D-day for the quangos

By Ian Dunt

The face of British political life was fundamentally altered today with a radical overhaul of the country’s quangos.

Nine hundred bodies have found out if they are to be merged, scrapped or saved, as Francis Maude finally revealed their fate. The Cabinet Office website repeatedly crashed as thousands of workers tried to log in to find out what would happen to their job.

The publication of the list is the culmination of months of Tory work to streamline the British democratic system and drive down payments to the arms-length public bodies.

A public bodies bill is expected to be published shortly to implement many of the changes, the Cabinet Office announced today.

Bonfire of the quangos: Full list

A total of 901 quangos were considered.

Of these, 192 will be scrapped, with their functions either being brought back into government, devolved to local government, moved out of government or abolished altogether.

These include the UK Film Council, the Audit Commission and the QCA.

A total of 118 quangos will be merged. The Competition Commission, for instance, will be merged with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Ofcom will be merged with Postcomm.

Another 171 will be “substantially reformed”.

Some 40 quangos are still “under consideration”, including the Student Loan Company and the central Office of Information.

A total of 380 quangos are being retained, including the BBC World Service, the British Council and Acas.

Mr Maude, Cabinet Office minister, is being accused of pursuing ideology above reason, as many of the bodies pointed out that they cost no public money and provide essential social functions.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, for instance, costs just £2 million a year, is funded by users not taxpayers, and fulfils precise and important social functions, its advocates insist.

Mr Maude said the creation of so many quangos reflected a period of government history in which ministers were keen distance themselves of responsibility in key political areas.

“People have been fed up with the old way of doing business, where the ministers they voted for could often avoid taking responsibility for difficult and tough decisions by creating or hiding behind one of these quangos,” he said.

Maude ministerial statement to the House

“Today’s announcement means that many important and essential functions will be brought back into departments meaning the line of accountability will run right up to the very top where it always should have been.”

A handful of quangos will also be mutualised or privatised. Others will be merged with other bodies, while the scrapped bodies will have their functions transferred to other organisations.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau, a charity which gives advice on benefit and employment rights, is expected to undertake the duties of Consumer Focus, an agency which claims to save millions more than it costs.

The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, Renewable Fuels Agency and the Appointments Commission will be brought under direct ministerial control.

Others, such as the Design Council and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) are expected to become charities.

“Cutting these bodies will worsen public accountability and will have a huge impact regionally, economically and socially,” Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, said.

“Far from saving money, once the full impact of abolition is considered there will be substantial costs, including redundancies, relocation, retraining and recruitment. The coalition says cutting NDPBs [non-departmental public bodies] will increase public accountability; we believe it will worsen it.”

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “Today’s quango cull is neither about efficiency or even saving money as ministers seem very vague about the finances, despite the job losses involved.

“Instead they want to reduce democratic accountability, get rid of bodies that stand up for ordinary people against Government or business excess, and centralise power in Whitehall.”

Labour suggested the Tories were spending more money than they saved by acting so hastily.

“Labour had a plan for steadily saving £0.5 billion by carefully closing 25% of quangos over the next few years,” Liam Byrne, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said.

“The Tories now need to tell us whether their desperation for headlines and faster cuts means the cost of closing quangos is actually bigger than the savings. And while they’re at it, they should tell us whether their manifesto commitment for 20 new quangos is now on ice.”

Bodies will be allowed to remain if they fulfil one of three criteria: firstly, to perform a technical function; secondly, because the issue requires political impartiality; or thirdly, because they need to act independently to establish facts.

“There are of course organisations that will remain, although it is unlikely that any will be completely unchanged,” Mr Maude added.

“This is because we recognise that some of these bodies do hugely important and essential work that has to be done at arm’s length from government, especially when political impartiality, independence or technical expertise is required.

The proposed public bodies bill will enable the proposals to be rapidly implemented, where statutory changes are required. Other legislation expected in this parliamentary session, such as the forthcoming education bill and localism bill, will enable some specific changes.

Staff themselves only found out about their future today, when the full list was made public. Thousands are expected to be made unemployed, while many others will be transferred to other Whitehall departments.