Quango is a much-maligned word. The perception of these arms-length bodies, operating with taxpayers money but beyond direct Whitehall control, is one of waste and inefficiency.
Attempts to slash this expenditure have been made before; often they have foundered.
Organisations which seem frivolous or unnecessary are sometimes just that – but sometimes they are not.
My revelation this morning about the 300 vacancies at the Care Quality Commission, which polices Britain’s care homes, points towards the human consequences of such sweeping decisions.
When Francis Maude promised to take an axe to Quango-land last summer he boasted that huge amounts of money could be saved by culling hundreds of the bodies and transferring any necessary functions back to departments.
Maude recently told the Sun that the cull had saved £30bn over the course of the parliament for taxpayers. But as Andrew Sparrow pointed out, the real figure is more like £2.6bn: Maude had included cuts which would have happened anyway due to the deficit reduction programme.
“In other words, the £30bn figure includes public spending that is being cut – and that would have been cut whether it was being channelled through quangos or through government departments. The adminstrative savings, the ones directly achieved by reorganisation, are just £2.6bn in total by 2014-15. That’s still a tidy sum, but its less than a tenth of £30bn.”
Ministers are always able to portray cuts to quangos as an insult on bloated waste with no repercussions for the general public. That is especially true when the language is of “pay freezes” or “recruitment freezes” or “no cuts to frontline staff”. Such actions may seem preferable – and often are – to some of the alternatives.
Maude himself has suggested that people are irritated by the many “unaccountable” quangos set up “incontinently” from which billions of pounds of “unnecessary” spending can be easily cut.
The CQC, which has been in the news this week for failing to stop abuse at a Bristol care home, is already operating on a lower budget than its three predecessor bodies. Like most other quangos, it has seen a recruitment freeze since last summer which was imposed by Mr Maude.
It comes as the regulator is also having to deal with the consequences of cuts of about 10 per cent to care home spending by councils this year. Morale is rock-bottom at the CQC, which will see even greater pressure on staff as it assumes vastly greater responsibilities over thousands of GPS and dentists.
Partly as a result of the recruitment it has 283 vacancies – of which 133 are inspectors. It is an alarming situation, with clear potential implication on the quality of assessment.
A row broke out last night between CQC and the department of health, which told me that it had in fact lifted the recruitment freeze in February. (Contrary to the body’s claim that it had ‘only just’ started hiring again). The DoH had also temporarily relaxed the freeze last October to allow 75 hires.
That suggests that the hiring freeze was not the sole reason for the alarming level of gaps in the CQC workforce.
But for those in old people’s homes, or about to enter one, or their relatives, the situation is a reminder that there can be unpleasant consequences from political decisions which seem relatively benign.
UPDATE: Then again, the Food Standards Agency, which has 1,800 staff, only has 33 vacancies; I just asked them.
That leaves two questions for CQC:
1] Why is its vacancy level so much higher than the FSA?
2] Why did it not manage to appoint anyone between February (when the freeze was lifted) and now?