Quangos, cronies and the government blame game

Published by The i paper (24th August, 2020)

This pandemic has exposed defects in our nation with hideous efficiency. It has shown the lack of concern for social care, the fragility of the high street,  the flaws in globalisation, the inequalities in society. There has been talk of building back better, although that has been subsumed recently by a tidal wave of grim economic news and attempts to resume some kind of normality. Yet as we grapple with this virus, we have also seen in the starkest light a critical failure in our system of government, one which raises a profound question: who runs our country?

You might think the answer is simple: the Government, as represented by politicians at Westminster. Yet this seems not to be the case. For every time there is a huge problem – the delayed lockdown, the tsunami of deaths in care homes, the blunders over the supply of protective equipment, the testing fiascos, the school closure cock-ups, the exam debacle – it appears to be someone else’s fault. Ministers never apologise, let alone take responsibility and resign. Instead they drip venom into the media against officials, hide behind advisers, point fingers at agencies, blame systemic flaws and shuffle around some Whitehall furniture.

So Public Health England is killed off seven years after birth and three years after winning praise as a  “public health agency that rivals any in the world”. It has seen budgets constantly cut over its short lifespan. Now it has taken the fall for all the failures on testing, tracking and tracing, blamed for being too centralised by a control freak government. Senior scientists such as Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, have attacked the “passing of blame” and “ill thought through, short-term, reactive reforms”. He is right to be alarmed by crass political manoeuvring to protect the backs of ministers in midst of a pandemic. Yet this stumbling quango also reveals fault lines running through the core of our democracy.

For a start, chief executive Duncan Selbie has not been a model of accountability. He is paid more than the Prime Minister to protect the public but stayed silent during a raging pandemic with no public appearances for five months. And who is being given the role of running its successor body that Health Secretary Matt Hancock deems so crucial to save lives from infectious diseases? None other than Dido Harding, who ran a telecoms firm condemned for dire customer service and a giant data breach before overseeing the testing catastrophe. Her key qualification seems to be devotion to the Tory party as one of its peers.

This is not the first British government scarred by such crass cronyism. But it is all too typical of a Prime Minister who places slavish loyalty before competence, as seen from looking at many of the faces around his cabinet table. Among them remains Gavin Williamson, dismissed as defence secretary by Theresa May for leaking intelligence yet clinging to his job as Education Secretary despite failure to head off exam chaos. Even primary school children can see this bungling buffoon with a whip on his desk is not the best person to oversee their schools. But Boris Johnson keeps him in charge since he fears Williamson might stir trouble if sacked – and again there is a quango to confuse accountability for another political disaster.

Ofqual is the body entrusted with overseeing exams. Its chair is Roger Taylor, who at least had the decency to apologise after his body’s algorithm caused havoc to A-level results. He is a former journalist who co-founded a firm criticised by MPs for a sweetheart deal with the Government that earned millions. Ironically, he boasts on social media of being “interested in how we make the power of data and automated systems work for the benefit of all”. Its chief executive Sally Collier – who stayed silent – spent her career in state procurement before winning the £200,000-a-year post in 2016, provoking alarm from MPs that her knowledge of the exam system was “somewhat lacking”. Are these really the best people for such jobs?

Last week offered a fresh glimpse into the flaws in Britain’s outsourced style of government. We have seen a chaotic response to pandemic that led to people dying followed by chaos over exams that left thousands of teenagers distraught. Both are symptoms of an unhealthy political system that blurs responsibility and corrodes accountability, allowing hopeless politicians to hide in a quagmire of “independent” quangos stuffed with cronies and faceless bureaucrats. Hancock has handed Selbie a new role already, so his lips will stay sealed. His sidekick Helen Whately remains care minister, despite being so clearly out of her depth.

No wonder there is such a loss of faith in politics. Quangos have grown like knotweed throughout our system, abused and misused for four decades while providing plum jobs for well-connected folk. David Cameron hit out at their high pay, swelling bureaucracies and the growth of a sector spending £64bn a year before he won office, and he pledged “a massive shift in power from bureaucracy to democracy”. Since then, their spending has grown almost fourfold. A multitude of different structures ensure lines of power are totally confused. Many perform vital tasks, most lack sufficient transparency.

These failures feed this administration’s mania for taking back control as it plays the blame game. Dominic Cummings, the power behind Johnson’s throne, warns “hard rain is coming” for the Civil Service. Yet his previous diagnosis that “the people at the apex of political power (elected and unelected) are far from the best people in terms of goals, intelligence, ethics, or competence” has been proven again. Far better to free more quangos from the shackles of political control, set clear goals, fill them with experts and make them properly accountable. Regardless, we need reform since a floundering system riddled with lethal incompetence has been brutally exposed by this pandemic.

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