Headlines: July 28th, 1997

Quangos are, reputedly, the weakest area of government, but among the big spenders. One of the reason behind this view is their low visibility, which breeds suspicion. The Government’s approach to re-inventing government in quangoland has now become clear with the publication of the Scottish and Welsh Devolution White Papers and the statement by Dr David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on unelected public bodies.Reform of the quango structure is top of the reform agenda. In Wales, for example, it has been decided to abolish nine quangos and merge three more. It is proposed that the Welsh Assembly will have the right to review and restructure most of the remaining bodies. It will also have the power to transfer functions to local authorities. A key aspect of the role of the proposed Scottish Parliament will be to maintain an effective oversight of the Scottish public bodies with similar powers to the Welsh Assembly.

Following structural reforms, the thrust will be directed at making the bodies more accountable. The elected members of the Parliament and Assembly will have a responsibility to safeguard the interests of both user and taxpayer. With this will go the power to monitor performance and influence direction.

David Clark filled in the picture with proposals for England when he announced that a discussion paper on how democratic oversight of unelected bodies might be enhanced would be published in the Autumn. The paper will take the Nolan Committee recommendations fully into account. In making the announcement Dr Clark said: The discussion paper will set out options for achieving similar benefits in England to those proposed for Scotland and Wales. In the light of consultation, I shall bring forward proposals in the forthcoming White Paper on Better Government.”

The aim is to bring a uniform approach across the United Kingdom to the way public bodies operate.

The drive for greater accountability for quangos will be supported by the Freedom of Information Bill. The White paper is due to be published in October. The importance of the Bill will go well beyond specific measures for greater openness. It will seek to influence the culture of government and the way people on the inside perceive their responsibility to stakeholders.