-owned company recently enticed to Scotland, and later watch a play during a night out at the theatre, you may have unknowingly experienced the consequences of decisions made by just some of the scores of ‘quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisations’ in Scotland.

These bodies – funded by the taxpayer but kept at arm’s length from democratic influence – touch our lives on a daily basis and how they are run is a matter of public interest. Today The Scotsman begins a series of articles on quangos with a concerning report that the heads of a number of quangos are paid more than the upper limit of the national public sector pay strategy.

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Oddly, several of these public servants earn more than the person who could be described as their ‘boss’, Scotland’s First Minister – currently paid £176,780, including MSP salary. At least 20 are paid more than £150,000 a year, and 69 receive £100,000 or above.

Union members at Scottish Water went on strike in a dispute over pay last year (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)Union members at Scottish Water went on strike in a dispute over pay last year (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)
Union members at Scottish Water went on strike in a dispute over pay last year (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

There is, of course, a strong argument that those who pay peanuts get monkeys and it is important to compete in the marketplace for top executive talent if quangos are to be well run. However, particularly following a period in which many public sector workers’ incomes have fallen behind inflation, there is a moral dimension to the salaries of top executives, as well as a question of leadership.

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‘Eye-watering’ quango chief salaries in breach of public pay rules

STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham expressed the anger of union leaders, saying: “It cannot be one rule for the workers – those who are routinely demonised for simply asking for their pay not to be cut during near-record rates of inflation and a cost-of-living crisis – and another rule for the head honchos, who seem to act with impunity.”

The fact that the national pay strategy is being breached invites further scrutiny of the way decisions are taken. Do the salaries truly reflect the complexity of the roles? Are they genuinely necessary to ensure there is sufficient competition for the job and to provide an ongoing incentive to do well? Might it be possible to pay less but still have dedicated, high-performing executives? The answer to that last question might well be “no”, but taxpayers have a right to know that this is not a gravy train for compliant ‘quangoteers’ willing to do the Scottish Government’s bidding.

Such questions might prompt politicians to think it’s time for a new ‘quango pay review’ quango, to deflect blame. However, we suspect some members of the public might instead start to question if it is necessary to have quite so many and whether another ‘bonfire of the quangos’ might be worth considering.

Independent, arm’s length organisations’ protected from political influence sound beneficial. ‘Unaccountable, autocratic bureaucrats’ who spend lots of our money and take decisions that affect our lives with little explanation or oversight, less so.

Many quangos do vital and necessary work. But some appear to have been born out of a loss of confidence in democracy. Is it impossible to imagine Scottish Water could be incorporated into a government department, rather than being a quango overseen by another quango, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, which then reports to ministers? Might this be just as effective but also cheaper and more democratic?

The high rate of executive pay is an issue by no means confined to quangos. But their special status – at arm’s length from the politicians who hand over our money – means we have a right to ask tough questions, and expect to receive a satisfactory reply.



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