Quangos are A Bad Idea. They exist in a nether world of muddle and incompetence between government and the real world, accountable to neither voters nor consumers. And of course their murky role provides a perfect setting for the wholesale patronage exercised by the ruling party.
Just how much patronage we can once again glimpse from the Commissioner for Public Appointments' latest report.
In 2006-07 there were 3862 appointments (or reappointments) to the boards of quangos. And of those, over 10% were declared Labour party activists, with many more doubtless being undeclared "one of us" supporters (for comparison, there were just 2.5% declared Tory activists).
The position with chairmen is even more extreme. Of the 480 appointments/reappointments, almost 15% were declared Labour activists (against 2.7% Tory activists).
And these posts don't pay peanuts. A quick scan though the Economic Research Council's excellent quango database reveals that the top paying quango chairmanship is the £330,000 pa Chair of Royal Mail Holdings. Who's got that? Alan Leighton, a declared Labour Party member (eg see here).
Post Office too hot for comfort?
OK, what about the much cushier Equality and Human Rights Commission? Its £160,000 pa Chair is longtime Labour super-activist Trevor Philips (qv previous blogs, eg here and here). He had P Mandelson as his best man, and tried unsuccessfully to stand for Labour in London.
Or a bit further down, the flood prone Environment Agency, whose £91,456 pa Chair is Sir John Harman, an ex-Labour councillor.
Patronage has always been a problem with all shades of government of course. Walpole was the master, and a BBC probe of 15,000 quangos during the Major government found that:
"...unsuccessful Conservative candidates from the 1992 election were ten times more likely to be appointed to a quango than Labour candidates. Thirty-three quango jobs were given to failed Conservative candidates after the 1992 election including the former Ministers Christopher Chope, Michael Fallon and Francis Maude. Twenty-four Conservative MPs and Peers had spouses who had been given quango jobs."
The reality is we can never trust those in power to act "impartially" in such matters, irrespective of what they may promise pre-election.
Once again, the only true fix is to remove temptation by slashing the size of government.