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Our MPs need to take back control from the COVID-19 quango state

Dr Jim McConalogue
January 17, 2022

The pandemic has revealed the stark difference between how the public expects policy to be drawn up and how it actually appears. The quangos at the heart of this need to go, writes Jim McConalogue.

To rephrase an old adage, we might nowadays insist that we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the European state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed by the COVID-19 quangos. The point is brought home again, given that it seems clear we must review again the way in which government decides when to use quangos to deliver objectives – and if they can (at all) provide genuine public accountability.

The problem is that many of our quangos have been deciding on huge swathes of government policy yet remain insulated from parliament. It would serve the Cabinet Office well to review how it directs policy to enact law through such public bodies in a way that appears accountable to the electorate.

Similar to our 47-year experiment with European political, judicial and social integration, the uncontrolled growth of administrative power continues to raise serious doubts about whether we can work within our regular democratic practices, including the supreme role of parliament – as accountable to the public – in our governing arrangements. The promise of accountability has worn thin.

In the intense public debate on cutting the required isolation period to five days to ease pressure on the economy and vital services, it is notable that one of our own COVID-19 quangos – the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) – held that arguments on comparisons with the United States, where self-isolation has been cut to five days, were 'not like for like', but then found this position was not quite accurate. Their messaging (at that time) had been incorrect in portraying the US' self-isolation period beginning from the date of a positive test rather than from when symptoms first emerged, as it does in the UK.

It highlights how much Britain's response to COVID-19 marks the emergence of a new phase in the growth of the regulatory state, whereby citizens are governed by undebated regulations decided upon by quangos for ministers – as distinct from a parliamentary democracy model, subject to far greater debate and simple votes by elected MPs.

Given the overnight creation of entirely new public health bodies during the pandemic – the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) and UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), as well as the elevation of SAGE and the demise of Public Health England (PHE) – it is justifiable to question what is happening to our sense of accountability and regular government functioning, and the frequently unscrutinised role of the policies devised by quangos and their cost to the public purse.

As I argue in my new report, 'Unravelling the Covid State', the battle is hardly a new one. The post-war state was arguably much more defined by a project capable of strategic planning and mobilising resources to meet achievable goals. However, over four decades of Europeanization and poor domestic reforms have put us on a path towards the regulatory state, in which, for example, crucial decision-making is delegated to external quangos. The phenomenon of COVID-19 regulation shows that the state's ability to coordinate executive public health policy has been comprehensively outsourced. But it needn't be so. Our response and solution should well be that we need a state that is prepared to rapidly mobilise resources while being much more accountable for its decisions.

It is not all cause for complaint. In my report, I offer a series of solutions. One viable solution learns from the House of Lords' EU Committee structure to argue that all the various quangos – including a reformed SAGE and the UKHSA – might report regularly, directly and more systematically into a sub-Select Committee within the House of Commons committee system to improve parliamentary accountability. It would certainly add a new level of rigorous scrutiny over our public bodies.

Given the ever-increasing gap between what the public wants and what some of our independent bodies deliver, ministers will need to take more control. The quangocracy could be even better refined. For example, given that SAGE did not have a specific economic group, to enable government to reconcile economic assessment with public health advice, might suggest to the government that they build a parallel committee of economists and social scientists. A Social and Economic Advisory Group for Emergencies (SEAGE) would provide much-needed economic and social advice to support government decision-makers during emergencies.

We might even acknowledge that Britain has spent the past six years engaged in a deep constitutional debate as to where democratic and accountable decision-making should reside within our system. After the pandemic, we might necessarily ask, does the same question in principle apply to our unhealthy reliance on insulated quangos?

Dr Jim McConalogue is the director of Civitas: the Institute for the Study of Civil Society. He is also the author of Unravelling the Covid State: From parliamentary democracy to the regulatory state?
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