Q&A: What is a quango?

The government has announced that 192 quangos are to be axed, but what exactly is a quango?

What does quango stand for?

Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation.

And what does that mean exactly?

It is an organisation that is funded by taxpayers, but not controlled directly by central government.

Sounds harmless enough, why the controversy?

There is nothing controversial about the concept of quangos - they have been around for a long time. Some of Britain's best-known organisations are classified as quangos, including national galleries and museums, bodies such as the Forestry Commission and the British Council and, according to some groups, the BBC. The problem, according to politicians of all persuasions who are always threatening to axe them, is the sheer number and how much they cost to run.

So how many quangos are there?

Those "non-departmental public bodies" on the Cabinet Office list total 742 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.

What do quangos do?

They can deliver public services, give advice or regulate behaviour. Quangos can range from tiny committees that meet a few times a year to organisations with multi-million pound budgets and thousands of staff. There are several different types:

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 - such as the Committee on Standards on Public Life, Boundary Commission

Watchdogs that set standards and regulate behaviour, such as bodies which look at prisons, immigration removal centres etc.

And how much do they cost?

Estimates of the cost vary between £34bn and about £60bn.

How many are being axed?

The government reviewed 901 bodies - 679 quangos and 222 other statutory bodies. Of those 192 will be axed or their functions taken over by other bodies. The future of other bodies is still under consideration but 380 will definitely be kept.

Are there any high profile casualties?

There are a handful of well-known organisations, such as British Nuclear Fuels, The UK Film Council, the Audit Commission and local development agencies, but the vast majority are less well-known committees or watchdogs, with names such as the Advisory Panel on Standards for the Planning Inspectorate or the Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee.

How much money will the cull save?

It is hard to say. The government says a "substantial" sum, but stresses that the main purpose of the exercise is not to save money but to increase accountability. Labour say the exercise might end up costing more than it saves, once things such as redundancy payments have been taken into account.

How many jobs will be lost?

The government has not put a figure on it. Probably not as many as you might think from the headline figures on how many bodies are being axed, as many organisations will transfer their work back into central government or transfer it to the charitable sector.

Who will do the work currently being carried out by the doomed quangos?

No one, in some cases. About 16% of the axed quangos will be absorbed by central government, with their work handed to civil servants in government departments, 17% will be taken over by other committees, 4% by charities, 2% by local government and 2% by the private sector.

Why are there so many quangos?

Labour presided over a big expansion in the public sector. The Conservatives and Lib Dems accused it of effectively setting up a "quangocracy" - a tangle of self-aggrandising, free-spending organisations with little accountability and, in some cases, little real purpose. But all governments have found it useful to set up arms-length bodies which operate independently from ministers. The coalition has already set up a few quangos of its own, including the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Why set up a quango?

Previous 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.

How long have they been around?

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. "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 loathe to do," he says.

What happens when they are axed?

The work that they do is normally absorbed back in to their parent government department. But the coalition government wants charities and voluntary groups to do some of the work, as part of its vision of the "Big Society". Quangos can be tenacious beasts and have a habit of re-emerging under different titles - successive Conservative and Labour governments have promised to take an axe to them with limited success.

Will anyone miss them?

Many of the more obscure ones will, no doubt, disappear without a trace. But has proved highly controversial. The abolition of the UK Film Council provoked howls of protest from the arts world, even though the government insists its job will be done by other bodies. Labour is also angry about the abolition of regional development agencies, which it says could harm recovery and cost future jobs. Many of the quangos on the doomed list are watchdogs and there is a concern that public safety could be compromised.

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