Confusion of the Quangos

Alan Trench warns the proposed merger of the Health Protection Agency and Department of Health could have catastrophic consequences

News of the UK Government’s plan to cut a number of quangos raises immediate devolution concerns.  I can’t pretend to understand how the UK Film Council relates to bodies promoting the film industry elsewhere, like the former Scottish Screen (now part of Creative Scotland); there may well be overlap and duplication, even if such bodies have different remits.  But two raise immediate concerns.  One is the merger of UK Sport and Sport England.  Another is the abolition of the Health Protection Agency and absorption of its functions by the Secretary of State and the Department of Health (detailed in the report of the Department’s review available here).

The Health Protection Agency has a complex constitutional position.  Its functions are reserved or non-devolved, but carrying them out successfully depends on close liaison with health departments and chief medical officers in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland – both to gain information about disease outbreaks as they occur, and then to take action to contain them.  The Department of Health is for pretty much all practical purposes an England-only department (99.3 per cent of its spending is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and it has a poor track record over recent years for considering the implications of its actions for those other parts of the UK.  (Its main remaining UK-wide functions are contagious disease control, the Health Protection Agency’s responsibility up to now, and licensing of medicines and medical devices.)

The status of the Health Protection Agency means, on the one hand, it’s easier for such an agency to treat all four governments equally, and on the other that it is accepted as being an impartial honest broker, because of its independence.  That will be lost with merger into Department of Health.  There’s a very real risk that the need for policy and action to be co-ordinated on an equal footing with all four governments, not just colleagues in the same department, will be overlooked in future.  The consequence of this going wrong in a disease outbreak would be very serious, and great care will be needed to avoid the risk of that.

The merger of UK Sport and Sport England may create scope for a limited measure of administrative savings – but it will introduce a similar degree of confusion between England-only and UK-wide matters.  Again, it’s at best risky in policy terms (thankfully, there aren’t the same potentially catastrophic consequences that occur if there’s a failure to contain a disease outbreak).  A more imaginative approach could yield advantages here – maintaining the remit of the distinctive agencies, and their boards, but merging their employed staff and particularly corporate support.

It’s also worth noting an important omission from the list of quangos reviewed by the Department of Health: the Food Standards Agency, subject of an earlier post available here.  Sense appears to have triumphed there, at least.

Meanwhile, the Home Office’s consultation paper Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting police and the people (available here) on new arrangements for local policing proposes a ‘National Crime Agency’, combining functions devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland (fighting organised crime, presently undertaken by Serious Organised Crime Agency), with reserved/excepted ones (control of the UK’s external border).  The National Crime Agency would also assume functions presently exercised by Association of Chief Police Officers (which operates only in England and Wales – Scotland has a separate body, Association Chief Police Officers in Scotland).  These changes will need the consent of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, under the Sewel convention – not that one would know that from the Home Office’s paper.

This post originally appeared on Devolution Matters.

Alan Trench is an honorary fellow at the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.

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