Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  Q40  Mr Prentice: We should be told?

  Professor King: Yes.

  Mr Prentice: Yes, because I have asked the Prime Minister and he would not tell me.

  Q41  Chairman: I thought there was agreement that we do not think these people need to become lords.

  Professor King: Indeed.

  Q42  Chairman: But part of the problem then is that—we had better not say the names but some of these people quite like the idea of becoming lords, and that could be part of the attraction.

  Professor King: That is their problem.

  Lord Turnbull: Another personal theory is that there are a number of people in the House of Lords who have been very successful ministers and I would say the women in the House of Lords have a better record in this sense than the men. Maybe this is because being in the House of Commons is a bit more macho, alpha male. You have to project your voice in that chamber with all you guys bellowing at you. The style of operating in the House of Lords suits women better. A lot of the women have done remarkably well, in my opinion. I think the real answer to Gordon Prentice's question is, if they are not really going to continue in the work of the House of Lords, it should be possible for people to resign. I do not know whether the new corporate constitutional governance Bill now has some clauses about that.

  Q43  Chairman: It does.

  Lord Turnbull: I think that is helpful. What do you do about the title? That is too difficult at the moment. Really, it is because we are using the House of Lords for a purpose for which it was not really designed because we do not have the right system in place.

  Q44  Julie Morgan: I wanted to go back to government being too big and the growing number of unpaid ministerial posts. Do you feel there is any problem with having ministers who are unpaid?

  Lord Turnbull: They are not costless to the taxpayer. If you give a minister three private secretaries, a press officer, a driver, a car, there is not much change from half a million pounds.

  Q45  Julie Morgan: But no salary.

  Lord Turnbull: No salary, no, but still tying down a lot of civil service resources.

  Q46  Julie Morgan: Soon after 1997, when ministers were appointed, there was a minister for Women appointed who was not paid. There was a lot of concern, particularly amongst the women Members of Parliament, that this signalled the value of the job. So I think there are implications myself but I would be interested to know your views about that.

  Mr Powell: Actually, what it signalled was that the provisions of the Ministerial Salaries Act and its various limits are incredibly complicated and need lawyers to look at them. Sometimes you get to the end of the reshuffle and discover you have appointed more ministers than there are salaries. So you are left with a choice of either dismissing that minister or having them as an unpaid minister. There is certainly a case for a couple of unpaid ministers but I think there are too many ministers altogether anyway.

  Q47  Julie Morgan: What do you think would be an ideal number of ministers?

  Lord Turnbull: I think most departments should probably run with three.

  Professor King: How many departments are there?

  Lord Turnbull: There do not need to be as many as there are actually. I do not quite understand why Climate Change has been taken away from Environment when what we worry about with climate change is not that it is warmer but that it damages the environment in various ways. It damages the oceans, the coral, the fish stocks or whatever. Slicing that into two departments—I am not quite sure of the logic. You could certainly quite easily construct a cabinet with four or five fewer ministers. I used to do a lecture on the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions—which was "Joined up governmental sprawling monster?" It clearly was a sprawling monster in the end but all this has been divided up into about three different bits now.

  Q48  Julie Morgan: The growth that we have already mentioned of the regional ministers, assistant regional ministers and the envoys, and I think Jonathan was saying that is a way of binding people into the government and extending the range of the Prime Minister. What relationship do they have with the Civil Service? Are there any difficulties with having this range of people where they are not free to scrutinise the Government, which I think is the point Anthony was making?

  Lord Turnbull: I think if you are in an over-ministered department, I do not think it can be a very happy job. You get a very small slice to deal with. I do not think this makes for very satisfying posts actually. I am sure a lot of what they do could be done by officials. If you are receiving a delegation from such and such, who would you rather talk to? An official who really knows their stuff or the minister, who has only been there since July? I think it could work better. Apart from the fact that people will accept these jobs because it is a step on the ladder to where they want to get to, otherwise the junior ministerial existence I do not think is a very happy one.

  Professor King: Could I just add to that that it seems to me that some of the jobs that junior ministers are doing probably should not be done at all. There is a real problem of making work. Also, for what it is worth, the people I talk to who deal with junior ministers say what Andrew Turnbull has just said, that they would really much rather be dealing with people who actually knew what they were doing than with junior ministers who may have been there for weeks or months.

  Q49  Mr Walker: Can I just make one point? We have a list here of unpaid members of the government and there is a really nice chap here who has been in the Cabinet. He has been in the Cabinet! He is now Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Digital Britain, unpaid. What on earth is going on here? Someone who has been in the Cabinet ends up at the tail end of a government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, unpaid.

  Lord Turnbull: Does the Data Protection Act apply.

  Mr Walker: It is the Rt Hon Stephen Timms. His career has just gone to ... Why would you do it? Why would you offer it? Do you have any thoughts on that, following on from Julie's line of questioning?

  Q50  Mr Prentice: You will think I have a fixation about Digby Jones but I asked Digby Jones if there was an exit interview, if when he left the Government he saw the Prime Minister and he said, "I am leaving the Government because it is just like pond life being a junior minister and I am bigger and better than a tadpole" or something like that. I just wonder, Jonathan, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and all these reshuffles were happening over the years, whether he did this, these exit interviews. He brought people in and he said, "You have got to leave the Government. I have to make space for rising talent but let me have your take on things." Was that ever done? Was it done systematically?

