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Queasy about the quangocracy

Public appointments, payments to MPs and the role of quangos are under scrutiny. The TES examines the likely impact of the Nolan inquiry on the world of education. Appointments to quangos are coming under scrutiny as never before. Both the Nolan inquiry and a Cabinet Office working group are examining how members of bodies as diverse as the Higher Education Funding Council - with a Pounds 3.3 billion annual budget - and the UK Polar Medal Assessment Committee are chosen.

The 1,389 quangos whose 42,600 members are appointed by ministers are the conspiracy theorists' dream. There is little public accountability and myriad lists of possible candidates fill Whitehall filing cabinets. The Labour party has complained that ministers pack committees with Conservative supporters, notably when Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, a former head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit, was made chairman of the School Examinations and Assessment Council. The Education Secretary alone makes at least 253 appointments to 25 bodies.

But exactly how are members of the quangocracy chosen and how would high-minded individuals who wanted to help their country get in on the act?

Sir Derek Barber wrote three years ago that he became chairman of the Countryside Commission through sharing a taxi with a stranger who turned out to be a key figure in government appointments. Another quango chair, he wrote, was given a job after pheasant shooting with a secretary of state.

The Cabinet Office has a public appointments unit which keeps data on 5, 000 people suitable for quango jobs. According to the office, individuals can nominate themselves or others they think suitable.

Critics say the list is both biased and disregarded. The Cabinet Office says 134 people were selected from it last year. But Stuart Weir of Essex University says it is largely ignored: in 199293 the Department for Education chose six people from it for scores of appointments to more than 20 bodies. And research by Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour education front-bencher, shows that as well as 10 categories of information held on computer (and thus open to scrutiny by those listed) separate records are kept on paper. He suspects such records allude to candidates' political acceptability.

The DFE also keep lists of candidates, some specialists are nominated by officials, others are self-nominated or put forward by colleagues. According to the department: "All appointments are made purely on the basis of the ability of the candidate to do the job."

But Stuart Weir, who is conducting a 'democratic audit' of Britain for the university, says: "It is easy to get on a quango. You work in business, donate to the Tory party and identify very closely with government policy. The system is at best haphazard and unsystematic."

Political leanings are monitored particularly closely in Wales, where Conservatives control none of the eight county councils. Edward Griffith, a farmer and racehorse trainer who has described himself as a "crusty old Tory" has found himself in demand. As well as chairing the Countryside Council for Wales (2.5 days a week for Pounds 30,100 a year) and Glan Clywd general hospital NHS trust ("two days minimum a week, often more" for Pounds 19, 000 a year) he sits on the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, earning Pounds 2,140 annually for 1.5 days a month.

Education quango members have differing accounts of their methods of appointment. Paul Dick, one of seven heads and teachers on the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, had a call from then education secretary John Patten's office eight months after his school - Kennet School in Thatcham - was visited by education minister Baroness Blatch. "She was impressed by what she saw. I can only assume the two things are connected," said Mr Dick.

Roy Blatchford, another SCAA head, believes he came to the Government's attention after lecturing widely, writing books on education and contributing to The TES.

"There is talk about doing it openly," said Mr Blatchford. "That may well be a proper way to go. But it would be foolish to pretend that under any government it wouldn't be political."

Key appointments, such as those to SCAA and the Funding Agency for Schools, are confirmed after interviews with ministers, and even approval by the secretary of state, the PM and the chief whip.

Paul Ennals, education director of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, believes he lost out at the final stage for the job of special needs representative on the FAS. He claims that after a successful interview with education minister Eric Forth and officials, his name was dropped by John Patten because he had failed to show a willingness to campaign publicly for grant-maintained schools.

"I said I was there to make the system work well rather than to bring more people into the GM fold," said Mr Ennals. After he was dropped, officials sheepishly asked him to suggest an alternative name.

Labour MP Tony Wright believes ministers' powers of appointment are so great that there should be a commission to oversee them with key posts approved by a Commons committee. "If you have public bodies forcing through a political ideology you have ministers taking an interest in making sure the people appointed are politically acceptable."

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