This week’s big news was the leak of a government document outlining the abolition of 180 quangos. Editors seem to have uniformly settled on “Bonfire of the Quangos” to describe the situation (a phrase first used in 1978 apparently) but the scale of the conflagration seems to have been judged largely on the headline “180” figure. Fortunately, thanks to the Guardian’s Data Blog and the BBC’s copy of the document itself (1.3 MB PDF), we can explore the matter a little further.
Digging in the data
I proceeded as follows. First I took the Guardian spreadsheet as a starting point, as they’d already done most of the typing. Then I compared it with the leaked PDF and updated the data so that it matched the summary table on page 1. This meant adding data for quangos that have been retained and an extra column to keep track of the reason why a decision had been made (where given). Finally, I merged the data with the Taxpayers Alliance quango staffing and budget spreadsheet, again available via the Guardian.
So what do the results look like?
In the first plot, I show the results of the quango review by department. It’s clear that the Ministry of Justice has the largest number of quangos, although this includes 101 Advisory Committees on Justices of the Peace and 147 Independent Monitoring Boards. Over at the Ministry of Defence, not much has changed with only one quango scheduled for abolition and five still in review. However, the Department of Health and Defra appear to be scrapping over 60% of their associated quangos.
Figure 1: Quango review status by department
We can look at the reasons for these abolitions (Figure 2) and it starts to appear that perhaps “bonfire” isn’t quite the right word to describe the situation. Take the Department of Health: approximately 90% of the quangos to be abolished are actually having their functions transferred elsewhere, primarily to the Medicines and Healthcare Products regulator. In other cases, like BIS’s regional development agencies, quango functions are being devolved to local authorities or, conversely, taken over by the host department.
Figure 2: Reasons for quango abolition or mergers
Perhaps the most surprising finding – or unsurprising, depending on how cynical you are – is that these reforms will have a relatively minor impact on the overall quango budget (although at least 35,000 jobs look likely to go). As shown in Figure 3, if we assume that 50% of the budget and staffing levels from merged quangos will remain, then it appears that the reforms will give a 12.8% saving in government funding obligations and a 10.5% reduction in staffing levels.
Figure 3: Government funding and staffing impacts of quango reforms
However in the following table, I’ve broken out the budgets for abolished quangos whose functions are to be transferred or devolved. This accounts for 86% of the savings estimated above! Unfortunately the implications for staff are less certain with 53% of positions likely to go (the table doesn’t include 8,200 employees in quangos scheduled for a change of status or privatisation).
||(2007, million )
|| (2007, people)
|Retain and reform
Of course, the numbers haven’t been finalized and about 20% of the budget and 16% of the staffing levels are still under review. Within my own area of interest (energy and climate change), this includes notable groups like the Carbon Trust and Energy Savings Trust. What are their prospects? In the plot below, I show the reasons why quangos have been retained to date. Those organizations that provide focused technical advice or transparency services (e.g. independent regulators or auditors) are most successful, although this varies by ministry. Notably absent are implementing agencies and so it seems that the EST and Carbon Trust may be in line for privatisation.
Figure 4: Reasons for retaining quangos
This analysis suggests that headlines about a “bonfire of the quangos” are somewhat overstated. From the table above, the savings delivered thus far – assuming 50% savings from merged quangos, omitting those “abolished” quangos with transferred functions, and assuming conservatively that all bodies under review will remain – then the reforms will achieve only a 3% saving in government funding with the loss of approximately 31,000 jobs. True, a further 4 bn could still be cut when the review is finished (giving a 24% saving) and the financial data set is incomplete, but I think the more appropriate metaphor might be that of a few logs burning cozily on a minister’s hearth in Whitehall.
Whatever the final numbers, the structure of the reforms are clear. Central government will continue to fund a number of quangos, particularly those with statutory responsibilities such as regulation and auditing. But many of the supposedly abolished bodies will still be funded by the taxpayer, as their responsibilities are transferred within Whitehall departments or devolved to local authorities. I’ve taken a conservative view of the situation here: we should have a better understanding of the actual savings once the departmental funding levels are announced in the October spending review.
PS: Best Quango names
There are some lovely names on the list, but to pick four:
- the “Treasure Valuation Committee”: run by pirates?
- the “Government Hospitality Advisory Committee on the Purchase of Wines”: I say give ’em Blue Nun.
- the “Veterinary Residues Committee”: doesn’t bare thinking about.
- the “Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons”. The medical implications of “lethal” seems pretty obvious. Surely the implications of “less-lethal” are not dying?