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Advice and accountability

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ONE of the most alarming aspects of the Government's review of arm's length bodies – the so called ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – is that it is now being billed as ‘part of the Government's commitment to radically increase the transparency and accountability of all public services’. No one could object to more transparency and accountability in government but, unfortunately, abolishing some of the quangos could have precisely the opposite effect.

To illustrate this, it is worth considering the case of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), one of the arm's length bodies which fortunately seems destined to survive the review, albeit in reduced form and with some of its current functions being transferred to the Department of Health. The FSA was set up 10 years ago in the wake of a series of food scares, when the Government's credibility in relation to food standards and safety was at a distinctly low ebb. A large part of the problem stemmed from a lack of transparency about how decisions affecting consumers were reached and communicated by government, and part of the thinking behind the new agency was that, by establishing an arm's length body that could be seen to act openly and independently, the confidence of consumers could be restored. Importantly, the FSA is entitled to make public the advice it gives to ministers, which helps separate the provision of advice from political decision making and means that ministers are accountable for the decisions that are made. Public confidence in the safety of food has improved dramatically since the agency was established in 2000 and it is often held up as an example of how transparency should operate in government.

If separating advice from policy was felt to be beneficial in the case of food safety – and presumably still is, because the FSA is to survive – what of advice in other areas, where the bodies responsible have not been so lucky? One example is the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which has been providing independent advice on farm animal welfare for the past 30 years but is now to be discontinued as a non-departmental public body (NDPB) and will be reconstituted as ‘a committee of experts’, the exact status of which has still to be made clear. The abolition of the FAWC is worrying, not just because it has played an essential role in challenging the way people think about farm animal welfare, but because it was subject to a detailed review only last year which found that ‘FAWC's work is still needed, FAWC is the best organisation to undertake it, and it provides exceptional value for money.’

The Government claims to have taken a logical approach to its review of its arm's length bodies, with those destined to survive having passed one of three tests, namely, performing a technical function, requiring political impartiality, or needing to act independently to establish facts. However, looking across government, there are inconsistencies in the outcome. In Defra, the FAWC can be said to meet at least one of these criteria, but is to be axed, while over at the Home Office the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, which also needs to be in a position to provide independent technical advice, is quite rightly to be retained. Like the FAWC, the Veterinary Residues Committee is to be discontinued as an NDPB of Defra, although the Veterinary Products Committee will thankfully survive.

Meanwhile, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) is to be abolished as an NDPB and its functions transferred to the Department of Health. It may well be, as the chairman of the SEAC commented last week, that a change in the arrangements is appropriate given that policies to control BSE and vCJD have significantly reduced the risks of these diseases, so there is less need for scientific advice in this area than in the past. Nevertheless, the change is disconcerting, not least because, as the European Commission pointed out in a revised ‘TSE road map’ earlier this year, there are still some important decisions to be made on TSEs, some of which will require a veterinary input (VR, July 31, 2010, vol 167, p 150). Also, in the 1990s, it was BSE, more than anything else, that highlighted the need to separate political decision making from scientific advice.

The way in which scientific advice is used by governments has often proved controversial but the maxim that ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’ is a good one, provided the advice can be given freely and openly and it is clear where the policy decisions have been made. Experience has shown that, without such clarity, it can be difficult to determine where the responsibility for a particular decision might lie. Far from improving transparency, there is a danger that, as independent advisory bodies are disbanded and reconstituted as expert committees in government departments, their perceived independence will be compromised and the distinction between policy and advice will be obscured.

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