In recent years there has been a strange vogue for give more government decisions and executive action to so called independent bodies. Apparently this has polled well. Why not trust the experts, instead of asking an amateur Minister to preside over the policy area and sift the professional advice in the Ministry and from outside? Surely, people have argued, the experts acting in a non political manner in a quango will do a much better job?
It is high time more people questioned the logic of this. The truth of course is that in a democracy no area of policy or government action can be given permanently to an independent body. A free Parliament and Ministers always have the right to intervene, to demand a change of policy from the body, to change who is on it, to change the law it enforces, or even to wind it up. Leaving aside the vexed issue of the EU and its powers, no quango in the UK is sovereign. All know that Parliament and the elected government has many ways of influencing them or changing their personnel and powers. The EU of course presumes to direct both quangos and Ministers, but that is a different subject we have often discussed here.
It is also true, however, that all the time the main political parties are agreed that a given area should be run independently, it can be. This independence can continue for quite a long period. It is only interrupted if there is a serious crisis brought on by the way the quango acts, or if there is political change which requires the elected Ministers to intervene or change the way the quango operates. Public opinion may be the catalyst for forcing change to the Agency, because the public may get fed up with the consequences of the actions of the independent body. Parliament is then the public’s safety valve, able to intervene and change things.
Two of the biggest examples of so called independent bodies in recent years have been the Bank of England and the Environment Agency. I have often commented before on how the Bank was overruled at the height of the banking crisis it and the FSA had managed to preside over and exacerbate. The elected officials intervened to get interest rates down when the Bank was not going to lower them quickly enough. The Labour government changed the powers and duties of the Bank, and so did the incoming Coalition government, reflecting the public disquiet about the conduct of policy. It was during the period of maximum independence for the Bank between 2001 and 2008 that we had the worst banking and boom/bust crisis of the modern era. The Bank, far from being able to manage and dampen the cycle, made it worse.
Now we see a similar problem with the Environment Agency. It turns out that it has been following a policy of allowing flooding to occur in parts of the country where elected politicians wish there to be a policy of managing and controlling the water. Recent Ministerial intervention is seeking to secure the change of policy many members of the public want. Far from taking politics out of water management, the Environment Agency seems to have put them in with a ferocity we rarely see about this topic.
The Environment Agency should have more technical expertise than Ministers on how to manage water and the environment. Ministers are still needed to tell them what the priorities are, and how big the budget is. Allowing them to be independent for too long has produced an Agency following priorities that are not the priorities of all those with drowned homes, roads, schools and farms.