UK government urged to strengthen control of arm’s-length bodies

By on 21/10/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
UK Public Accounts Committee publishes report on the government’s oversight of arm’s-length bodies

MPs have called on the UK’s Cabinet Office to tighten up the management and accountability of the hundreds of semi-independent bodies that play a key role in running large swathes of government business.

A report today from the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee said the government’s oversight of the many arm’s-length bodies (ALBs) that deliver public services in the UK is inconsistent and lacks a clear sense of the functions ALBs are best placed to run.

According to PAC, there are currently more than 460 ALBs in the UK, collectively spending around £250 billion a year. Some of these are large agencies – such as NHS England and HM Revenue & Customs – whilst others are small non-departmental bodies.

In 2010, the government undertook what became known as the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in an attempt to reduce the number of arms-length bodies and more clearly define those that remained.

Today’s report made no reference to this earlier programme, but said that “for too long” government had had no clear criteria for determining “what is best is best done by departments and what is best done through arm’s-length bodies”

Departments have not been consistent in how they determine what should be an arm’s-length body and what should not, the committee added. “The result is that the current landscape of what is and is not an arm’s-length body is, as described by the Cabinet Office itself, ‘an accident of history’ rather than the result of any clear and consistent rationale,” its report said.

Furthermore, the committee said there are often no clear lines of accountability between departments and ALBs and no consistent mechanisms in place to allow departments to understand how their ALBs are performing.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said: “The Cabinet Office describes today’s diverse network of arm’s-length bodies as ‘an accident of history’. While this ‘accident’ may not have been preventable you would certainly expect any replacement system, designed from scratch today, to look very different.

“It underlines precisely why the Cabinet Office must ensure these bodies—some of which are responsible for delivering large and vitally important swathes of public policy—are subject to consistent and effective oversight.”

Hillier said the government needs to set out criteria for how business is conducted via ALBs, including clear lines of accountability on spending and performance. “The public need to know who is spending money on their behalf, and why,” she said.

When the case for using an ALB is strong, Hilliers said the government must do more to harness the expertise these bodies can bring to policy making.

“The government cannot wash its hands of accountability simply by delegating its business and this committee will expect to see the Cabinet Office taking meaningful steps to strengthen oversight in this area,” she said.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: “Cabinet Office has taken the lead in engaging with departments across Whitehall and arms-length bodies. We are taking the opportunity to go further than oversight and are collectively working to redefine the relationship between departments and arms length bodies. The government will respond to this report in full in due course.”

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

British MP calls for fundamental overhaul of civil service

UK reforms Fast Stream tests to broaden intake

UK select committee questions timetable for digital tax reforms

Officials must be free to challenge ‘group think’, says UK civil service chief

Civil servants must make their views heard, says former UK minister

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *