Lord Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, has said chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss was wrong to attack arm’s-length bodies as “vested interests” vying for government funds.
In a speech last week on the upcoming Spending Review, Truss said arm’s-length bodies were among a “growing blob... who ask again and again for government favours – arguing that they are the exception, that their cause deserves special treatment”. She hinted at further cuts to ALBs, following a recent cull of "opaque organisations with ill-defined aims demanding public money for their latest pet project".
But Kerslake, who led the civil service from 2011 to 2014, said describing quangos as vested interests was “missing the point” of their role.
“I think it’s really disappointing that ministers are indulging in another round of quango bashing,” the crossbench peer told CSW.
He said quangos were subject to a “pretty rigorous process of review" under the triennial tailored review system. The 2010 “bonfire of the quangos” under former prime minister David Cameron also included a review of public bodies that determined which should be abolished.
“The truth is, therefore, that arm’s-length bodies exist because they’re seen as the best way of delivering government policy on an issue,” Kerslake said.
“Inevitably they will have a view on what funding may be needed to deliver government policy, but that’s not the same as a vested interest.
“Dismissing that view as a vested interest I think is missing the point. Arm’s-length bodies have good – often expert – insights and knowledge on government policy, and they should be listened to.”
Kerslake, who is among a growing number of people calling for a future public inquiry into Brexit, also repeated his assertion that there was a "good case for an inquiry once the dust has settled".
The inquiry should be led by a judge and should examine the entire Brexit process, beginning with the June 2016 referendum on EU membership, he said. It should ask how the referendum question was framed and if the government should have set a minimum vote threshold for a binding result. It should also consider whether the government was right to trigger Article 50 without a plan for withdrawal.
Kerslake also suggested an inquiry could help to shed light on civil servants' role in delivering Brexit, given that officials were “not in a position to answer back” to repeated attacks on their impartiality by politicians and in the media.
He dismissed fears of a “Remainer conspiracy” in the civil service and said some of the “most disgraceful” attacks had been levelled at the government’s chief EU negotiator, Olly Robbins. Rumours have circulated since January that Robbins could be removed from the negotiating team to appease pro-Brexit MPs – “when it’s widely understood that he has plans to leave anyway,” Kerslake said.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Kerslake’s predecessor, Lord Gus O’Donnell, dismissed the rumours as “ridiculous”.
“Olly and his team have worked out this first part [of the Brexit deal] and my understanding was it was always the plan that [the negotiating team] would then change and we’d move on to new people to do the next bit," said O'Donnell.
Asked about a public inquiry into Brexit, O’Donnell said: “I don’t think anyone’s got anything to hide.”
“I think what you will find is that cabinet minutes have been properly recorded,” he said, referring to reports that cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill had recorded discussions of how potential Brexit outcomes would affect the Tory Party in a cabinet meeting.
O’Donnell said it was civil servants’ job to “accurately record what happens” in cabinet. “I have every confidence that they will have done that and if everybody starts talking about the future of political parties and whatever, I expect that to be recorded.”