Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State - Public Administration Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1.  There are currently over 900 public bodies in the United Kingdom. They perform a range of tasks from regulating industry to providing guidance and protection to consumers. Some advise on senior appointments while others act as stewards of national assets, promote changes in public behaviour or provide expert scientific advice to Government. A number are responsible for the distribution of large amounts of taxpayers' money in the form of grants to business, universities and research bodies. As the Institute for Government's (IfG) recent report notes "they [public bodies] are fundamental to the effective running of the British state".[1]

2.  Nevertheless, there are a number of long standing concerns about public bodies - or "quangos" (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations) as they are often less affectionately known. Such concerns normally focus on a combination of three complaints: the cost and perceived "wasteful" spending by these bodies; a sense that they are unaccountable for decisions that they take; and the regulatory and bureaucratic constraints that they impose on the rest of society.

3.  The Coalition's Programme for Government stated that it would "reduce the number and cost of quangos."[2] The emergency budget announced significant reductions in the number of public bodies and savings of £500 million.[3] Since then the Government has conducted a review of all public bodies to identify further reductions. It has also introduced the Public Bodies Reform Bill [Lords] to give it the powers required to implement its reforms.

4.  These are not new promises for an incoming Government to make; in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected on a promise of a 'bonfire of quangos' and in 1997 Tony Blair came to office with similar pledges. Whilst both abolished some organisations and merged others, neither achieved reform on the scale that was initially pledged.[4]


5.  Discussion about public bodies is made all the more confusing by the language involved. Non-departmental public bodies (NDPB), arm's length bodies (ALBs), quangos, public bodies, executive agencies, non-ministerial departments, and independent statutory bodies all clutter the lexicon, with the differences between them not always being apparent.

6.  In the interests of clarity this Report uses the following terms in the following way:

i.  Arm's length bodies (ALBs) describes the totality of public sector organisations that are separate from a central department; and

ii.  Executive agencies refers to departmental business units for which ministers are directly accountable but which are separate from the central department for administrative reasons;

iii.  Public bodies describes any public sector organisation that a minister is not directly accountable for;

iv.  Quangos - where witnesses have used this term we have assumed it to be equivalent to our use of the term arm's length bodies, unless they specified otherwise.

Our inquiry

7.  We examined the Government's review of public bodies and a range of related topics that emerged from this process. Over the course of this inquiry, we received written submissions from 15 organisations. We held a total of three oral evidence sessions where were heard from: public bodies, unions, academics, think-tanks, lobby groups and Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who was responsible for the review. We also commissioned the National Audit Office to provide guidance on how the Government should manage the reorganisation of public bodies. We would like to thank all those who contributed to our inquiry.

1   Institute for Government, Read Before Burning: Arms' length government for a new administration, July 2010, p10 Back

2   Cabinet Office, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010, p16 Back

3   Institute for Government, Read Before Burning, p10 Back

4   Ibid Back

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Prepared 7 January 2011