The accountability of civil servants - Constitution Committee Contents


101.  Arm's-length bodies (ALBs) have been a common feature of the UK executive, especially since the introduction of "next steps agencies" in the 1980s. Several hundred such bodies exist,[131] and there are questions about their constitutional accountability. A factor which prompted our inquiry was the controversy which arose from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee's questioning of senior HMRC officials.[132] Some of the more notable features of that dispute from a constitutional perspective stemmed from HMRC's status as an ALB. Another dispute about the accountability of officials in an ALB arose in November 2011, when Brodie Clark, the head of the UK Border Force (part of the UK Border Agency, an executive agency of the Home Office), was suspended over the relaxation of border controls for certain non-EU citizens. The Home Secretary said the decision had been taken without her knowledge.[133]

Overview of arm's-length bodies

102.  Throughout this chapter we use the term ALB to denote a public body other than a department of state under the direct leadership of a Cabinet minister. ALBs include a vast range of public bodies, of varying degrees of removal from ministerial control, and subject to a range of internal and external accountability mechanisms. Three broad categories are identified in box 3.

103.  There are common features to the accountability arrangements of all ALBs. All such bodies will have a sponsoring minister, who is constitutionally responsible to Parliament for the body's work. All ALBs have Accounting Officers (usually the ALB's chief executive), who are directly accountable to Parliament (via the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee) in the same way as the Accounting Officer of a standard ministerial department. ALBs have boards, containing non-executive and executive directors, to whom the chief executive is also accountable.[134] Both the chairs and the chief executives of ALBs can be called to give evidence to parliamentary select committees; in terms of accountability this is a significant benefit of ALBs.


Types of arm's-length bodies
(1) Non-ministerial departments are not led directly by a minister; rather, they are led by a chief executive and by a board consisting of executive and non-executive directors. Examples include HM Revenue and Customs, and the Office of Fair Trading.

(2) Executive agencies are: "created to enable executive functions within government to be carried out by a well-defined business unit with a clear focus on delivering specified outputs within a framework of accountability to ministers."[135] Executive agencies are governed by framework agreements, which set out in detail the division of responsibilities between the agency and the sponsoring central government department. They do not determine policy: rather, they implement the policies set by their sponsoring departments. Examples include the UK Border Agency and the Met Office.[136]

(3) Non-departmental public bodies are not government departments; rather, they have distinct legal personalities separate from the Crown, and their employees are not civil servants. As with executive agencies, non-departmental public bodies operate within strategic frameworks set by ministers.[137] Examples include the Health and Safety Executive and English Heritage.

104.  A wide range of bodies fall within each of the three categories, and the accountability arrangements of such bodies can vary greatly. We heard evidence that the number of different types of ALBs, together with the complexity of other government structures, leads to confusion amongst those trying to understand how government works. Moreover, it can cloud what otherwise might be clear lines of accountability.[138]

105.  The solution identified by some witnesses was for the Government to produce a map of the state. Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield believed that the production of such a document would be: "a great service to every select committee."[139] Professor Talbot agreed, pointing out that it is done in most other OECD countries and that in Australia a map of the institutions of the central government is contained on two sides of A4.[140]

106.  We recommend that the Government publish, maintain and make available to Parliament a full diagram of the central state, similar to an organisational chart.

Distancing ministers from decisions

107.  A common reason for creating an ALB is that the nature of the decisions taken makes it inappropriate for ministers to be directly involved in the oversight of those decisions. ALBs set up in such cases are often designed to support statutory office-holders, to whom the decision-making power is delegated by law. A classic example of this is individual tax decisions. Mike Clasper, non-executive chairman of HM Revenue and Customs, explained—

"in an individual tax situation, the commissioners of HMRC, of which the accounting officer is one, are charged with interpreting the policy and the law in that particular case as to what is the right tax due and then to collect the tax … that separation is quite important, because it means that the actual affairs of individuals and companies are not politicised through the tax system."[141]

108.  A similar situation occurs in relation to individual prosecution decisions in criminal matters, and to regulatory decisions taken by the statutory regulators of certain industries (such as energy or telecommunications). In such cases, there is a clear constitutional need to maintain a separation between ministers and decision-makers.

The policy-implementation divide

109.  Another justification for establishing an ALB is that the implementation of a particular policy is clearly separate from the formulation of the policy. In such cases, it is argued, there can be clearer, enhanced accountability by creating a separate delivery body.

110.  Several of our witnesses thought that, where a clean separation between policy and implementation is possible, the creation of an ALB to take responsibility for implementation is efficient and effective. Lord O'Donnell told us that the central issue in relation to ALBs is clarity: "the really important bit is: [whether it is possible to] define and be clear about who is accountable for what".[142]

111.  It seems, therefore, that the success or otherwise of an ALB is strongly linked to the clarity with which its objectives and purposes are defined. We heard evidence, however, that suggested that such clean definition is not always possible. Lord Turnbull explained that, even in cases where failures were clearly operational, the underlying reasons for such failures are often related to the availability of resources, which is a policy matter. In this way, ministers can become entangled in what are at first glance clearly delegated areas of implementation.[143] It may also be that matters which are, on a technical level, purely concerned with implementation are nonetheless extremely politically sensitive, such that ministers will on occasion wish to retain control over them.[144]

112.  We also heard evidence that, even where a split between policy and implementation is possible and desirable, the accountability of the minister to Parliament for implementation remains intact. Penny Ciniewicz, chief executive of the Valuation Office Agency, stressed that the minister is ultimately accountable to Parliament for the work of the VOA, and that her duties as chief executive were performed in support of the minister's accountability.[145]

113.  The accountability mechanisms of ALBs are a supplement to ministers' constitutional responsibility to Parliament, not a replacement for it. The primary means by which public servants in ALBs are held to account is via the convention of individual ministerial responsibility.

131   This is after some were abolished under the Public Bodies Act 2011. Back

132   See Public Accounts Committee, 61st report (2010-12): HM Revenue & Customs 2010-11 Accounts: tax disputes (HC 1531). Back

133   See HC Deb, 7 November 2011, cols 44-46. Mr Clark later resigned, claiming comments made by the Home Secretary amounted to constructive dismissal. Back

134   Q 191. Back

135   Executive Agencies: A Guide for Departments (Cabinet Office), p 1. Back

136   To add to the complexity, executive agencies can be sponsored by another ALB: for example, the Valuation Office Agency is an executive agency of HM Revenue and Customs (a non-ministerial department), and the Office of Nuclear Regulation is an executive agency of the Health and Safety Executive (a non-departmental public body). Back

137   Machinery of Government Changes: Best Practice Handbook (Cabinet Office), p 9.  Back

138   QQ 135-136; Talbot. Back

139   Q 135. Back

140   Q 136. Back

141   Q 191. Back

142   Q 279. Lord Butler of Brockwell agreed (Q 296). Back

143   Q 273. Back

144   Q 281. Back

145   Q 197. Back

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