Most departments have ministers – in name and in function. But 20 or so – even the .gov.uk website is muddled on this – have another status. They are non-ministerial departments (NMDs). Their governance is murky and confused – and that is bad for accountability. It is not clear who is in charge: if things go wrong, Parliament has to summon a minister to answer for the body – who then makes clear that decisions were made by someone else. The Attorney General found himself in just that position, answering in Parliament for decisions on pay-offs made by the head of the Serious Fraud Office. The list of existing NMDs could politely be called a ragbag. They range from the multibillion, giant operation that is HMRC to the small and low profile Government Actuary’s Department; from the Forestry Commission (under review) to Ofsted; from the Royal Mint to the Charity Commission. Unclear accountability They have two distinctive features. The first is that they get their own budget line, separate from their associated department. The second is that ‘they have no minister’. At least that is the theory – and the reason for the designation. In practice it varies. A lot. […]

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