Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-189)



Annette Brooke

  180. You make a statement that you ascribe to the new decision-makers. You say ministers feel more comfortable if decision-making can be moved elsewhere. Do you subscribe to that view? Is that part of the motivation in setting up quangos, to avoid the difficult decisions?
  (Mr Mather) People who have made this point to me when I have gone round researching, have tended to be the decision-makers themselves. I have asked them: "Why do you think you have ben given these powers?" That is the answer that tends to keep coming back, the first answer they give. They might have a more public one about skill and expertise, but their first off-the-cuff reaction is that ministers do not want to have to take this decision. I believe that unless and until we disprove it, that is the quite strong motivation. Ministers may still want to be involved at another level, which may be the appointments or perhaps the crisis management. As they see some of the confusions when they get the structure wrong—and I will use the Railtrack example again—ministers may begin to doubt whether they have done the right thing in handing over power in this way. The railways have five different non-elected bodies taking decisions: the Office of the Rail Regulator; the Strategic Rail Authority; the Department of Transport; the Treasury; and the Forward Strategy Unit is now involved, with Lord Birt. There are then the interests of the train operating companies themselves. Ministers may say, once they realise they have escaped, "should we be taking some of those decisions?" That is, in a way, a different problem from their wishing to hand over fertilisation or food safety to someone they think will do it better.

  181. I do not think you have really answered my question about your view. Dame Helena, can I approach the same question in a slightly different way: from your experience of quangos, is it your view they are just set up to deal with all the difficult questions and to pass the buck?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) No. I think that is too cynical a view. From my perspective and the work that I have done on those, some of them have a longer history than others so it is difficult to generalise. Some of them are reactions to previous circumstances, and I would put the composition of the National Lottery Commission into that category because there had been something before that had not worked in a successful and smooth way, so a different model was sought, which was the model that I got involved in. Interestingly, I understand that it was a model that had been put around Whitehall as not necessarily being the most successful model to choose, and other departments eschewed that, so it was only the DCMS that decided to go down that route. From my point of view, it is genuinely interesting—and I do not know the motivation—that ministers do not use quangos more as detailed advisory boards so that they can chew through a subject, which they need to at huge depth, and then say, "right, we have done all of that; what is your advice?" They then take that advice and go ahead with it, which is very much in the mode of the Competition Commission, for instance; or they decide differently if they think there are reasons of state that overtake that particular circumstance. To me, that would be a perfectly reasonable way of operating, and I have no problem with that whatsoever. Would I be happy to work on quangos that were in an advisory capacity? I do not think you can generalise, and that is my difficulty in answering your question.

  182. I will pick that point up because, going back to Graham's paper, I was surprised that he questioned that the Monetary Committee, which has been accepted across parties as being very good, was so different from other quangos. Can we make these generalisations? Should we be sifting them into different categories and then sorting out the very relevant issues when they come through in the discussion? I am not sure that we have one model, one fix, to sort it out.
  (Mr Mather) I think that is a fair point. If you look at the dates on which they were established, as Dame Helena says there is quite a wide spread. They often have been established for different purposes. I believe we are seeing a convergence. Dame Helena mentioned the first lottery regulator who was a sole appointee.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) Absolutely.
  (Mr Mather) She said that that was perceived not to work as smoothly as might be wished, and therefore there was a move to find another strategy. We have seen that across a range of other decision-taking bodies. There are sufficient common factors and sufficient similar approaches in the areas we have been discussing this morning to make it possible to draw some general conclusions. I would, however, of course accept your point that there are operational differences and differences of level. I, myself, earlier tried to draw the distinction between the decision-takers and the representational quangos. You are also perfectly right to remind us that different sectors generate different issues, and the same solution may not always apply across the board.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I do not know the motivation of ministers, as I have indicated at various moments this morning—I am not very good at doing that. I think genuinely you have to look at the way in which decisions are now made, received, and treated. We have not actually talked about this, but we live in a culture of blame and I can see that certain difficult decisions, if you were a minister, might be quite nice not to have to take. However, if I was a minister, I would want to have the responsibility for taking them, so it is not something that I personally sympathise with.

Mr Brian White

  183. Is one of the problems that ministers may want to give away that decision-making but at the end of the day the media will hold them accountable, and the Prime Minister will be asked what he is going to do about a particular issue? There is the situation where questions are put to a politician, who may not have the levers of power to rectify that situation.
  (Mr Mather) Yes.


  184. Is that not the bit that is missing from this discussion? It does not take away the fact that the people who are being asked to account for all this power that has gone away are the politicians. There was a nice moment yesterday in Prime Minister's Questions. The Prime Minister was asked about Postcom and all that. You saw his difficulty. He was havering between thinking, "it must be a good idea to have shifted this power away to get liberalisation of the market, but at the same time it may be producing consequences that I am going to be held accountable for, but I am not taking the decision."
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) That is why I personally, if I was a minister, would wish that responsibility to rest with me.

  185. The people out there will say to themselves, rather like the old Brussels argument that everything is done in Brussels—"if the power has gone from politicians, why on earth do we go out and vote for anybody?"
  (Mr Mather) I suppose the mature answer to that question is to say that the Prime Minister ought to be able to answer Postcom by saying, "we have designed a system that actually works; I am pleased with that and, as a result, the public will benefit"—but that may be a counsel of perfection. In the end, clearly, as Chairman Mao once said, politics takes command. The politicians will be the people who are ultimately held to account, and all the things we have talked about this morning operate under that framework of parliamentary control.

