Becta scrapping a mistake, MPs told

An influential committee of MPs which oversees public finances has been told that the government's scrapping of the educational ICT agency Becta was a mistake, and that the decision had been taken on the basis of "no evidence whatsoever".

In a report published today entitled Smaller government: shrinking the quango state, the influential Public Administration Committee dismisses as "poorly managed" the coalition's review of government agencies, dubbed the 'bonfire of the quangos'.

Introducing the report, committee chairman, Tory MP Nicholas Jenkin, declared that the process had been "botched".

The committee heard a string of witnesses accuse the government of mishandling the review, and concluded that legislation introduced to enable the process did not include sufficient safeguards to prevent ministers from misusing their powers.

Charles Cochrane, secretary of the Council of Civil Service Unions, told MPs that, while his organisation had started unofficial talks with the Cabinet Office about the cull, "we certainly weren't subject to any formal consultation."

Geoff Lewtas, senior national officer - director of bargaining, equality and policy at the Public and Commercial Services Union, told the committee that the scrapping of Becta actively contradicted the Government's pronouncements on making the most of the public sector's huge collective bargaining power, evidenced in Sir Philip Green's recent review of Whitehall waste.

"We looked with interest at the report that had been commissioned from Sir Philip Green, and a lot of what he said in his report was about the need for central procurement for the whole range of government services. Here we have a decision with regard to Becta where you are just taking away that central support function, in terms of procuring IT for schools," he said.

As a result of Becta's abolition, MPs were told, an agreement with Microsoft which dramatically reduced the number of software licences required by schools and colleges would not be renewed.

"Heaven knows, there are going to be 1,000 different contracts now, each school determining what it wants, what software, what equipment, et cetera. How much resource will that take up, in terms of educational costings? It is not something that departments can or should walk away from; they have a responsibility to be active participants in the process."

The Government announced the closure of Becta last May, stating that it would save £80 million this year alone.

Cabinet secretary Francis Maude this morning dismissed accusations that the cull had been rushed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. He said that cost savings from the abolition of quangos were "hard to quantify", but claimed these were "not the primary reason" for the review, which was to "increase accountability".

He admitted mistakes had been made, however, saying: "Has it been a perfect process? No. Is it complete? Not by any means."