STEPHEN GLOVER: The unsackable class who truly govern us… these civil servants are highly remunerated, not infrequently incompetent – and although they run large parts of the country, we have little idea of who they are

The wicked old Soviet Union had a privileged administrative class. By Soviet standards they were well paid, and the lucky ones got dachas — cushy second homes. 

These unaccountable bureaucrats were called the nomenklatura.

Although Britain is a parliamentary democracy, we have developed our own nomenklatura. 

They are highly remunerated and not infrequently incompetent. Although they run large parts of the country, we have little idea of who they are.

On Tuesday, Sally Collier stood down as chief executive of Ofqual after it had issued downgraded exam results for hundreds of thousands of pupils as a result of its flawed algorithm

It’s very hard to sack members of this administrative elite and, if unusually they are got rid of, they are liable to pop up in another highly paid job in a different quango, or else receive a whopping pay-off.

Incidentally, the acronym ‘quango’ is a misnomer. Many of them are not quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations. 

It’s the ‘non-governmental’ bit that is misleading. The big quangos actually govern us, and are capable of overriding or ignoring senior ministers.

Take Ofqual, about which we have learnt a lot in recent weeks. On Tuesday, Sally Collier stood down as chief executive of this body after it had issued downgraded exam results for hundreds of thousands of pupils as a result of its flawed algorithm.

Ineptitude

This was followed by the abrupt dismissal yesterday by Boris Johnson of Jonathan Slater, the top civil servant at the Department for Education. (Why the lamentable Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, should still be in his job is a mystery.)

Mrs Collier, who pocketed £200,000 a year for running the exam regulator, won’t starve. 

Why the lamentable Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, should still be in his job is a mystery

She is expected to be appointed to another highly paid administrative role, possibly in the Cabinet Office, where she previously worked.

Isn’t this odd? She has resigned — or been leant on to step down — because the organisation she ran fouled up. In the private sector she certainly wouldn’t be re-hired by the same company. 

But more accommodating rules apply in quango-land.

She is, after all, a member of the nomenklatura, whose ineptitude is forgivable. She can rely on a well-paid job for life as long as she wants one, before retiring, probably at a relatively early age, with a substantial index-linked pension.

Revolving doors are common in the public sector. 

A few years ago, deputy children’s commissioner Sue Berelowitz received a £134,000 redundancy pay-off before being hired by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner the following day as a consultant.

Then there was the case of Mark Hammond, who was made redundant as chief executive by West Sussex County Council with a £256,000 pay-off, only to land a £130,000 a year job eight months later at the government- funded Equality and Human Rights Commission.

To return to Ofqual. Mrs Collier’s probable survival in a well-rewarded job in the public sector is part of a bigger scandal — the operational independence of quangos from ministers they are supposed to serve.

Mr Williamson is the Secretary of State. He may be unfit for the role, but that is his job. He is an elected representative, who as a minister is answerable to Parliament.

Lucrative

And yet it appears he had no input into the thinking behind Ofqual’s botched algorithm, and didn’t look at it until just before the wrongly graded A-level results were released.

In other words, although Mr Williamson is in charge of education in England, he was for all practical purposes an onlooker as the unelected quango boss Sally Collier and her colleagues made crucial decisions affecting thousands of students.

A similar thing happened during the pandemic at Public Health England, which the Government has announced is going to be scrapped after it made several mistakes over testing for Covid-19 and PPE procurement.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has made plenty of errors of his own. 

But he has also sometimes been a virtual spectator as, for example, when Public Health England published advice on February 25 that it was ‘very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected’.

This catastrophic guidance was not withdrawn until March 13, despite reports of care homes in other countries being devastated by the virus. 

Although he wasn’t responsible for drawing up the advice, Mr Hancock was obliged to defend it.

Have any of the bosses at Public Health England been sacked? Of course not. The organisation will be redesignated as another quango, which I’m sure will also be operationally independent. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has made plenty of errors of his own. But he has also sometimes been a virtual spectator as, for example, when Public Health England published advice on February 25 that it was ‘very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected’

I wager that most of its senior executives (six of whom are paid more than £200,000 a year) will find an equally lucrative perch.

We don’t know who these shadowy panjandrums are, unless like Sally Collier they trip up in public view. 

Yet they make all kinds of decisions without ministerial oversight that affect our lives at a fundamental level.

The other day, the £456,727 a year chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, stepped down after five years. 

I should be surprised if one person in 100 had heard of him.

And yet, as the richly rewarded boss of the body responsible for operating England’s motorways and major trunk roads, he has made a number of important decisions, including the rapid increase of so-called smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is removed to create extra capacity.

At least 38 people have died over the past five years on these motorways, which don’t seem so much smart as lethal. 

I suppose the unaccountable Mr O’Sullivan could have been overruled by the elected Secretary of State for Transport. 

The fact is that he wasn’t. It’s one more example of quangocrats independently formulating policy at arms’ length from increasingly powerless ministers. 

I don’t say they are all incompetent, though some certainly are. But most of them are overpaid and overmighty.

The other day, the £456,727 a year chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, stepped down after five years

A fascinating question is why over the past few decades so many of the powers of senior ministers should have been parcelled out to members of the nomenklatura, who don’t have to answer to the general public.

One justification is that modern life is becoming much more complicated, and so it makes sense for politicians, who usually have no great know-how, to hand over powers to experts who supposedly do. 

The trouble is that, as we’ve seen, they often don’t.

I’m afraid I rather cynically believe that it suits governments to place a buffer of quangos between themselves and the public, so that when things go wrong they can disavow responsibility.

In a properly ordered country, the Department for Education would take ultimate responsibility for exams, and so in the event of a debacle such we have just witnessed, the minister would resign.

The patently inadequate Mr Williamson survives, at any rate for the time being

As it is, the buck is passed to Sally Collier, with the assurance of lucrative re-employment elsewhere, and now to Jonathan Slater. 

The patently inadequate Mr Williamson survives, at any rate for the time being.

We’ll never have efficient government so long as this goes on. 

We’ll have an often inept administrative class which pays itself vast sums of money while never being held accountable for its mistakes, and an increasingly feeble political class which shuns the responsibilities of running the country.

Does Dominic Cummings, who has promised that ‘hard rain’ will fall on the civil service, feel the same about presumptuous quangos? 

The more the nomenklatura grow, and are allowed to thrive beyond our reach, the worse we’ll be governed.

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