Why Darren Millar’s plan to cull the quangos may not lead to better government in Wales

Darren Millar. Picture by Llywelyn2000 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Geraint Talfan Davies

There is something wrily amusing in seeing a Welsh Conservative spokesperson calling for a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – another sign perhaps that the world has gone topsy turvy.

The call came in a contribution by Darren Millar, the Welsh Conservative’s Policy Director (and MS for Clwyd West), on Gwydir, a new website set up by young Conservatives at Cardiff University.

Those of us old enough to have long memories recall that it was the Welsh Conservatives’ under Nick Bourne, who resolutely opposed the abolition, during the Assembly’s second term, of the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board.

At the time the party wanted these bodies to be kept apart from the new democratic institution. They thought the WDA was particularly effective. After all, in Wales quangos had served pre-devolution Conservative governments well – too well in the view of Labour politicians.

The case against a ‘quango state’ peopled by Conservative Government appointees, formed a substantial part of Labour’s case for devolution at the end of the last century. An elected assembly was deemed necessary to introduce greater democracy into the governance of the nation.

It wasn’t the first thing on the agenda in the Assembly’s first term,  but in January 2004, in the run up to the second Assembly election in May, Carwyn Jones, then the Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside, wrote a paper for the Institute of Welsh Affairs, in which he argued that quangos, or Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies to give them their formal title, “should be brought properly under the wing of the elected government, elected by the people of Wales to take decisions.”

In July, following the election, Rhodri Morgan, announced his proposed cull of quangos. Most, but not all, fell to his axe.

 

Dom

To be fair to Darren Millar, no-one can argue that Welsh Government is perfect, and it is generally recognised that perpetual one party government is not to be recommended. Undoubtedly there are, too, inherent weaknesses in the machinery of Welsh government, particularly that it is too process driven and  risk averse, while often finding it difficult to effect cross-departmental working. Arguably, some of these characteristics have as much to do with civil service culture as with the political decision-making.

Presumably, as Mr. Millar is the party’s Policy Director in Wales, one must take his views as one with those of his leader in the Senedd, Paul Davies, who, in speeches earlier this year, argued that the Welsh machinery of government needed an overhaul, nay, a ‘revolution’ to end an alleged “paralysis of delivery”.

If he finds himself in government after next May’s election, Mr Davies proposes to reduce the number of Welsh Ministers from fourteen to seven, put a freeze on hiring civil servants and institute a comprehensive spending review to eliminate waste. And, he said, not only will there be no new taxes, he will do what he can to bring existing ones down.

Neither will he be averse to stealing ideas from the Dominic Cummings playbook. “Like him or loathe him I can see that a dose of Dom is needed for Wales,” he said, presumably forgetting that ‘dom’ in Welsh is a colloquial word denoting horseshit. As a boy my mother would send me out with a bucket to collect it after the horse-drawn milk cart had gone by. It helped the roses.

Whatever the underlying political motivations behind this approach, it is still worth asking whether the ideas put forward by the Welsh Conservative leader and his policy director would actually lead to better government in Wales. Their proposals do invite some searching questions.

Let us accept that there are always regular economies to be made in any organisation, if only to scrub off the barnacles that naturally accrue from year to year. Let us even accept that Labour governments are not known as assiduous barnacle scrubbers, and that without that regular process the boat can get needlessly heavy and its speed reduced.

In which case, there should no problem is freezing overall numbers in the civil service, as long as that did not go hand in hand with a no redundancies policy that, in combination, has sometimes hampered radical internal reform.

Accountability

But let’s take the first proposition to reduce the number of Welsh Ministers. The current 14 are in fact made up of a First Minister, a Counsel General, seven departmental ministers and five deputy ministers. A reduction to seven ministers in total would, having subtracted the First Minister and the Counsel General, leave only five posts to cover the whole range of departmental functions. Of these five, one is the Finance Minister, so in one sense not in charge of front-end delivery.

This raises a number of issues. The first is span of control. Effectively, four front-end departmental ministers would have to deliver both legislative and executive control of up to 18 different areas of responsibility. Possible consequences are that too much would be left to the civil service, or that accountability to the democratic body would suffer, or both.

