Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Monday, 6 July 2009 13:41 UK

Q&A: The row over quangos

Ofcom headquarters
Ofcom is just one of the many quangos in the UK

Both Labour and the Conservatives want to crackdown on quangos - or quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, to give them their full title.

The term quango is widely used, but its definition varies. However, one thing is for certain - they are a hot political potato.

MPs from all persuasions often bemoan the sheer number of them, the power they wield and the amount they cost.

What is a quango?

That is the 64 million dollar question. It is really quite difficult to qualify and quantify which organisations are quangos.

The Cabinet Office lists 790 "non-departmental public bodies" which operate across the UK. However, Wales and Scotland have devolved responsibility for some of their own which are not on the list.

A pressure group, the Taxpayers' Alliance, claims the figure is actually 1,162. As a result estimates of the cost vary between £34bn and about £60bn.

There are several different types, including:

  • Those with executive powers to actually do something. Examples include the Environment Agency, Regional Development Agencies, national galleries and museums, regulators such as Ofcom
  • Advisory bodies which give independent, expert advice to ministers on a range of matters - Standards on Public Life, Boundary Commission
  • Watchdogs, which look at prisons, immigration removal centres etc.

Some groups consider National Health Trusts and the BBC as quangos.

Although the letters that spell "quango" include the word "non-governmental", many of these organisations practise the policies of government. The majority of them are also directly funded from taxes.

But they are not under direct ministerial control and the people who work for them are not civil servants.

Why set up a quango?

Both Conservative and Labour governments have had a love/hate relationship with quangos. They bring a degree of independence, offer expertise - and government can pass the buck when things go wrong.

A good fall-guy example is the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) which frequently comes in for fierce criticism over its decisions on what drugs to fund.

Dan Lewis, research director at the Economic Research Council and author of the Essential Guide to British Quangos 2005, says they have a long history.

The first one - Trinity House, the lighthouse service - was set up in 1514. The Wales Centre of Excellence for Anaerobic Digestion was one of the more unusual quangos he had come across, he said.

"Setting up quangos has just become the accepted way of doing things. They are doing something the civil service could be doing but politicians are loath to do that," he said.

He said there are three issues with quangos - cost, accountability and the fact that they tend to cut out the private and third, voluntary, sectors from providing public services.

He added that the amount of information gathered centrally on quangos has been greatly reduced, making it even more difficult to keep a track of them.

Why are they such a political football?

A general cloud of confusion hangs over them which makes the public very wary of quangos.

Many politicians have promised a "bonfire of the quangos", including the former Conservative deputy PM Michael Heseltine, and Gordon Brown when he was in opposition.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said Mr Brown had been against them, despite reports that 70 had been set up during his time in office.

"Politicians like to set up bodies that sometimes distance themselves from responsibility but sometimes give them independent expertise," he said.

"Then they complain they're spending a lot of money, they're duplicating functions, and the public don't really understand what the initials mean."

He added that the most important thing was not the rhetoric but the action taken in terms of real reform as opposed to tinkering at a quango's edges.

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