THE academic who led the campaign to secure a National Assembly for Wales has delivered a devastating critique of First Minister Rhodri Morgan's plan to scrap the country's biggest quangos.
In a research paper commissioned by BBC Wales, Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University expresses profound concern about the abolition of the Welsh Development Agency (WDA), the Wales Tourist Board (WTB) and Elwa.
Prof Morgan's paper - written with his colleague Stevie Upton - comes 12 years after he exposed the unaccountable nature of Welsh quangos under the last Conservative Government.
Now he fears that some crucial policy areas controlled by the Assembly Government will suffer because of the way in which changes are being implemented.
Rhodri Morgan has argued that bringing Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies (ASPBs) under direct Assembly Government control will improve accountability.
But in his paper published today, Prof Morgan suggests that some consider the First Minister's approach to reform may have been tainted by his exposure of quango irregularities in the early 1990s. "The triumph of soundbite over substance has ensured that the image of the all-consuming 'Bonfire of the Quangos', originally used to rally the pro-devolution lobby, has endured. As First Minister, Rhodri Morgan has been committed to just such a bonfire, fuelling concerns that he is being driven by a personal vendetta."
The paper argues:
Real accountability relies on real scrutiny. A narrow and self-referential scrutiny system based solely on accountability to ministers will create a democratic deficit. Insufficient time and competence to deal with scrutiny within the existing (Assembly) committee system will exacerbate this deficit;
It is also questionable whether the Assembly has the commercial acumen to fulfil the roles of the ASPBs. Fast moving sectors cannot afford to engage with an organisation burdened with an onerous compliance culture;
Poor knowledge of good practice and insufficient benchmarking data will potentially prevent the merged organisation from being as well designed as it could be;
The debate between centralising and decentralising factions is unresolved. In spite of the benefits of streamlining arising from centralisation, the importance of the local authority level should not be underestimated;
Since independent expertise contributes to the ASPBs' outward-looking nature, the future of the agencies' non-executive function is also of concern. The expertise of board members who do not wish to submit to political control will be lost;
It is uncertain that the cost efficiencies identified by the Assembly Government are real rather than false economies. A net saving cannot occur where hidden costs outweigh the potential savings.
Referring to Rhodri Morgan's sudden announcement last July that the WDA, WTB and Elwa were to be abolished, Prof Morgan states, "Arguably the most radical shake-up of Welsh governance since the formation of the Assembly, the quango cull, was decided upon ... without public debate. That the decision to abolish the quangos was taken behind closed doors by a select group of Labour politicians, their advisers, and civil servants, does little for Wales' reputation for open government."
The paper concludes:
"Does the Assembly Government have the internal management capacity to digest six quangos and to substantially improve on their performance?
"Civil servant numbers may have increased, but their workload has increased even faster, raising serious concerns about an over- stretched, over- stressed and unsustainable work culture;
"Will Wales become a less pluralist, more state-centric country in which the political realm embraces ever more aspects of our social and economic life?
"As the quangos are brought in-house, so public life will increasingly revolve around the Assembly, and secrecy and spin will be more readily rationalised. Already fewer people seem willing to speak openly against this receding pluralism for fear of alienating their patrons in the Assembly.
"Consequently, the centres of independent thought and research are becoming limited to the media and academia. We cannot be content with this state of affairs."