Critics of Labour's task-forces say they are not so much 'inclusive' government as a means of keeping dissenters sweet and delaying heavy expenditure. And no-one elects their members, writes Patrick Butler

The unelected state is expanding.

Since Labour took power in 1997, 318 task-forces and advisory bodies have been set up across government, creating 3,103 places filled by 2,459 'outsiders' - that is to say ministerially appointed experts, 'interested parties' and advisers from beyond Whitehall.

Depending on your point of view, this is either a triumph of open and collaborative government, or a centra list plot designed to bring awkward customers inside the policy tent and reward loyalists with influential posts that do not fall under the Nolan public accountability rules.

The 'bacterial growth' of task-forces has come under scrutiny in a new book, Ruling by Task-Force, by academic Tony Barker.

He concludes that for all the practical benefits of task-forces, there is a latent danger of public policy making slipping off the accountability radar.

'Rule by task-force. . . offers real advantages. But it must not become an exclusive device. . . The relatively closely managed government appointed task-force can enhance. . .

existing channels of official consultation and public policy inquiry. They could not replace them, ' says Mr Barker.

Examination of the Department of Health's record shows that while it is by no means a serial setter-up of taskforces, it has not escaped some of the problems inherent in them.

It has set up 26 since the election - not including the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care - with 144 places.

These include groups to prepare the ground for Labour manifesto commitments (the strategic review of health services in London), aid the implementation of policy (the six regional waiting list task-forces) and respond to crises (the review of cervical screening at Kent and Canterbury Hospital).

Mr Barker points out that Labour has offered task-forces as 'a major exercise in inclusiveness'.

They represent 'partnership', an 'invitation to the party', and a chance to bring private sector expertise into policy making - although, ironically there is probably less private sector involvement in the NHS than under the Tories.

Task-forces also offer 'direct practical knowledge', an alternative to the civil service and speedier, more detailed advice. Unlike more traditional forms of inquiry, they offer ministers 'direct influence - even control - over what the outside group would, and would not, be asked to advise and comment on'.

At the DoH not all has gone smoothly, however. A year ago, a damaging public row was caused by rifts in the NHS charter advisory task-force, when chair Greg Dyke, then chief executive of Pearson and now BBC director-general, was accused of failing to properly consult his task-force colleagues.

He rejected the allegations, although this did not avert some sceptics' suspicions that Mr Dyke, who had donated money to Labour, was engineering a partisan, artificial 'consensus' under the guise of partnership. A new Patient's Charter has yet to emerge.

But task-forces offer a more malleable model for policy investigation than more autonomous and formal royal commissions. Labour has clearly not enjoyed dealing with the questions thrown up by the recent Royal Commission on Long-Term Care.

The DoH has also held a number of 'internal reviews' since May 1997, staffed by senior civil servants and ministers alone. This suggests some reviews, such as that of the NHS cash distribution system or the private finance initiative, are considered too sensitive to be subjected to outside expertise.

On the plus side, lists of task-forces show that NHS people are regularly slotted into 'joined-up government' policy making task-forces in other departments - though it is not immediately clear why Helen Black, a regional head of health for Unison, found herself on the BBC licence fee review panel.

The rise of task-forces is partly attributed to Labour's decision to keep to Conservative spending limits for the two years after the election. Mr Barker suggests that they were a way of looking active to voters and stakeholders, while in effect creating a talking shop and delaying expensive action.

Another theory is that task-forces allow ministers to sidestep Nolan rules and bring in 'politically acceptable' faces in a way that would not be possible in more formal quangos.

Whitehall is insistent that Nolan rules should not be applied to task-forces, which are often temporary, because they are too bureaucratic and time consuming.

The eight-strong DoH efficiency task-force had at least three NHS managers widely regarded as New Labour supporters - Lionel Joyce, Mike Marchment, and Philip Hunt, the last of whom was later ennobled and brought into the government.

But oddly, given the subject matter, it did not have a trade union representative.

There is no question of the integrity or competence of the trio. But the academic, Lord Smith of Clifton, in his introduction to Mr Barker's book, makes the point that precautions must be taken to prevent task-forces slipping into 'a corrupt, cosy court politics of favourites and hangers-on'.

Lord Smith writes: 'So far, but it is early days, major problems (with taskforces) have not arisen: they remain latent rather than blatant, but it is a potential sleaze minefield.'

Ruling By Task-Force: Politico's guide to Labour's new elite. Politico's Publishing, 8 Artillery Row, London SW1P 1RZ.£9.99.