A new Conservative quango I quite like

Despite their professed enthusiasm for having a bonfire of the quangos, in practice the Conservative Party keep on announcing new ones – and have rather run in to 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 an 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 nutured 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.

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