What is the difference between a quango and a pressure group? On the face of it the answer is easy. A quango is funded by Government money, run by Government appointees, and expected to act accordingly. The raison d'etre of a pressure group is to speak up in the national arena on behalf of someone or something, with a view to action.
The trouble arises when these functions become confused, as sometimes happens when the need arises to provide a national voice for a particular group. Who will fund it? Who will it speak for? Should its activities be designed to please the clients or the purse-holders?
Such dilemmas have in the past prevented the establishment of effective, independent national bodies to speak for parents or school governors. Now the National Youth Agency is threatened with dismemberment by the Department for Education, apparently because it provided a very effective national voice for a youth service under threat, but proved less amenable to toeing the official line.
In particular the NYA, under its outspoken director, Janet Paraskeva, has fought hard to save youth service funding from the increasingly damaging effects of local spending cuts. One telling argument employed by Ms Paraskeva has emphasised the crucial role of preventive youth work in heading off the drift into anti-social behaviour and youth crime which has recently alarmed Ministers, media and general public. It is a message which has caught the attention of the Home Office, but has apparently cut little ice at the DFE.
So unpalatable to the DFE have such attempts to protect the youth service proved, it seems, that an internal review of the NYA has been carried out at some speed with only eight weeks (including the Christmas break) allowed for responses to the interim report.
It was after another, independent, review of the five national youth service bodies then existing that John MacGregor, as Education Secretary, announced in l990 that all funding would now be channelled "through one single, high profile and comprehensive National Youth Agency". It was to work with both the voluntary and local authority sectors; improve quality, range and effectiveness; undertake education-related functions, accreditation and development of youth worker training; dissemination of information; and direct support for Government initiatives.
Now, three years after it was set up, the high-profile and comprehensive brief is to be torn up, and fragmentation will return. What department officials are recommending to ministers is a division of the agency's functions. Its youth work development would be both reduced and removed from the national arena through devolution to the local authority associations. Funding would come either through the grant for education support and training (GEST) or by top-slicing the revenue support grant. The information services would have their budget cut in half. And meanwhile the training budget for developing national vocational qualifications for youth workers has been cut.
The proposal is that all this should happen very soon, and at a time when the need for a national advocate for youth work has never been greater. The evidence is mounting that this is the year when local authority spending cuts will finally come close to their predictions, when school budgets will get even tighter, teacher redundancies a reality. and attention will turn once again to discretionary services to bear the brunt. Juvenile trouble in the town centres will be conveniently forgotten. This could be the year when the youth service finally disappears altogether from some LEA budgets. What a useful time to hand over the NYA's watchdog role to the local authorities themselves!
To be fair the local authority reactions to the DFE proposals range from ambivalence to outrage at the speed and timing of the hatchet job. Some of the counties have found the NYA too metropolitan-oriented to chime in well with their own preponderance of voluntary and uniformed youth groups, but have found the agency amenable to criticism and change. Others are more sympathetic to its sometimes abrasive style and certainly don't want new responsibilities thrust on them - or funding top-sliced - at such short notice. It has also been suggested that such a national body could operate more effectively with funding independent of government.
Although that is undoubtedly true it returns us to the dilemma we began with: who will fund a national body that may need to criticise and chivvy either central or local government on behalf if its clients? There is only so much charitable or business money to go round. And meanwhile not nearly enough evidence that a youngish body like the NYA is incapable of responding to reasonable criticism, or developing further along the lines set out so recently.