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The failing quango state

Richard Norrie, April 2023

Dr Richard Norrie (Director of the Statistics and Policy Research Programme at Civitas) reviews the role of ‘Arms Length Bodies’ in this latest Civitas publication.

£223.9 billion was spent by so-called arm’s length bodies (ALBs) in 2020, which employed 318,714 people. As a percentage of total government expenditure, that is 21 per cent. These are defined by their independence from ministers – and a strong degree of distance from electoral power.

Britain is governed by a vast network of ‘quangos’, an acronym standing for ‘quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations’. While this term has common currency, it is a misnomer in that these are very much part of governmental functions with the power to set rules, adjudicate, and impose services.

The Coalition Government promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and some progress has been made. Norrie outlines how these bodies are both nominally accountable to parliament yet somehow escape serious repercussions when things go wrong.

The government does not have a good grasp on them, with no certainty as to how many even exist. The Cabinet Office keeps an official list, only some organisations are allowed to exist off-record.

There will be many who simply think we should abolish large parts of government and those who would like to expand departments by bringing more of these ALBs into these departments – making them much less ‘arm’s length’ but directly accountable to ministers. Reforming the quango state will sit somewhere in the middle, argues Norrie, with a greater capacity for parliament to reduce expenditure and scrutinise the leadership and performance of these bodies, bringing them under democratic control.

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