Confusion of the Quangos

News of the UK Government’s plan to cut a number of quangos raises immediate devolution concerns.  I can’t pretend to understand how the UK Film Council relates to bodies promoting the film industry elsewhere, like the former Scottish Screen (now part of Creative Scotland); there may well be overlap and duplication, even if such bodies have different remits.  But two raise immediate concerns.  One is the merger of UK Sport and Sport England.  Another is the abolition of the Health Protection Agency and absorption of its functions by the Secretary of State and the Department of Health (detailed in the report of the Department’s review available here).

The HPA has a complex constitutional position.  Its functions are reserved or non-devolved, but carrying them out successfully depends on close liaison with health departments and chief medical officers in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland – both to gain information about disease outbreaks as they occur, and then to take action to contain them.  The Department of Health is for pretty much all practical purposes an England-only department (99.3 per cent of its spending is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and it has a poor track record over recent years for considering the implications of its actions for those other parts of the UK.  (Its main remaining UK-wide functions are contagious disease control, the HPA’s responsibility up to now, and licensing of medicines and medical devices.)  The status of the HPA means, on the one hand, it’s easier for such an agency to treat all four governments equally, and on the other that it is accepted as being an impartial honest broker, because of its independence.  That will be lost with merger into DH.  There’s a very real risk that the need for policy and action to be co-ordinated on an equal footing with all four governments, not just colleagues in the same department, will be overlooked in future.  The consequence of this going wrong  in a disease outbreak would be very serious, and great care will be needed to avoid the risk of that.

The merger of UK Sport and Sport England may create scope for a limited measure of administrative savings – but it will introduce a similar degree of confusion between England-only and UK-wide matters.  Again, it’s at best risky in policy terms (thankfully, there aren’t the same potentially catastrophic consequences that occur if there’s a failure to contain a disease outbreak).  A more imaginative approach could yield advantages here – maintaining the remit of the distinctive agencies, and their boards, but merging their employed staff and particularly corporate support.

It’s also worth noting an important omission from the list of quangos reviewed by the DH: the Food Standards Agency, subject of this earlier post.  Sense appears to have triumphed there, at least.

Meanwhile, the Home Office’s consultation paper Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting police and the people (available here) on new arrangements for local policing proposes a ‘National Crime Agency’, combining functions devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland (fighting organised crime, presently undertaken by SOCA), with reserved/excepted ones (control of the UK’s external border).  The NCA would also assume functions presently exercised by ACPO (which operates only in England and Wales – Scotland has a separate body, ACPOS).  These changes will need the consent of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, under the Sewel convention – not that one would know that from the Home Office’s paper.

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4 Comments

Filed under Civil service, English questions, Policy issues, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

4 responses to “Confusion of the Quangos

  1. Michael Knowles

    Dear Alan,

    I have just read your article re the abolition of Sport England and the Health Protection Agency. My reading of the situation is that in respect of Sport England it reinforces the confusion, and the injustice, of the West Lothian Question. Closing it down and merging it with Sport UK means that MPs and others from S, W and NI will be able to take decisions about sport in England while they retain Sport S and Sport W etc from which English Ministers and MPs are excluded. The Conservative Party showed some degree of interest in resolving the WLQ prior to the election – I refer the Ken Clarke’s working party and his convoluted version of EVoEM- but now that they have a parliamentary majority, the matter has been kicked into the long grass. Buried altogether in fact. I believe the Government -Lansley and the Sec of State for Culture etc are doing the same thing to such bodies as Tourism England and Natural England and others. They are closing England only bodies and merging them in a UK body. Their justification is saving cash. However, it all reveals a mentality. Their perspective on England is that it has no significance other than being UK. That basically is the LD and Labour position too. The Tories are now dependent upon the LDs in the way New Labour was on Scottish Labour MPs’ votes; and they have very successfully bribed the LD leadership with cabinet offices, major cabinet offices.

    re the Health Protection Agency. I do not know the remit of this body but the little I have read -namely what you have said today- appears to me to raise the WLQ yet again. However, your discussion of the HPA reveals another very serious aspect of it which I knew nothing about.

    Cameron and Osborne have let loose their Tory cabinet members to slash and burn and to open up as many opportunities for private take-over of the services of national institutions such as Education, above all the NHS, as is possible. The state is now a milch cow. Lansley and Gove and the Sec of State for Culture, sport and Media, are Tory Taliban, competing with each other to impress both Party and private business. In my opinion the enemy is now within the gates, the barbarians are now within the gates. All made possible by the Lib Dem leadership, who have been well rewarded and who just cannot believe their luck. Cable left the Labour party,in which he was a councillor, years ago. I suspect he has now found his true home. Clegg comes from a Tory background and in his early political career was promoted by them. Both he and Huhne are millionaires. I think they too now feel at home in the Cabinet company they are keeping.

    Best wishes
    Mike Knowles.

  2. A comment on my blog implied that Sport England, because it has a Royal Charter, would be tricky to actually abolish. Arts Council England is also incorporated by Royal Charter, but I’m probably worrying unecessarily because there’s no Arts Council UK to ‘merge’ ACE with.

  3. Bob Wyllie

    Hi there – me again!

    I’m not sure your point about the HPA is very substantial. You may recall at the time of the swone flu outbreak all four administrations seemed to work well together, apparantly under the cabinet office:

    http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/417864/scottish-govt.pdf

    (This came from http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/ukresilience/ccs/news/100701-flu-pandemic-review.aspx)

    Indeed, the inter-administration working seems to be best when on matters the administrations can’t avoid talking about, or where they are really required to engage, when one compares the OSCT response to the review the Home Office conducted to others in my FOI request to the Home Office:

    http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/27742/response/85958/attach/3/FOI%20request%2013853.pdf

    Of course, I tend to think this underlines the point I made a while ago about cross-border public authorities, that when bodies need to work together, they generally do quite well.

    PS. Have you seen this re. Border Rivers parts of the Scotland Act?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-11264406

  4. Pingback: Getting legislation seriously wrong: the Public Bodies bill « Devolution Matters

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