Amidst all of the revelations on MPs’ expenses, taxpayer funded lobbying, and bungled swine flu preparations, some further news was buried. The Cabinet Office released its annual Public Bodies list, detailing the Government’s version of what they consider to be quangos. Of course, year-on-year funding from Government has increased by nearly £4 billion to £38.4billion. The number of ‘Non-Departmental Public Bodies’ (NDPBs) has gone down from 790 to 766 in the last financial year, according to the Cabinet Office. However in the December 2009 document, Smarter Government, we saw that £80 billion was being spent through 750 ‘Arms Length Bodies’.
The different figures seem to lie in the descriptions of what bodies are: NDPBs, executive agencies and public corporations are just a few of the names given to bodies overseen and/or funded by Government. As we mention in our paper, ACA to YJB: A Guide to the UK’s Semi-Autonomous Public Bodies, an unhelpful debate over these discursive differences means that the figures released by Government are more argued over than they are actually analysed.
Our survey mapped all of the above ‘definitions’ and found more realistic picture of the semi-autonomous sector in the UK: 1,148 bodies were in operation, and were funded to the tune of £90billion. It comprehensively details the spending, funding and staff levels at all of these bodies. Departmental reports do this solely for NDPBs to an extent but the information is often askew from that found in the organisation’s own annual accounts, meaning it can be unreliable.
Our papers on the semi-autonomous sector have discussed in detail the problems with devolving governance to self-interested bodies. Any talk of bonfires, reviews or rationalisation requires some honesty about who they are, what they do and how much they cost; we can no longer afford to duck the issue.