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We've been quangoed

Oh Mr Robinson and his quango Dirty dealer, expensive car Runs the buses and the Evening Star ..." The Blur album track Mr Robinson's Quango could be dismissed as an inconsequential ditty graced with a nicely muted trumpet solo. But it is another indication that the public's confidence in quangos - or non-departmental public bodies as central government has officially described them since 1980 - plumbed new depths during the final years of Mr Major's government.

For many, the word "quango" is now umbilically linked to sleaze, cash for questions, fat-cat salaries and the nastier forms of political nepotism. But, as ever, that unflattering caricature tells only a partial truth. That both the Thatcher and Major governments offered key quango places to those who could prove they were "one of us" is undeniable. Only three months ago the Labour party revealed that quango seats had been found for businessmen linked to companies that have donated Pounds 4 million to Conservative party funds. Sir Christopher Benson, chairman of the Funding Agency for Schools, was one of the businessmen singled out by Labour because the company he chairs, Sun Alliance, gave more than Pounds 700,000 to the Tories in the 1980s.

Most quango appointees have, however, offered their ideological support or even their expertise, rather than their cash. And some - such as Sir Ron Dearing - have provided outstanding service. But since quangos, it is estimated, control a third of public spending and invariably conduct their business behind closed doors, it is hardly surprising that there hasbeen growing concern that British democracy risks beingsupplanted by a less-than-accountable quangocracy.

At first sight the figures do look alarming. For example, William Hague, as Welsh Secretary, was able personally to appoint 1,400 people to quangos - 100 more than all the elected local authority councillors in Wales. But in fact some education bodies, such as the Curriculum Council for Wales, have been remarkably free of political placemen. It is also true that there has been a heartening increase in the number of women and ethnic-minority quango members and that - post Nolan - such bodies must advertise publicly for members.

Nevertheless, the new political brooms must have a lot of sweeping to do. Many doors and windows need to be thrown open. Information on quangos should be much more accessible; the minutes of their executive council meetings should be published, as should their policy-making cycles.

The public should also be told precisely what qualifications or expertise quango members bring to their role. Ideally, some method of assessing whether or not they come up to scratch should be introduced. If a national or local politician is lazy or a dullard, the public soon finds out. But incompetent quango members are harder to identify.

It will be no surprise if the new Government removes some of the dead wood and some of the more zealous right-wingers from education quangos (see page 5). But David Blunkett will surely not subject their prospective replacements to political "breath tests" that turn crystals blue or red.

Neither education nor the country can afford that form of patronage any longer. Tony Blair says that his Government will include "all the talents". The same must apply to quangos.

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