The rapid decline in the number of arm’s-length public bodies all but ground to a halt last year, according to the latest figures from the Cabinet Office.
The were 301 quangos as of March 2018 – just four fewer than the year before, following a push to dramatically reduce their numbers in the four previous years. However, the numbers recorded in the Public Bodies 2018 report were up to date as of March 2018 and may have changed significantly since then.
Four out of five ALBs – 242 – were non-departmental public bodies, which included NHS England and the Civil Service Commission. There were 37 executive agencies, including Companies House and HM Prison and Probation Service, and 22 non-ministerial departments, including the Charity Commission and the Competition and Markets Authority.
Altogether, they employed the full-time equivalent of 278,062 people.
More than one in five of the public bodies were in the Ministry of Justice – 67 in total. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had 26; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had 32; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had 30.
The actual number of ALBs is likely to have changed in the last year as a number of bodies, including the Trade Remedies Authority, have since been set up to fulfil various oversight and regulatory functions after Brexit.
The government has also closed and consolidated several public bodies over the last 12 months. Last April, for example, BEIS consolidated nine former non-departmental public bodies that administered public funding for higher education and research into one umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation.
In a foreword to the report, minister for the constitution Chloe Smith said public bodies would continue to play an important role in “ensuring our democracy is robust, trusted and open” as the UK prepares for Brexit.
In a statement accompanying the report, she added: “Public bodies play a vital role in the delivery of public services for all our citizens, covering wide-ranging functions. Well-governed, effective and efficient public bodies enable government to deliver its priorities.”
Her comments were a marked contrast to last week’s attack on public bodies by chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss. In a speech on the upcoming Spending Review, Truss listed public bodies among the “vested interests” that would be vying for public funds.
“Across the board there were hundreds of opaque organisations with ill-defined aims demanding public money for their latest pet project, erecting barriers and piles of bureaucracy and admin,” Truss said.
She also hinted at a possible reduction in the number of quangos in the upcoming Spending Review. Quoting figures from last year’s public bodies report, Truss said the government had cut the number of arm’s-length bodies from 561 in 2013 to 2015 in 2017 following a so-called “bonfire of the quangos” under former prime minister David Cameron.
But the public bodies report gave no such indication that the government was planning a major reduction in ALB numbers .
Instead, it said ALBs would need to “to look for options for increasing efficiency and effectiveness”. Both Truss and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, have stressed that the Spending Review will focus on ensuring public bodies and services deliver good value for money.
Maximising outcomes in a cost-effective way was one of three core objectives the report outlined for the year ahead, along with promoting good governance and accountability. The Cabinet Office published a code of practice on partnerships between government departments and ALBs in February 2017, and said it was working with the Treasury on proposals to embed this as a requirement in its guidance on managing public money.