Culling the quangos

Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Government have stated today that they intend to cut the number of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (otherwise known as quangos) to ensure that public funds are used more efficiently during the next few years.

Of course, this would apply only to England as Wales had its own cull (or bonfire) a number of years ago. However, the absorption of the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and the Wales Tourist Board into the Welsh Assembly Government is a move that was regretted by individuals from across the political spectrum.

For example, Peter Hain criticised the closure of the WDA, stating that it was ‘a successful, worldwide brand, the most successful development agency ever'. Dafydd Wigley, the former leader of Plaid Cymru, is on record that he remains opposed to the merger of the WDA with the Assembly Government.

The question, of course, is whether the move was driven by the real need to improve public services or was merely an act of revenge by politicians who had always despised the power and status of these non-elected bodies?

Professor Kevin Morgan - the Chairman of the Yes for Wales Campaign – suggested that the decision to cull the quangos was not only related to public service reform but had wider implications for the new fledgling devolved nation that is Wales.

In a subliminal paper on the matter, he raised the critical question of whether Wales will “become a less pluralistic, more state-centric society in the wake of the decision to abolish six quangos and merge their functions with the WAG? In other words, is there a creeping centralism at work in Wales which belies the notion that devolution creates a more robust and more accountable governance system?"

Of course, some quangos still remain in Wales, including the Welsh Language Board and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.

Some in the Labour Party believe this is an anachronism given that both could easily be managed from within the culture and education portfolios. Others would argue that issues as important as language and higher education need to be at an arm’s length from Government.

The current Assembly Government would argue that the prosperity of Wales has benefited by the abolition of the quango state although many companies have told me that, despite the best efforts of the civil servants, the whole process of business support has become risk-averse and political, with many senior managers delaying decisions because they are more worried about what the Minister might say rather than whether their actions will have a positive effect on the Welsh economy.

Perhaps the time has come, as Dafydd Wigley said during the last election campaign, for a thorough investigation by the Auditor General for Wales to see whether the promised benefits of the merger have been achieved. Given that we are in the middle of a recession, such a review is highly unlikely over the next few months.

However, as April 2010 is the fifth anniversary of the bonfire of the quangos in Wales, there could no better time for the Minister for Economic Development to order the detailed review requested by his predecessor as Plaid Cymru leader. As well as potentially showing the benefit of public sector reform, it would determine, once and for all, whether the abolition of the WDA and other similar quangos has had any significant and lasting impact on the prosperity of the Welsh economy.

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