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Quangos and the sleaze factor

It is not just the Government's opponents who are gunning for quangos, writes Nicholas Pyke. No sooner had the Labour party timetabled this week's debate on accountability in appointments to health service bodies than David Hunt, the minister for "open government", responded with a promise to consider advertising vacancies for the 1,300 arm's-length organisations which now account for around one-third of education expenditure.

The promise, made on the BBC's On the Record, also extended to appointments to school governing bodies and Training and Enterprise Councils. His precise intentions remain unclear, but within 48 hours were in any case superceded by the wide-ranging committee of inquiry into standards in public life announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday. It seems likely, however, that the inquiry, to be chaired by Lord Nolan, will examine appointments throughout the education world - from Government agencies to the management boards of grant-maintained schools and colleges of further education.

Quangos are a sore point for the Government, not least because it is immediately concerned to present itself as accountable in the face of the "sleaze" allegations.

In education alone, recent years have seen the creation of the Further Education Funding Council; the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales; the Funding Agency for Schools; and, most recently, the Teacher Training Agency.

This last still awaits a chief executive, whose appointment will prove important in determining the political balance. There are already allegations that the agency is "packed", with the appointment of two right-wingers both known for their hostility to university teacher-training departments (Conservative peer Baroness Cox and Professor Anthony O'Hear of Bradford University).

As the high attendance at a recent Tory party conference fringe meeting in Bournemouth demonstrated, there is plenty of concern. Quangos were attacked by both liberal and right-wing thinkers. Dr Madsen Pirie of the influential free-market body, the Adam Smith Institute, called for quangos to be scrapped, describing them as unnecessary, unaccountable and undemocratic. He would prefer to see everything put on a contract basis.

Dr Pirie was followed by the former higher education minister Alan Howarth, a politician in a more paternalist vein. While accepting quangos as potentially useful, the Conservative MP for Stratford launched a vigorous attack on the absence of accountability.

"Quangos lack codes of practice and rules of conduct," he said. "Local government has declined. This has been an aberration of the Conservative party over the past 15 years. It has neglected local government, even reduced the role of local government - decentralising responsibility to quangos while outflanking and atrophying local government. That's bad for our political culture."

Contrary to the general view, the Government maintains that quangos are on the decline. According to William Waldegrave, speaking to the Commons earlier this year, there has been a fall from 2,167 in 1979 to 1,389 in 1993.

But Stuart Weir, senior research fellow at the University of Essex, in his book on what he terms extra-governmental organisations, EGO Trip, says this is inaccurate. It excludes the 94 executive agencies hived off from the Civil Service and the large number of bodies carrying out functions at a local level, including TECs, GM schools, FE colleges, and housing associations.

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