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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 15:03 GMT
West: Booming Quangos
Paul Barltrop
Paul Barltrop
The Politics Show West

Cow's udder
Milk Development Council supports dairy industry?

They came to power promising to 'reform the quango state'. Labour's 1997 manifesto attacked the growth of 'unaccountable quangos'.

But in government the opposite has happened.

They have created more than 100, bringing the total to around 900, and expanded others.

Taxpayers hand over 29bn to them each year - yet few know what they are.

The word itself does not help: it comes from 'Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation'.

Ministers prefer the equally impenetrable 'Non-Departmental Public Body', but NDPB trips off journalists' tongues much less easily than quango.

The fastest-growing is based in the West: the Milk Development Council now employs seven times more people than it did a few years ago.

Yet at the same time the dairy farmers it serves have had a bleak time.

"If suddenly the MDC stopped, I'm sure it is something we could do without really, because they don't seem to do much for us," says Dean Sparkes.

He farms close to the Mendip hills in Somerset.

Like all milk-producers he has to pay a levy to the MDC; it costs him up to 90 each month - particularly unwelcome when milk prices have been low in recent years.

"If they could just get us 2 or 3 pence on a litre, we would be happy to pay them," he sighs.

'Least useful quangos'
British Potato Council
Milk Development Council
Energy Savings Trust
Agricultural Wages Committees
Wine Standards Board
Westminster Foundation for Democracy
Football Licensing Authority
Investors in People UK
Economic and Social Research Council
Dan Lewis Efficiency in Government Unit

At their head offices near the Cotswold town of Cirencester, officials of the Milk Development Council are aware of the criticism.

It was set up in 1995 when the milk industry was deregulated. It gets 7.5m a year.

"We spend 50% of the money helping farmers to promote milk," says chief executive Kevin Bellamy.

"An individual farm business could not run a national media campaign."

In the early years there were seven staff; now there are 49.

But most of that increase has been in the past two years, employing school milk facilitators to promote it as a healthy drink for kids.

"We have people who are visiting schools and making sure they are provided with a school milk service, so that children receive those benefits," says Kevin Bellamy.

Whether quangos are good value for money is just one question.

How they can be held to account is another - and far more fundamental say critics.

Labour won power promising to tackle them. The Conservatives are today pledging to get rid of 160.

The Liberal Democrats cheerfully blame both of them for presiding over the quango boom of the last 20 years.

But reversing that trend is going to take a lot more than political rhetoric.

The Politics Show

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