  Mr Powell: Systematically would be an exaggeration but certainly every minister who was leaving the Government would speak to the Prime Minister and react in different ways to the news that they were leaving. Some would tell the Prime Minister what they thought of the way government was run, some would react in more emotional ways, but there was not a systematic way of surveying them on what they thought.

  Q51  Mr Prentice: Why not? Mark Fisher—I am not telling tales out of school; this is on the public record—I think his telephone call with the Prime Minister lasted about 15 seconds when he lost his Culture job. How can the organisation learn if the Prime Minister does not have any sense of what ministers feel about the job they are doing?

  Mr Powell: Quite a lot of emotion was packed into that 15-second phone call, as I recall. You would expect a junior minister who had some views on this to express them before he was actually leaving the Government. You would have thought if he really had some views, he would have come and made them clear before. As we have all said, there is a problem that there are too many junior ministers. Again, talking about Chris Mullin's book, that illustrates exactly the problem, that there is an awful lot of make-work in junior ministerial jobs.

  Lord Turnbull: I think you are applying managerial principles to something that is inherently non-managerial. In a big organisation—it could be the Civil Service or BP—you have things called career development interviews. Every year you have an annual report and then there is a discussion about where you should be going from now on, what you might be doing next and exit interviews all fit into that kind of world. Reshuffles are not about developing talent and saying, "I can't move this person because they've only just got there. They need to do at least another year, and I'm moving this person into that post because they have not had exposure to that kind of work and that would really build them up."

  Q52  Mr Prentice: So it is all capricious.

  Lord Turnbull: Things that are absolutely standard in big organisations, public and private, do not happen, because this is all about political reward and competition. That is how the political system works, and it is very difficult to bring this other philosophy into it.

  Q53  Paul Flynn: Do you disagree with Charles's line that backbenchers are failed frontbenchers or never will be frontbenchers? Would you agree that there is a serious role for backbenchers, certainly in history, people like Leo Abse and so on, have pursued an independent line, and that there is a good record of independent MPs and independent MPs who masquerade under party labels?

  Lord Turnbull: Are you saying that those independent members stay as parliamentarians?

  Q54  Paul Flynn: They have no ambition to be members of the government at all and would find their lives inhibited if they were?

  Lord Turnbull: Absolutely what I am saying is the Chairs of Select Committees and the members of Select Committees should see that as important work that they want to become good at and specialise in, but many of them, particularly the newer ones, are thinking "I am doing this while I'm waiting to get the call from Number 10."

  Q55  Paul Flynn: I do not know if I have misunderstood you but you seemed to say at one point that you agreed with the line that MPs of a certain age should not become ministers.

  Lord Turnbull: No, I am saying they should become ministers but the system makes it increasingly difficult for them to.

  Q56  Mr Walker: Going back to patronage, it is not just the title of minister, obviously. I think all three of you touched on the salary discrepancy. As a Member of Parliament you are on £64,000. As soon as you become a minister, even the most junior minister, you are on £90,000. How would we address that to make the gap less pronounced? I am not suggesting you raise the salaries of Members of Parliament but perhaps reducing the salaries of ministers—is that something that is worth considering—or removing the trappings, removing the cars, for example, shrinking the private offices? Have you had any thoughts on that?

  Lord Turnbull: I am not against establishing some kind of parity between a Select Committee Chair and a Minister of State.

  Chairman: Nor am I!

  Q57  Mr Walker: What about people who chair Standing Committees, for example? Would you see that as part of this parliamentary career path, being a very good Chairman of Standing Committees? After all, that is where most parliamentary business takes place on the legislative front.

  Lord Turnbull: Yes, that should be recognised. That is important work and the people who do that well at that are the people who get asked to do the next bill when it comes along. It should be recognised. You stigmatise backbenchers when say you are the people who are left behind when better people have been taken off. It is not a good metaphor at all.

  Mr Walker: I think some colleagues' ambition probably outstrips their ability though and, as one of my colleagues said, if you thought promotion in this place was based on ability, you could drive yourself mad because, as we know, in many cases it is not based on ability. It is based on balancing the party structure within government: do we need to have this chap on board to stop this fraction over here misbehaving? Look at Tony Wright. Tony should be a Cabinet Minister. I say that as a Conservative Member of Parliament. Perhaps because his face did not fit or his views were seen as a little too independent, he never got a sniff of it and that is another part of the problem of the way we structure our Parliament at the moment.

  Chairman: You do not have to reply!

  Q58  Paul Flynn: Do you expect Alan Sugar and Arlene Phillips to make a major contribution to the running of the country in the next few years?

  Lord Turnbull: I do not understand the relevance of Arlene Phillips.

  Q59  Paul Flynn: She is the dance tzar.

  Lord Turnbull: All I am saying is that, as a Spurs supporter, I hope he makes a better job of this than he did in the years he was Chairman of Spurs. They were not our greatest years.

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Prepared 11 March 2010