Quango name 'source of ridicule', files from 1980 show

Image caption,
Margaret Thatcher, pictured in 1980, set her sights on the Eggs Authority during a review of quangos

A major review of quangos in 1980 suggested the name should be changed because it had become a term of "ridicule and abuse".

Newly-released National Archives files show Margaret Thatcher homed in on the Eggs Authority and wanted it axed.

But she saved the "ineffective" Women's National Commission for political reasons.

The Duke of Edinburgh got involved in the review and wanted to know if there were any plans for a sport body.

The 1980 quango file released by the National Archives has deep resonance thirty years later.

Both the Thatcher government and the Cameron coalition came to power in difficult economic times, and a "bonfire of the quangos" was ignited amid a general culture of cuts.

In January 1980, a White Paper report recommended that 246 quangos should be abolished saving £11.6m and costing 3,700 jobs.

The current government announced in October that 192 public bodies, such as the Film Council and the Audit Commission, would be axed, while 118 will be merged.

Quangos - quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations - are arm's-length bodies funded by Whitehall departments but not run by them.

'Hurt feelings'

Politicians - particularly when in opposition - have been complaining about quangos for decades and the name has become a byword for paper-pushing and waste.

This notion emerged during Mrs Thatcher's quango review, which was carried out by former civil servant Sir Leo Pliatzky.

In notes accompanying his draft report, he said he did not want to be a "spoil-sport" but the shorthand term quango did "not really fit".

"Moreover in some quarters it has become a term of ridicule or abuse," he wrote.

"A number of Departments would have been unhappy about even listing their organisations in the report if that meant stigmatising them as quangos and causing offence to a lot of worthy people who give their services free."

Sir Leo's aim was a "rapid, significant reduction in quangos and their staff and costs", but another instruction pointed to the Iron Lady's softer side.

"The PM is aware that there are many Quangos which cost very little indeed and which keep particular interest groups happy, and she has said that there is no point in hurting people's feelings unless there is a positive gain to be achieved from abolition which cannot be ignored."

Image caption,
Mrs Thatcher went for a "leave well alone" policy when it came to the Women's National Commission

He was also tasked with personally looking into the details of the Eggs Authority, which had a budget of about £3m, most of which came from levies on producers.

It replaced the British Egg Marketing Board which was responsible for the "Go to Work on an Egg" campaign, and its main function was to provide generic egg advertising and market intelligence.

Mrs Thatcher's private secretary sent a note to Sir Leo, saying: "Mrs Thatcher is herself sceptical about the value of this Authority."

Sir Leo wrote several memos to Downing Street specifically about the Eggs Authority but he concluded it would be saved, for the time being. It was finally abolished in 1986 and replaced with the British Egg Industry Council.

'Extraordinarily vague'

Sir Leo's attention was also drawn to the Sports Council after he received a letter from the Duke of Edinburgh about the unelected make-up of the body.

Image caption,
Mrs Thatcher said Sir Leo's report was marvellous

In a memo to No 10, Sir Leo wrote: "Apart from his general dislike of bureaucracy and his support for voluntary effort, his particular interest stems from his being President of the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR), a capacity in which he conducts a running battle with the Sports Council..."

In a letter to Prince Philip, signed "Your Royal Highness's most humble and obedient servant", Sir Leo said ministers were responsible for looking at the quangos in their departments.

"I do not have the time or resources to involve myself personally in the details of each of the many hundreds of bodies covered by the review," he said.

On the Women's National Commission - set up in 1969 "to ensure by all possible means that the informed opinion of women is given its due weight in the deliberation of government" - Sir Leo concluded its terms of reference were "extraordinarily vague".

But he said its chairman Baroness Young felt it was "politically out of the question" to abolish it, and Mrs Thatcher agreed, opting for a "leave well alone policy" and recommending it be given an extra half-secretary.

The Women's National Commission may have been saved in 1980 but it is on the current government's list of quangos to be axed.

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