Government quango bonfires remind me of the fires we used to make as kids. When I was at primary school, a favourite holiday pastime was building bonfires. Someone in our gang would nick a box of matches, which was much easier in the 1970s as most of our parents smoked, then we’d go off to some wasteland, gather up a pile of sticks, newspapers and rubbish then set fire to it.
Of course, our parents didn’t like us doing this and, if they found out, they got very angry and gave us lectures about how dangerous it was. They needn’t have worried, though, because we hadn’t yet learnt to build bonfires properly. Usually, we would just pile up a load of wood, stick a bit of newspaper under it and light it. There would be some loud crackling, a few large flames, a lot of smoke and then the thing would go out. Once the smoke had cleared, there would be a small corner of burnt material and the rest of the bonfire would be intact. We’d then try to light it again and something similar would happen. Eventually, we would get bored and go home, leaving a large pile of wood with a few burnt bits on a patch of wasteland.
The government’s Bonfire of the Quangos is staring to look like one of my primary school efforts. As with my childhood bonfires, there has been much excitement and anticipation, a lot of noise and smoke, a few bits have been burnt but most of the stuff is still intact. According to the Commons Public Administration Committee the whole thing has been a waste of time and may even cost more money than it saves. Well who’d have thought it, eh? Reorganisations costing lots of money and achieving sod all!
Now to be fair to the government, this is nothing new. Most governments have had a Bonfire of the Quangos they were pretty primary-schoolish too. None of them burned for very long.
There is a good reason for this. Despite their arcane names and long-winded job titles, many quangos perform important functions that would otherwise have to be done elsewhere in the state structure. One of the MPs’ complaints is that the government has simply shut down quangos and absorbed them into other departments. That’s what happens if you abolish the body that does something but the something still has to be done.
Abolishing a quango won’t, in itself, save money. To make significant savings would require stopping the quango’s activity altogether. That, in most cases, would take some bold political decisions.
Should the government regulate schools or the water industry? If you think it shouldn’t (which a few people do) then you can abolish Ofwat and Ofsted. If you think it should (as most people do) then someone has to do it, If it isn’t a quango, it will have to be a government department.
Take Natural England, a quango that costs £282 million. If you believe the state should protect the natural environment and give subsidies to farmers to encourage them to do so, then someone has to do Natural England’s work. If you abolished it, the work would go somewhere else. You would only save the £282 million by deciding that the government is going to stop protecting the countryside. Again, such a decision would probably be very unpopular.
Quango bonfires are a substitute for making tough political decisions. They are a way of making governments look as though they are cracking down on state bureaucracy while simply moving costs around and hoping no-one will notice. It may be that, given the country’s financial situation, the state will have to stop doing many things that people currently take for granted. However, politicians have not made those decisions yet or, if they have, they are keeping quiet about it. Organisational changes and administrative reform alone, though, will not take a significant amount off the money that quangos spend.
Consequently, this government’s quango bonfire was no different from many that have gone before. A lot of noise, a lot of smoke but not much real fire. A bit like those fires I used to make when I was a kid.