MPs have overseen the creation of a bureaucracy which lies beyond the reach of people or Parliament, argues Natascha Engel MP.
This week I delivered a Parliamentary Outreach ‘Open Lecture’ looking at how accountable and scrutinised quangos and Government agencies really are.
While the transfer of power to these agencies may have been motivated by a genuine commitment to improve public services, the result has been the creation of a bureaucracy which lies beyond the reach of people or Parliament.
When I first became an MP, I was struck by the fact that an increasingly large part of the job was to navigate a path through an opaque and often hostile bureaucracy on behalf of my constituents. Ordinary people - even committed and well-equipped ones - just simply couldn’t negotiate their own way through the government agency minefield.
Was political accountability much more direct and straightforward in the past? I’m sure it was. Ministers were held to account by the House of Commons, civil servants advised Ministers and carried out their decisions. The public sector delivered services such as health, and local government provided schools, emptied your bins, and ran your swimming pools. We had a clearer sense of who was responsible and who was answerable for spending public money. When things went wrong, people were sacked or they resigned.
Today there are 23 non-Ministerial departments, 11 public corporations, 340 agencies and public bodies. Each has Heads, Directors, Non-Executive Directors, CEOs or Director Generals. These are the organisations such as Ofsted, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the NHS Litigation Authority, OFGEM and the Horserace Betting Levy Board. There are literally hundreds more.
These agencies are headed by people mostly earning upwards of £160,000 a year. Obviously the cost of the agencies to the taxpayer doesn’t stop with the chiefs. Board members, staff, and buildings add a hefty price tag to these operations too.
It may be that each agency is worth every penny. But since they are not properly scrutinised or held to account, how can we tell? The problem with these agencies is their opaqueness, their casual disregard of the taxpayer, of Parliament, and of Government.
Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said Select Committees should be refocused so they concentrate scrutiny not only on Government Ministers but also on the panoply of quangos and other agencies that are currently beyond democratic control.
When we look at high profile select committees, such as Public Accounts, Treasury and Home Affairs, and their successful scrutiny of organisations such as the HMRC, Bank of England, and the Police, we see that Select Committees could hold the answer to tackling this democratic deficit.
To do the job properly we need to increase the power and resources of Select Committees. We need to look at giving Committees investigative powers, equipping Committees with accountants and QCs to help them effectively monitor and scrutinise these agencies and quangos. Committees will then have the power to root out malpractice, monitor performance, and track and question expenditure.
So if someone isn’t performing, the Select Committee should be able to recommend their sacking. Maybe then we might start to deliver the proper public accountability our constituents deserve.
Natascha Engel is MP for North East Derbyshire and Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. Parliament Outreach Open Lectures are a series of free events taking a more in-depth look at Parliament and designed to build on people’s knowledge of how Parliament works. To find out more about Natascha’s lecture and upcoming Open Lectures, visit www.parliament.uk/open-lectures