Quangos system in a mess: Report


Published: Monday 10th November 2014 by The News Editor

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The system for overseeing state-funded public bodies is in a “mess” and lacks accountability, according to MPs.

Billions of pounds are ploughed into hundreds of arms-length organisations – everything from the National Health Service to Ordnance Survey – but the set-up is “confused and opaque”, the Public Administration Select Committee found.

Complicated structures mean the quangos, non-ministerial departments and executive agencies are able to pass the blame when things go wrong, it said.

Severe flooding in Somerset last winter highlighted flaws in the system after critics claimed that a decision not to dredge the river Parrett had made the problem worse but neither the Environment Agency or Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were unable to say who was responsible for the policy, the Who’s Accountable report said.

Despite the government’s so-called bonfire of the quangos, the system is still poorly understood in Whitehall, it found.

The committee called for the system to be simplified and a “map of the state” drawn up to show how each organisation is governed and who is accountable for what.

Chairman Bernard 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, £95.6 billion 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.”

Tom Gash, director of research at the Institute for Government, said: “There are good reasons why some organisations operate with a degree of independence from direct political control – to protect the constitution, regulate big business and provide independent advice.

“However, the current landscape is confused and confusing – and too often it’s not clear how much independence arm’s length bodies have or how they should be held to account for their performance.

“As the rows over the Environment Agency’s role in the floods showed, the current situation creates blame games and confusion so a new framework is needed.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the G overnment was “cutting waste and reforming the public sector to save taxpayers billions”.

He added: “We have reduced the number of public bodies by around a third since the 2010 General Election, saving £2 billion already and making the remaining quangos and public bodes more efficient, transparent and accountable than ever.

“We have abolished over 185 and made the largest ever transfer of assets into the charitable sector. 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.”

Published: Monday 10th November 2014 by The News Editor

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