Monday, September 04, 2006

Pay £180bn: You’ve Been Quangoed

Hope everyone read yesterday’s splendid Sunday Times article on quangos.

BOM readers will already be familiar with the jaw-dropping exploits of the British Potato Council, which costs taxpayers £6m pa and promotes the consumption of chips to Britain’s obese chavs. But unlike BOM, the ST was able to interview Janet Bainbridge, the BPC’s head. She was surprised to hear we’d nominated her as Britain’s worst quango, and said:

“How can they say we are the most useless? You would have to know what every quango does to appreciate their value. I think our work is quite important. It is about learning the difference between a healthy chip and an unhealthy chip.”

Healthy chips. Brilliant stuff. And she's quite right to ask how we could possibly know the BPC is the very worst quango- there's some pretty stiff competititon out there, and we haven't yet studied them all in their glorious fantastickal detail.

Technical note for record. As we’ve noted before, quangos are slippery beasts and it’s tricky getting a fix on them. For a start, it isn’t clear what many of them are actually for (eg the British Council). More fundamentally, it’s difficult to find out how many there are and what they cost.

Of course, the government tries to avoid the term altogether, preferring Non Departmental Public Bodies. And the Cabinet Office produces an annual report on them (see here), which reckons there were 900 as at 31 March 2005. In 2003-04 they apparently spent £150bn, but “only” £83bn was direct funding from Central Government. However, since most of the other £67bn was also public funding- largely through the NHS- the real number is still £150bn.

Grossing up for the general spending increase since 2003-04 gives the 2006-07 spending figure of £180bn quoted by the ST.

Even so, the Cabinet Office numbers are a serious understatement of what you or I might call a quango. For a start the numbers count some big groups of quangos as just one entity- eg well over 200 NHS trusts are counted as just one… er, why? And the so-called executive agencies are not counted, even though they enjoy a large degree of autonomy and some big budgets- the appalling Rural Payments Agency and the Highways Agency both fall into this category.
If you added the numbers up properly- difficult to do with current disclosure arrangements- we’d probably find twice as many actual quangos spending perhaps half of all public spending.
Roll on the Transparency and Accountability Act.

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