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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The creeping reacquisition of the Quango state

Going into the 1997 General Election and the subsequent devolution referendum, all the talk was how the then 1979-1997 Tory Governments had taken control of the levers of power in Wales through the creation and control of a series of Quango stuffed with appointments favourable to their point of view.

The Welsh Assembly was created to democratise that process and sure enough, within a few years the government in Cardiff Bay had swept many of these bodies away, whilst Welsh Ministers introduced new appointment processes, took responsibility for the decisions of the remaining bodies and new Assembly Committees scrutinised them.

It took time for this process to settle down of course but it was a change for the better, even if many of the independent appointments seem to favour a group of people sympathetic to the ruling party. Perhaps that just reflects that party's dominance of civic life.

A similar process took place in England, albeit without democratically elected regional bodies to oversee the system. More transparency was introduced into the way appointments are made so as to remove any perceived bias.

However, recent trends imply that there has been a creeping reacquisition of the Quango state by the Tory Government in England. As the Guardian reports, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is running short of board members and struggling to fulfil its duties because, lawyers allege, ministers are repeatedly vetoing appointments on political grounds.

The paper says that several experienced candidates supported by the state-funded independent body are understood to have been blocked in recent months after, it has been claimed, intervention by Downing Street or the Cabinet Office.

They add that some former board members allege the difficulties date to the arrival of Theresa May as prime minister, at which point stricter selection criteria are said to have been imposed. The shortage has coincided with the introduction of a new governance code on public appointments, which is said to have made it easier for ministers to pick their political allies.

As the same paper reported a year ago, the new code on public appointments gives ministers greater powers over who oversees a raft of agencies, watchdogs and advisory committees, while weakening the involvement of the independent commissioner for public appointments, who scrutinises the system:

Ministers have always had the final say over appointments to senior public sector jobs, advised by a panel that shortlists “appointable” people. However, independent assessors, chosen by the commissioner to oversee the most important competitions, will be abolished in favour of independent senior panel members picked by ministers.

The members will have to be independent of the departments and not currently politically active, but the commissioner will only have a consultative role.

Ministers will also be able to overrule the panel by choosing candidates not deemed to be appointable and have the right to dispense with an open competition without the permission of the commissioner, although they will have to consult with the watchdog and openly justify the decision.

It is all very last century.
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