Democracy’s accountability problem
The unaccountable “independent” state is our future – whether we like it or not
The British government likes to imply that democracy and accountability are the same. Yet the same government has spent decades deferring its administrative responsibilities to organisations that are practically unaccountable.
In 2021, Britain will finally take back control from the EU, but will Britain’s democratic representatives take back control from the Electoral Commission, the Information Commission, the Scientific Advisory Group, Public Health England, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the BBC?
These organisations take public money to provide public services. Some regulate our private lives. Some issue and enforce laws. But Parliament has little oversight.
These organisations are wrapped in vague authorisations and legalese that remain difficult to categorise. The most ridiculous of official terms is “arms-length,” which has been the subject of repeated calls for clarification. Some organisations are officially categorised as “non-departmental public bodies” or “non-ministerial government departments.” Ironically, these terms reveal their disconnect from our elected representatives and thence we the people.
Even scaling the problem is difficult. David Cameron’s government made good politics out of cutting the number of “non-departmental public bodies” that had ballooned under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but even today the Conservative government admits 766, a decline of only 61 since official peak in 2007.
This count is an under-estimate. Even executive agencies, such as the Crown Prosecution Service, are practically at “arms-length,” short of a major scandal. Public service providers too, such as the National Health Service and the Metropolitan Police, suffer little more oversight than retrospective rhetoric.
The government has spent decades deferring its responsibilities to unaccountable organisations
This is obvious to anyone who has raised a complaint against healthcare. The Ministry of Health will direct complainants to any of dozens of lazy, vague, “independent” professional bodies. The ultimate judge, jury, and executioner of health complaints is the Parliamentary & Health Services Ombudsman, itself a scandal-ridden organisation. It investigated less than 8% of complaints in peak year, or merely 2,199 complaints (NHS England alone received 175,000 complaints that year). According to heart-breaking testimonials, most complainants are treated by PHSO staff as time-wasters, liars, idiots, fantasists, egotists, and objects of ridicule. The victims have nowhere else to go. Parliament’s Select Committee on Public Administration has complained since 2015 that the PHSO is unaccountable to Parliament except through annual reports. The PHSO’s only practical accountability is to the executive, which controls its funding and appoints its person, but every executive has said that the PHSO is “independent.” Its own solution to criticism is to demand more powers.
Unofficially, our publicly-funded but unaccountable governors are known as QANGOs (quasi non-government organisations). The government’s motivation for “quasi” is self-interested. The government talks up the “independence” of its administrators so that it can pose as anti-authoritarian and deny responsibility when a public service fails.
Yet the government has a self-interest in perceived good governance, so it retains control of most of the funds and senior appointments. In trying to achieve the best of both worlds, the government often ends up with the worst: incompetent administrators who embarrass the government but can’t be influenced by the government.
Alternatively, the government could attempt decisive influence, but then it would expose the fiction of “independence.” This helps to explain why the incompetent are rarely punished. Indeed, the government has a self-interest in rewarding everybody from government to quasi-government, because anybody attacked by the government has a self-interest in exposing the fiction.
Take Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions from 2013 to 2018. Crime rose, while she promised to prosecute more men for sexual crimes. By April 2018, every rape case was under review after the collapse of four rape trials within two months, when critical evidence was disclosed just days before cases were due to be heard in court. Meanwhile, organised, racially-aggravated abuses of thousands under-age girls, in towns such as Rotherham, were exposed largely outside of criminal law. Theresa May’s Government declined to give Saunders a second five-year term, but otherwise she was never held to account. In the 2020 New Year’s honours list, she became a Dame.
Don’t kid yourself that only weak governments, such as Theresa May’s, pander to their failures. Boris Johnson’s claim to be “following the science” on Covid-19 is yet more irresponsible deference. His government effectively hid behind the “independence” of the Scientific Advisory Group. But SAGE’s independence and science were somewhat fictional. At first, its members were anonymous, which does not advance science or accountability. Then we discovered that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, was attending SAGE.
We might feel forgiving if SAGE had proved competent, but we soon learned that SAGE was rubber-stamping one man (Neil Ferguson) and his badly-coded and opaque model of infection.
Not surprisingly, by mid-May, when Britain boasted the highest Covid death rate and economic damage in Europe, the government announced that it had been misled by its scientific advice. But the government did not fire any scientific advisors. Thus, a month later, the same Neil Ferguson was telling a Parliamentary committee that Britain’s death toll could have been halved given lockdown one week earlier. Ferguson admitted in the same session that he had no scientific basis for making the claim.
The gap between competence and accountability is not limited to SAGE. Recently, Public Health England has been exposed exaggerating Covid deaths by counting any dead who once tested positive for Covid, including road traffic casualties.
