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Our quangos are ripe for reform

A FUNNY thing tends to happen to politicians on their way to a bonfire of the quangos.

Ministers down the generations find fingers become unaccountably numb, matches spill on the ground and get lost, second thoughts take over, and instead of blazing away, the unlit heap of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations somehow gets a little higher every year.

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Governments of all complexions like to talk about streamlining these hardy arm's-length bodies, but invariably lower their ambitions.

For one thing, many quangos are useful.

Some, like children's panels, perform an invaluable quasi-judicial public function.

Others, watchdogs such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency or Scottish Natural Heritage, have the independence to scrutinise and challenge the public and private sector alike.

Less honourably, some politicians like quangos because they offer opportunities for patronage, for rewarding cronies or buying off opponents with paid positions on boards.

So the temptation is often to let them be.

But as the think tank Reform Scotland has found, and as we report today, that is not an option.

Scotland's quangos now pay 43 of their senior staff more than the £141,000 earned by the First Minister, 132 staff are on more than the £101,000 salary of a Cabinet minister, and almost 700 earn more than an MSP's £57,500.

In austere times, there is a clear case for checking if these pay packets are justifiable.

But the issue goes beyond money.

The bigger problem is not just that quangos pay their senior personnel such sums thanks to support from the public purse, it is that the public has so little say in the matter.

MSPs, Cabinet secretaries and First Ministers come under far greater scrutiny from the public, and have to answer for their actions far more than those running our opaque quango state.

To be fair to SNP ministers, they have removed dozens of outdated quangos, and merged others.

But the reforms have been largely among the small spenders, and the accountability and transparency issues remain unresolved.

The Government's White Paper on independence promises a cull to declutter a new Scotland.

We believe there are many reasons to vote Yes in September, but fewer quangos is not one of them.

Reducing their number and making them more accountable to voters is a task that needs be tackled whatever the result in the autumn.

Bonfire season will soon be upon us - the Government should not waste the opportunity.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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