Latest Public Sector News


Quangos ‘unaccountable, confused and neglected’ says MPs’ report

Quangos and other arm’s length government bodies are “unaccountable, confused and neglected”, the Public Administration Select Committee has found.

In a report released today, the committee calls for the government to produce a clear “map of state” setting out the roles and responsibilities of quangos and agencies, after finding that the current arrangements lack clarity.

The committee chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP, compared quangos to the film The Matrix, where “doors open on virtual worlds which are insulated from reality and hidden from the public and from those meant to be accountable for them”.

To clarify the arrangements the committee says up-to-date, plain English statements of statuses, roles and relationships are needed for each body to allow people to navigate the system.

The report describes “an inconsistent and cluttered system of quangos, executive agencies and non-ministerial departments which is poorly understood even in central government and where accountability is confused, overlapping and neglected, with blurred boundaries and responsibilities”.

The committee use NHS England as a case study. With a budget of £95.6bn, it is the largest public body in England, and the committee says that it is unacceptable that the Department of Health took two years to update its ‘accountability system statement’, which left accountability arrangements unclear during a period of major organisation change.

The findings of the report, titled ‘Who's accountable? Relationships between government and arm's-length bodies’, come despite government reforms that have significantly culled the number of arm’s-length bodies.

In a written ministerial statement published today, the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude MP, said the government’s Public Bodies Reform Programmes’ had completed 95% of abolitions and mergers and had succeeded in reducing the number of public bodies by over 285, saving £2bn since 2010.

Maude said: “In May 2010, the government committed to review public bodies, with the aim of increasing accountability for actions carried out on behalf of the state. Nearly four years on, I am pleased that the Public Bodies Reform Programme has made excellent progress in the biggest reform of the public bodies in a generation.”

The findings of the Public Administration Committee would appear to contradict Maude on the programme’s success at increasing accountability. The report says that the reforms have not been coordinated with civil service reforms and health reforms, and the committee is “unconvinced that the reforms have in fact increased accountability”. In some cases, the committee continues, increased direct accountability to ministers has come at the cost of reduced transparency and accountability to Parliament and to the public. They add that transparent information should continue to be published on the effectiveness of functions, whether these functions are performed in or outside of central government.

Jenkin said: "The controversy around the government’s handling of flooding last winter showed that arm’s-length government is confused and opaque. Despite the reforms, the system of arms-length government is still a mess, and the government knows it’s still a mess. 

“Vast amounts of money are involved here, £95.6bn in the case of NHS England alone, and it is simply not acceptable that there is no clarity or clear accountability for that kind of public expenditure.

“The key to accountability and effectiveness is the quality of relationships between the relevant department and its arms-length bodies. However complicated the arrangements may have to be, there is no excuse for lack of a clear understanding of statuses, roles and relationships. Too often, relationships lack trust and understanding.  Blame is used to avoid accountability

“The architecture is not meant to be reminiscent of the film, 'The Matrix' where doors open on virtual worlds which are insulated from reality and hidden from the public and from those meant to be accountable for them.

“Whoever wins the election, there is bound to be more change in the structure of Whitehall, involving arms-length bodies.  It would be very helpful to any government with a new mandate to establish a clear framework for such decisions before the election."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “There's more to do so we have begun a formal review to ensure the system is consistent, and that there is no confusion about where accountability lies.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

public sector executive tv

more videos >

last word

Prevention: Investing for the future

Prevention: Investing for the future

Rob Whiteman, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), discusses the benefits of long-term preventative investment. Rising demand, reducing resource – this has been the r more > more last word articles >

public sector focus

View all News


Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

21/06/2019Peter Kyle MP: It’s time to say thank you this Public Service Day

Taking time to say thank you is one of the hidden pillars of a society. Bei... more >
How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

19/06/2019How community-led initiatives can help save the housing shortage

Tom Chance, director at the National Community Land Trust Network, argues t... more >


Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

17/12/2018Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

It’s no secret that the public sector and its service providers need ... more >