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Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
Here’s an odd thing. Thirteen years after electing a Conservative prime minister who promised to curb the bureaucracy, the UK is still largely governed by, and for, quangos.
However badly these arms-length bodies perform – think of the lamentable failures of, say, NHS procurement or Ofqual during the pandemic – they are rarely wound up. On the exceptional occasions that they are, their functions are transferred to other agencies.
Public Health England, for example, was so palpably hopeless in the face of Covid that it became one of the few quangos that could be abolished.
But its staff were shifted to the UK Health Security Agency, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, and other arms of what Americans call “the administrative state”.
You’d think politicians would have a bias in favour of representative government. “The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies”, wrote Hayek as long ago as 1944 “is the first step by which a democracy relinquishes its powers”.
So why, the world over, do they keep doing it?
An insight hit me while I was at the Oxford Union last week. My eureka moment was not in the debating chamber (my side was arguing the case for growth over equality and, predictably, we got walloped). It came, rather, when I was chatting to undergraduates afterwards.
The Oxford Union is a student debating society run by its members. It has four elected officers – President, Librarian, Treasurer and Secretary – plus two elected committees with a combined membership of 20. That structure has not changed for decades.
What has changed is that the elected members are now joined by an army of appointees: membership officers, sponsorship officers, liaison officers, access officers, diversity officers, communities officers – you name it. Twenty years ago, there were 24 elected and three appointed positions. Now, there are still 24 elected positions, but there are around 30 appointees.
What do all these (as it were) quangocrats do? The Union’s functions have not changed. It organises a weekly debate, invites distinguished speakers, operates a bar, and puts on occasional parties. Why has it had to create all these extra jobs?
Answering that question explains why governments throughout the world become more bureaucratic and top-heavy without getting any better at what they do: all the incentives are for politicians to hand power to functionaries.
It happens that Charlie Mackintosh, the outgoing President of the Oxford Union, is an exceptionally able man. When I asked him about the growth of the Union quangocracy, he told me that he had tried to eliminate 15 of the positions, but had managed only eight.
Some were politically untouchable, he explained, and you can see his point. Once the position of equalities officer (for example) has been established, you can’t scrap it without appearing to be a bigot. You could try to explain that you want to transfer its functions to an elected person, but no one will listen.
Abolishing someone’s job is necessarily difficult. The holder cares about it much more than you. Incoming presidents have more immediate priorities; outgoing presidents find that their putative successors are already promising those jobs to supporters.
If that is true even in a student society, where the positions bring only CV points, how much more true is it of government, which has at its disposal thousands of remunerated offices, board positions, and sinecures?
David Cameron did not like the phrase “bonfire of the quangos”. He was sick of hearing politicians promise one and then fail to light the match. Instead, he pledged to sack ministers who did not thin out the executive agencies under their control. His reasons were hard to argue with:
“The growth of the quango state is, I believe, one of the main reasons people feel that nothing ever changes, nothing will ever get done, and that the state just passes the buck and sends them from pillar to post instead of sorting out problems.”
Yup. Yet, here we are, 14 years after he said that, creating, among other things, an animal sentience committee and an independent football regulator. Why? To what problems are they a solution?
Both new quangos illustrate our skewed incentives. We already have an Animal Welfare Committee, which presupposes sentience. Why a competing body?
Solely in response to fake news, is the depressing answer.
When Britain was putting EU laws on its own statute book after the Brexit referendum, it did not transpose the EU’s declaration on animal sentience, partly because it wasn’t a legislative act, and partly because the UK’s animal welfare rules were vastly more comprehensive than the EU’s.
Labour spotted a chance to make mischief, and put out an outrageous press release claiming that Conservative MPs had voted that “animals cannot feel pain or emotions”.
This preposterous lie was picked up by a couple of newspapers. They later retracted their stories, but by then the outrage bandwagon was rolling, with celebs tweeting their disgust, and thousands of people emailing their MPs in horror.
In a panic, the Tories rushed to promise a British animal sentience law. Because they were not trying to solve any actual problem, the ensuing legislation ended up declaring that vertebrates were sentient, and establishing a committee to do something about it.
It is a textbook example of bad law; but no minister will dare to scrap that quango once it is established.
The same flaw lies behind the coming legislation on establishing a football regulator. It is not a proportionate solution to an identified problem. Football is one of this country’s great successes. Private clubs, wholly independent from the state, are world-leading.
Once a future Labour government starts putting its placemen on the regulator, we can expect all the usual nonsense that follows state control: price-setting, eco-gimmicks, gender and racial quotas. But no one will dare scrap it.
All five of our last prime ministers have seen the problem. All would rather that decisions be taken by elected representatives. Yet all found it easier, in the event, to appoint their friends to these bodies than to scrap them.
If even the Oxford Union can’t break the cycle, what hope has the British state?