  186. When we had a Postmaster General who was in charge of the post, you knew who to kick if the post did not work. Now, people have no idea who to kick if the post does not work. Surely, that is a huge deficit that has opened up?
  (Mr Mather) I think we knew when the electricity, the gas, the water and everything else did not work. We knew who to kick, but we could not make it better. Since we have transferred the responsibility for operational decisions, most analysts agree that the services have got much better: there is more choice and more innovation. The late privatisations are the more difficult ones. I will be quite frank about the incoherence of the regulatory system: I do not think the railways could conceivably work, other than by accident, in a regulatory system that is designed as it is. That is our fault, as politicians and as a matter of governance. It cannot entirely be blamed on the subordinate bodies that have been set up to run them.

  187. Dame Helena, when you had been approached and appointed to the Audit Commission, if it had been said to you that as part of that process you had to be run past a parliamentary committee—I think I know in your case what you would say, but do you think that might be a disincentive to people to come forward to those kinds of bodies?
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think it might be a disincentive, but I do not believe it would necessarily be improper. I do believe you have to, if you want these jobs, go through as many hoops as people feel comfortable putting you through because they have serious levels of responsibility. I have never felt it wrong that anyone questioned people and really got to the bottom of whether they thought that person had the merit to do the job. It would very much depend, to me, on the way in which the questioning was done, whether there were divisions on party lines, where known avenues were wanting to be gone down. That would be no better than the system now. What one needs, as a candidate, is to feel you were being interviewed or being asked to account to a group of political representatives, with equal numbers of people from all parties so that you could feel there was a totally fair representation on all bodies.

  188. I do not know if it is true, but I read that a reason for your non re-appointment is that you were too user-focused, as opposed to being too top-down-ish. It occurs to me that if these issues had been explored with you in a setting like this at the time of your appointment, it would have been much harder to come back to you if you had said, "I want to give a much stronger voice to users in this process than before".
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) The interesting thing was that I believed the reason I was appointed was because that was my focus.

  189. The mystery deepens further! We have to try and answer this perennial question of who audits the auditors, who inspects the inspectors, who watches the watchdogs. We have invented a system, which Graham documented admirably in the book. That is what the world now is. The question of who puts any kind of system into this, who oversees it, who sorts out all these glitches that we have ben talking about—it seems to me that there is not anybody that does that. It has just happened. The question is whether there is a way of inventing a mechanism, whether in Parliament or attached to Parliament, that might have some chance of getting some grip, some coherence, on this whole system. The worst thing would be to invent some other commission to look at all these commissions.
  (Mr Mather) I think, yes, in the centre of government there clearly is a niche, perhaps in the Cabinet office. We had the old Central Policy Review Staff. It is certainly in that area that perhaps ministers ought to have people helping them overcome the glitches and understand the strengths and weaknesses and take their part of the decision. I suspect in Parliament that the confirmation hearing approach is a natural development to Select Committee work, though it would have to be exercised with restraint, with not too much politicisation, too much inquiry into private lives or tax returns or too much wanton destruction of harmless appointees because they did not perform well on the day. That will deter people; there is no doubt about that. The third dimension is training, a centre of expertise. A lot of this seems to me to operate by peer pressure and collegiality. You deliver on these bodies because your colleagues expect it and you compare yourself with other bodies and other regulators. You learn from each other and share expertise—from the Financial Services Authority, the Independent Television Commission. There is a risk of cross-fertilisation, and I think that needs an academic centre to help the regulators themselves with that exchange.
  (Dame Helena Shovelton) I think nobody should underestimate the role of the National Audit Office. It does not necessary function in this way, but it is perfectly possible that it could. It, after all, audits the accounts of every single one of these quango bodies. It has the only overall picture of the whole thing. When I was chairing the Audit Commission, having the NAO come in and take a rigorous look at the organisation and commenting, and having the accounts put before Parliament, meant quite a lot to me; it was not a trivial exercise to be gone through. I would have thought that the NAO was admirably placed to look at all the different quangos and how they were operated, and where the duplication of roles is. All quangos go through five-year FMPRs, the financial management and performance review. The very first year of that, in my experience, having done this several times in different places, is spent on seeing whether the organisation should exist and whether this should be looked at. Eminent academics are appointed to do this work, but what happens is that the different political questions are not necessarily answered. For instance, the very first question, to my mind, when we were doing the review of the Audit Commission, was this: should the NAO and the Audit Commission operate in this rather duplicatory way in relation to the Health Service, but at the same time be required to be different in the way they operate? Nobody was going to answer the question. I asked people, and it was pushed lightly aside. The too difficult questions need to be brought to the fore, I think, and then political debate needs to establish where people wish us to go. I do not have any views on where it should go; I just think this should be sorted out. Duplication is unhelpful both to the efficient operation of the quango, and to the public because they have no idea who is actually in charge and accountable.

  Chairman: That is a very good note on which to end. It has been a very, very good session this morning. I am grateful to both of you.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 May 2002