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Hunt for source of 'bonfire of quangos' leak

The head of the civil service today launched a mole-hunt after the leak of lists of around 180 public bodies apparently facing abolition in a "bonfire of the quangos".

The lists, obtained by the Daily Telegraph and BBC, indicated that organisations ranging from the Health Protection Agency to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Commission for Integrated Transport and School Food Trust are in line for the axe.

But Cabinet minister Eric Pickles suggested they were out of date, saying the Government's plans "may have moved on" since it was drawn up.

"We did say we were going to reduce the number of quangos," the Communities Secretary told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"We will be making an announcement in due course. It's a bit dated, that document. I think things may have moved on."

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell ordered an immediate investigation into the leak. A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We deeply regret any extra uncertainty for employees that this irresponsible leak has caused."

The spokesman said ministers had already made clear they were "committed to radically increasing accountability and improving efficiency", which would involve substantial reforms to public bodies.

A document, dated August 26 and seen by the BBC's Politics Show, named 180 quangos which would be abolished, 124 to be merged, 56 to be retained "with substantial reform" and 282 to be preserved. The fate of a further 100 had not yet been decided.

Meanwhile, a separate - but very similar - undated list obtained by the Telegraph put the figures at 177 abolitions, four privatisations, 129 mergers, 350 reprieves and 94 yet to be decided.

In a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said that the changes "are intended primarily to increase accountability, but will also support the aims of the spending review by reducing costs and support our ambitions for a Big Society by encouraging alternative devolved or non-state delivery models".

Mr Maude said that if it proved impossible to reach a conclusion on all remaining quangos in negotiations with departmental ministers, he would chair an informal "star chamber" this month to decide which should go.

If implemented, the cull of public bodies will cost thousands of jobs and spark enormous political controversy, with critics accusing the Government of removing vital protections for the public.

And experts today questioned whether it would save the large sums which ministers are hoping for.

Sir Ian Magee, co-author of a recent Institute for Government report on arm's length bodies, said that 75% of the overall quango budget is spent by just 15 bodies, with others having relatively small costs.

"Ministers need to be clear why they are culling quangos," said Sir Ian. "If it is to save money, a simple cull may not produce the right results - much lower spending will only be achieved where functions or programmes are cut or reduced.

"Transferring functions back into government, or merging bodies, may lead to long-run efficiencies, but often with high up-front costs and risks to service continuity."

Meanwhile, Labour accused the coalition Government of "playing politics with people's jobs".

Shadow communities secretary John Denham said that many of the bodies apparently in line to be scrapped "actually have the job of holding the Government to account on behalf of the public".

He told the BBC: "If you've got a government coming along saying: 'Let's silence all the independent voices, let's silence the people who speak up about equalities' ... they are really saying: 'We will be able to do whatever we like and there won't be anyone able to shine a spotlight on what we are up to'."

Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "This is a disgraceful way to treat staff who work hard and are committed to providing quality services, very often on low pay.

"It appears the Tories are looking to grab the headlines in a week where their cuts have been criticised by members of their own coalition, and they seem happy to play politics with people's lives."

Dai Hudd, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said the majority of the decisions would not save any public money as their functions would still have to be carried out.

"Most of them perform statutory functions which will can only be stopped by passing legislation or requiring civil service departments to take on the work just as they are about to face cuts of 25% or 40%," he said.

The lists confirmed previous announcements that the Audit Commission, UK Film Council and eight regional development agencies are to be abolished.

The BBC World Service, British Council, Environment Agency, Equality and Human Rights Commission, Forestry Commission, Competition Commission and Office for Fair Trading were among bodies whose fate has yet to be decided.

And the Film Industry Training Board, the Construction and Skills Training Board (CSTB), the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and the Tote Board look set for privatisation.

Construction workers' union Ucatt warned that privatisation of the CSTB - known in the trade as ConstructionSkills - would be a "disaster" for apprenticeship training.