One watchdog could do work of 43 quangos, insists report

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SCOTLAND'S burgeoning body of inspectors, auditors, regulators and "tsars" should be culled and replaced by a single scrutiny organisation, an independent review said yesterday.

The blueprint for merging the 43 regulatory bodies in Scotland into one organisation came in a report which recommended radical changes to the monitoring of the public sector.

Professor Lorne Crerar's report into "regulation, audit, inspection and complaints handling in public services", proposed reforms which would fundamentally alter the scrutiny of everything from health and education, to social work, prisons and care homes.

As well as setting out the long-term aim of having a Scotland-wide inspections body, the 117-page report called for:

• the NHS to be subject to the same independent inspection as other public services;

• a single inspection of council services, ending the separate inspections of schools, education authorities and social services;

• complaints against public bodies to be handled locally, with the public-services ombudsman overseeing the system but not leading investigations;

• a halt to the creation of any new, specialised inspection or scrutiny bodies by the Scottish Parliament;

• a "risk-based" approach where decisions on whether to inspect public bodies were based on cost/benefit analysis;

• bodies which currently report to ministers - like her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education - to be given independence by answering to Holyrood.

Unveiling his report, Prof Crerar predicted his plans, welcomed by the Scottish Government, would save money.

He did not specify what the likely effects would be on the staffing of the 43 scrutiny bodies, which employ 1,900 people.

However, the report noted that the creation of a single, national body with a core staff, "expert in the business of external scrutiny", and with access to "a range of professionals" would use "flexible employment practice".

Research for the review, set up by the previous Executive, found that the direct costs of all these scrutiny bodies had risen by 55 per cent in three years, from 60 million in 2002-3 to 92 million in 2005-6.

Prof Crerar said there would be "a cost benefit" from his proposals. He added: "The natural conclusion will be that it costs less money, but that is within the context of the risks that the parliament wants to attend to."

He said that he had not been asked "to do a bonfire of the quangos", but that his report will give extra momentum to the SNP's efforts to "de-clutter" the public sector.

Prof Crerar said his proposals would mean "much less red tape". He added: "It will take a significant burden off service providers and allow them to get on with the provision of excellent public services."

A key element of the proposal was to introduce more "self- assessment" in councils with the end of "cyclical inspections" of schools, the education authorities and social services. He said: "Self-assessment can be self-delusional, but we have to move to that sort of environment."

His report called for a standard for the new complaints procedures for bodies such as councils or the NHS.

He said: "We should have a better complaints procedure because at the moment it is very, very confusing. There are about 21 bodies with complaints functions."

He also proposed that the functions of NHS Quality Improvement Scotland, the government's health directorates and the Care Commission should be made part of an independent scrutiny organisation.

Prof Crerar said: "I cannot see any reason why health should be different from anything else."

John Swinney, cabinet secretary for finance, welcomed the report as an "informed and excellent starting point".

He said: "This report will play a key part in our ongoing work to de-clutter, simplify and improve public services in Scotland."

TICKING OFF FOR BOX-TICKERS

THE leader of Scotland's largest local authority last night called for an end to the "tick-box and targets mentality" that diverts time and effort into dealing with inspections.

Steven Purcell, the Labour leader of Glasgow, said the council spent "hundreds of thousands of pounds" worth of senior officials' time dealing with scrutiny bodies.

Mr Purcell said: "It is important to have scrutiny but it should concentrate on what we do, what we deliver to the public.

"Inspections result in staff spending more time talking to outside bodies than to the public they serve."

Officials in Glasgow estimate handling one recent social-work inspection cost them 155,000, mainly in staff time.

Mr Purcell added: "Many of the inspections ask for the same information. There is a huge amount of wasteful duplication.

"The tick-box and targets mentality has become a way of life. This diverts us from providing the first-class personalised services the council-taxpayers rightly expect."