It also leaves out of account the likelihood that a Welsh Conservative Government would not have an overall majority. If even the Labour Party has had to co-opt a Liberal Democrat and a fugitive from Plaid Cymru to form a government, how much more likely is it that a Welsh Conservative government would need to find a partner, thus conceding yet another place in the Cabinet  – or to govern as a minority government.

Theoretically, under the Davies/Millar prescription a stretched Conservative Cabinet member could also be burdened by added responsibilities arising from the proposed ‘bonfire of the quangos’, if indeed these were to be as substantial as alleged.

But are they? Mr Millar says there are hundreds of them. There may well be a number of advisory bodies and committees – ministers do need advice – but there are far fewer self-governing bodies than there were.

Interestingly, the 2019 Conservative manifesto proposed doing away with Natural Resources Wales – created in 2013 via the merger of three organisations. But the manifesto actually proposed replacing NRW with “a new and independent environmental watchdog”. Note the word ‘independent’. Could the new body be more of a quango even than the body it replaced? The word deckchairs comes to mind.

Mr Millar also proposes to scrap the Wales Centre for Public Policy, based at Cardiff University and jointly funded by the university, the Welsh Government and the ESRC at an annual cost of £550,000. In my view this would be a mistake, a view that is shared by Mr Millar’s Conservative colleague, David Melding MS, who tweeted his opposition to abolition at the weekend.

Better government requires intelligent, well-informed government, and informed by independent sources. Small countries need to marshal their intellectual resources effectively, which brings us to the Welsh Centre for Public Policy.

If there is a weakness in the WCPP it is that it is not adequately funded. Compare its funding that of Ireland’s Economic and Social Research institute, whose total income is €11.35m, with a direct government grant of €2.8m.  Investing in beefing up the WCPP could be a better bet than Mr Davies’ proposal to establish an Office of Administrative Responsibility – another quango? – to mimic England’s Office of Budget responsibility.

Expertise

Mr Millar also questioned the need for three other bodies. “Why do we need Literature Wales? What value does the Design Commission for Wales bring? Why is the taxpayer funding the Wales Union Learning Fund?” he said.

This does not constitute evidence of deep thought. For instance, the question of the existence of Literature Wales is not even a matter for Welsh Government. It is a matter for the Arts Council for Wales, operating the much cherished ‘arm’s length’ principle. It is a principle that was stoutly defended by the Conservative group in the Assembly when it was under threat during Labour’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’.

Scrapping Literature Wales does not seem to accord either with the Conservative manifesto assertion that “Welsh Conservatives are proud of our Welsh language and culture”, something that was very evident in the decisions of two Conservative Ministers of the pre-devolution era, Wyn Roberts and Nick Edwards, both eminently cultured individuals.

As for the Design Commission for Wales, I should declare an interest. In 2002 I chaired an IWA working group that proposed the establishment of the Commission. The idea had come from Jonathan Adams, architect of the Wales Millennium Centre, and was taken up by the then Welsh Government planning minister, Sue Essex. I have also recently assisted the Commission in pushing proposals for restoring Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr Tydfil.

Since its inception the Commission has operated with exemplary economy, with a staff of only four and a budget of £330,000 per annum –  a value that is returned several times over by improvements in the quality and efficiency of new buildings, not to mention improvements in the public realm. It is also at the centre of the development of new place-making strategies, closely related to climate change objectives that even a Conservative UK government claims to espouse. Conservatives, surely, should also applaud the way in which the Design Commission regularly co-opts the highest expertise from nearly 40 people in the course of its work – as willing volunteers.

That work has been even more necessary following the deleterious impact of austerity on local planning departments, a fact attested to in reports from both the Auditor General and the Future Generations Commissioner. If Welsh Conservatives wish to emulate the UK Government in proposing to dilute planning legislation in Wales, the Design Commission’s role will even more necessary, if also more difficult. As with the WCPP, the issue is not whether it should be dispensed with, but rather whether it should be strengthened in both its budget and its powers.

Agenda

In the grand scheme of things these may be issues of detail. Even if one accepts an argument that radical change is needed, it is worrying that an aspiring party of government seems to have a mindset of intellectual dependency on the UK Government.

In Paul Davies’ own words: “I can very much see a Welsh Conservative Government working closely with the Prime Minister and his team to learn about how to transform government, and how we ensure a delivery agenda.”

‘Tell me how to do it, Boris’, is surely not going to cut much ice in Wales these days.

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