Bureaucracy buster on cards

November 21, 2003

A "gatekeeper" body to check government policies for excessive red tape is likely to be set up next year.

The Department for Education and Skills' Better Regulation Review Group says in its interim report this week that it plans to disband next autumn.

It will hand over its work to a single gateway body "that would periodically monitor and review" government, funding council and quality agency policies to ensure costly regulatory burdens are kept to a minimum.

Recognising the irony of setting up a review body to review the review bodies, the task-force report says the gatekeeper would largely leave policy-makers to "self-certify" that their initiatives do not impose a disproportionate burden. It would simply review their performance.

"The establishment of a formal gatekeeper mechanism for the sector has been considered very seriously by the group," the report says. "The particular concern is the development and operation of an appropriate mechanism that is fit for the purpose and proportionate to the problem."

Higher education minister Alan Johnson said this week that a gatekeeper initiative would be "of interest to all in the sector".

He added: "I can assure you the ministerial will is strong. Charles Clarke [education secretary] and I are of one mind - we want to see less red tape."

Converting all the small pots of funding, with their own detailed bidding and accountability processes, into larger key funding streams is another recommendation.

The group says departments and their agencies should clearly state the criteria for a successful allocation, the audit requirements and the prospects for funding continuing after the initial period. "All these requirements need to be in proportion to the amounts of money involved," it states.

According to the group, chaired by David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, the number of special funding streams that have proliferated in recent years have caused many problems. The group calls on the DFES to set a target for their reduction.

Mr Johnson this week accepted there were "too many jam jars" of funding and is to ask the Higher Education Funding Council for England to mainstream £60 million of ringfenced funding into larger allocations.

Golden hellos and the promising researcher fellowship scheme will be incorporated into human resources strategy funding. Funding for knowledge exchanges will be rolled into the higher education innovation fund and additional capital funding for leading research institutions will become part of general capital funding allocations for research infrastructure.

"We remain absolutely committed to these four objectives but we accept we can achieve them in less burdensome ways," Mr Johnson said.

Another of the report's five recommendations is to ensure that the government and its agencies consider the impact of new proposals and test them against five "principles of good regulation". This would be most effectively achieved by higher education regulators adopting a universal gatekeeper, the group concludes.

The report also says the introduction by the DFES of impact assessments of its policies represents a "historic change".

Mr Johnson agreed the move was important: "We must be seen to assess the impact of new policies and soon publish our own assessment of the white paper."

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