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Quangos take note of Nolan's findings

Tony Tysome on the sleaze committee's implications for higher education. Of all the issues brought to the attention of the Nolan committee as it prepared its first report on Standards in Public Life, none drew greater attention than the lack of public trust in quangos.

Procedures for the appointment of quango members, as well as the level of accountability and openness among these bodies, topped a worry list extending well beyond the remit of the committee, whose six months' inquiry was launched by John Major, the Prime Minister, following a series of "sleaze" allegations.

Its conclusions and recommendations have direct implications for the regimes holding the purse-strings of universities and colleges not only because the further and higher education sectors have been dealt their fair share of sleaze cases, albeit at institutional level, but also since the lion's share of expenditure channelled through major executive non-departmental public bodies funds post-16 education and training.

The biggest spending quangos listed in the report are the Higher Education Funding Council for England with a 1993/94 budget of Pounds 2,793 million and the Further Education Funding Council for England, responsible for Pounds 2,683 million. Then there are the six research councils, handling Pounds 1,150 million; the Scottish HE funding council, with Pounds 415 million; the HE funding council for Wales, Pounds 179 million; and the FE funding council for Wales, Pounds 143 million.

With all that public money at stake, politicians as well as the recipients have been keen to keep a close eye on those in charge and how it is spent.

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, points out that more than 55 per cent of the central Department for Education budget is now administered by quangos.

"The membership of them may now be checked, but we have yet to address the question of making public declarations of interest, or of opening up quango meetings to the public," he said.

The report begins its observations on quangos with an examination of the appointments procedure, looking into claims that ministerial responsibility for appointments has led to an endemic political bias.

Referring to the findings of researchers at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government, the report concludes that evidence of political bias in appointments is "circumstantial and inconclusive". But Howard Davies, who conducted the research, disagrees.

"It is true that the evidence is partial, but what there is does indicate a tendency for there to be more appointments for Conservative Party supporters than Labour or Liberal Democrats," he said.

Despite the committee's doubts about bias, it raises concerns about current arrangements for policing ministers' "considerable powers" of patronage, commenting: "If decisions are not made on a personal and party basis - or even on caprice and whim - it is largely because of the good sense of those in office, rather than because the system prevents such abuses."

Mr Davies agrees with the report's next point, that "suspicions of bias remain nearly impossible to prove or disprove". Some information held by quangos which many feel ought to be in the public domain is instead closely guarded, leading opposition politicians in particular to the conclusion that the system ought to be opened up to more public scrutiny.

Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, suggested that this was an undesirable trait which trickled down from the funding quangos to the management styles of some institutions.

"We have learned lessons from one or two well-attested cases of the great danger of closed operations where a small group can form a tightly-knit unit denying access to information," he said.

Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, argues that for this reason, many of the Nolan committee's recommendations for making quangos more publicly accountable ought to be extended to university and college governing bodies. In particular, the union would like to see the principle of a mandatory code of conduct for board members being applied to institutions.

But a spokesman added: "Much will depend, in this, as in other areas of the report, on how these principles are translated into practice."

The Nolan Committee's key recommendations on quangos: * Appointments to quango boards should be made on the basis of merit;

* Responsibility for appointments should remain with ministers;

* There should be a Public Appointments Commissioner to regulate, monitor and report on quango appointments;

* The appointments process should be open and departments should have to justify any departures from best practice;

* Board candidates should be assessed by an advisory committee;

* It should be mandatory for each quango to have a code of conduct for board members;

* The Government should review rules governing propriety and accountability in quangos;

* Openness and independent monitoring of quangos should be extended;

* Audit arrangements for quangos should be reviewed.

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