The incompetence of Public Health England goes beyond rarefied statistical methods to general public health. The PHE and the elected government effectively collude in propagandising the NHS. Thus, we cannot have honest discussion of how average is the NHS in everything except costs and avoidable deaths.
Boris Johnson’s government is the latest elected administration to throw more billions at the NHS without targets for improving the health of Britons (his belated interest in combating obesity seems to be personal). The Covid-emergency campaigns to “protect the NHS” and “clap for health workers” have further obscured years of healthcare failings. Johnson has confirmed a public inquiry, but public inquiries are notorious for delay and fudge. Public inquiries too are always described as “independent,” but they almost never are. Consider the inquiry into the Iraq: it concluded 13 years after the invasion of Iraq; and its panellists included former advisers to Tony Blair.
Okay, you might be thinking, pandemics and wars are rare events that make for unfair tests of young governments. So, let’s look at accountability in criminal justice. Consider the untouchability of the calamitous Cressida Dick, who rose to head the failing Metropolitan Police in 2017.
Now consider the Director of the Serious Fraud Office (Lisa Osofsky), just exposed as linked to an agent acting for employees of Unaoil suspected in alleged corruption in Iraq. Osofsky was exposed not by the government, but by a judge. The Attorney-General (Suella Braverman) has chosen not to get involved.
If the Attorney-General won’t get involved in the propriety of the highest law enforcement agency, who would?
Then there are the QUANGOs you hear even less about despite their impressive powers. Take the Information Commissioner and its Office (ICO), which are regulators, investigators, and enforcers of criminal laws relating to data protection. Formally, they are accountable to the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, but the DCMC is hardly a paragon of virtue itself, and has taken little interest. For Britons on the wrong side of the ICO, their only recourse is civil court, which is within the capacity of a few, expensive lawyers. Data security and privacy have improved little, while the direct costs of the ICO have climbed, not to mention the indirect costs to business.
Then consider the Electoral Commission, which has persecuted Vote Leave and the Brexit Party for campaigning tricks that the Conservative Party got away with. What’s the point of an “independent” electoral commission if it’s not impartial? Independence then becomes an enabler. Boris Johnson’s government has only just turned on it, after it decided to hand itself criminal law enforcement powers.
Aha, you might be rationalising: Johnson’s government is proving that the system works. When the “independent” organisation oversteps its powers, government should step in. Alas, government steps in only when partisan convenient. Take Ofcom, which has overseen the entrenchment of journalistic political bias, bribery, and invasions of privacy. Why does the government protect Ofcom? Because Ofcom protects the government by warning broadcasters not to air scepticism of current policies on Covid.
In American political science, the unaccountable part of government is known as “the administrative state.” America has a strong libertarian tradition that usefully drives awareness of the administrative state. Nevertheless, even in America only rare conservative political scientists draw attention to it.
The administrative state has risen with progressive politics. Given the strength of the progressive consensus, including the Conservative Party, we cannot expect any major political party to reverse the administrative state. The last government to do so was Margaret Thatcher’s.
One solution to the administrative state would be more direct democracy, as exemplified by the Brexit referendum in 2016. The British elite liked the irresponsibility of deferring to the EU. Most British voters disagreed. Referenda are useful checks and balances against abuses by the administrative state. However, I expect future governments to avoid referenda. After all, governments are self-preservational. In refusing referenda, governments won’t admit their self-interest: they’ll pretend that referenda are too divisive or costly (in fact, Brexit would have been smooth if the elite hadn’t frustrated it).
Whatever powers the government takes back from Brussels at the start of 2021, I expect the same government to hand them over to more “independent” organisations.
Imagine that Johnson’s government ends up with full sovereignty over Britain’s fisheries (either because it stands firm against the EU’s demand or slips into a no-deal Brexit accidentally). The government might panic at its sudden accountability for dwindling fish stocks, or for policing the seas with an overstretched navy. In its panic, it might hand over the responsibility to an “independent” Fisheries Commission. Then you can expect that Fisheries Commission to spend a lot of money and demand more powers, but to umm-and-ahh when it receives complaints from British fishermen about continental invasions of British fisheries. Practically, nothing would change, despite Brexit.
I don’t expect a trend away from the unaccountable administrative state until a generational-break from the progressive consensus, which is probably decades away.
A more proactive Conservative Party could start now by leveraging popular disgust against “woke” politics. The votes are available for somebody of sufficient moral, intellectual, and communication skills to articulate the case. I just can’t identify that somebody in our current political class.
Unaccountable, “independent” government is our future, despite, not because of, we the people
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