A new Conservative quango I quite like

Despite their professed enthusiasm for having a bonfire of the quangos, the Conservative Party keep on announcing new ones – and have rather run into trouble when pressed to explain what’s going on the bonfire (both points I wrote about here).

The tally of new quangos the Conservatives is now at least 19, which sits rather oddly with the rhetoric about culling them. However, that doesn’t mean all the individual proposals are bad ones.

One in particular which appeals to me is an Office of Tax Simplification.

Regular readers may have noticed my love of tangling with bureaucracy. (I did though decide discretion was the better part of valour when a US immigration official gave me a form with a footnote which didn’t make sense. To anyone else subsequently who has been befuddled by that footnote too: I apologise. I can only say I was thinkings guns, deportation, Guantanamo.)

One pattern that is regularly repeated is that an outsider, dealing with a process for the first time, can often spot ways it can be made simpler or easier. Sometimes those thoughts turn out to be erroneous because there is actually a good explanation for an apparently baffling process. But often the thoughts turn out to be spot on because those who manage the system have so many other factors to worry about that simplicity never quite gets a proper look in.

So the idea of creating a team who is dedicated to making tax rules simpler is a good one. Placing the team outside the usual Treasury and HMRC structures means it is unlikely to lose its focus on simplicity as it will have only that one reason for existing. The simplicity of purpose also makes for more meaningful accountability – a particular problem with quangos as I highlighted in my experiences with the Office of the Public Guardian. Is the OPG’s poor paperwork a matter of incidental detail, a symptom of a quango that is badly run or something that is the fault of those who wrote and passed the law it implements?

The short answer to that question is that none of the politicians of any party who may have to make decisions about the OPG’s future after the next general election seem to have the level of detailed knowledge about the Office of the Public Guardian’s work to judge.

That is a problem across much of the quango world, but for an Office of Tax Simplification the judgements will need to be made on the basis of how many proposals it makes, how many are enacted – and how good the reasons given by the Government are for rejecting the others. That will, at least for tax experts, make for a good, clear field of judgement.

But why make it a quango? The essential part of its success would be to have created a constructive tension between its drive for simplicity and government’s habit of complexity. That tension could be just as well nurtured by beefing up a Commons select committee and adding an Office of Tax Simplification as its research arm – with the added bonus that this would also add teeth to Parliament’s attempts to be a genuine check on the actions of government.

0 responses to “A new Conservative quango I quite like”

  1. I think the idea of using a Commons select committee is far preferable to an unelected quango.

    However it isn’t just the issue of over-complicated tax rules which needs to be addressed. My perception is that far too much legislation is passed without sufficient thought being given beforehand to implementing it. e.g Child Support Agency.

    For major legislation perhaps a select committee could review an outline implementation plan which would then have to be approved by Parliament as part of the process of passing the legislation.

    I’m thinking about checking the main business processes which the legislation would involve, quantifying the impact of the legislation – e.g. how many people does this leglislation affect and what resources will it need?

    I accept that some outside expertise would be needed – maybe Parliament should employ a team of business analysts to work under the control of a select committee.

  2. I suspect one of the problems is that legislation is changed so much and so often at short notice as it goes through Parliament first time round. Perhaps what’s needed is more of a culture of reviewing the details (whether before the Parliamentary votes or after the legislation has come in to force).

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