Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? - Public Administration Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 186-288)

Q186 Chair: Welcome to our witnesses. Could you please identify yourselves for the record?

Mike Penning: I am Mike Penning, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport.

Norman Baker: I am Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, Local and Regional Transport.

Q187 Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming and thank you, if I may say so, for volunteering to give us evidence. Our only reluctance was that, to cut to the chase, you would be required to give the Government line to take. Can I clarify at the outset whether you're speaking on behalf of yourselves as parliamentarians or whether you're speaking on behalf of the Government?

Norman Baker: I'm speaking for myself.

Mike Penning: And I for myself as well.

Q188 Chair: That's very useful and we're very grateful for that. So you haven't been given lines to take and a briefing, and you don't have civil servants behind you taking notes?

Mike Penning: We have to be realistic, Mr Chairman. There are civil servants behind us and every word I say will be taken down and used in evidence against me later.

Q189 Chair: I can assume that you're going to say different things because you're giving your own views?

Mike Penning: We are individuals from two separate parties as part of the Coalition. I think that would be the best way to describe it.

Q190 Chair: And how many civil servants have you brought with you?

Mike Penning: I have my Private Secretary with me, and similarly for you.

Norman Baker: The Civil Service have brought themselves, but I've one person from my Private Office.

Q191 Chair: Right, well welcome to them as well. To cut to the chase, we have some serious questions that we want to ask you, but it is realistic to assume that you've come to justify why there are so many Ministers and why we need to keep the present number of Ministers.

Norman Baker: I've come to give you an honest answer to your questions as far as I can. I've not come with a preconceived idea as to what line we should take.

Mike Penning: To be fair, I sat on a Select Committee myself for many years, and it is for the Committee, Mr Chairman, to decide what our evidence comes forward with. What I will be giving is an honest appraisal of the first six months as a brand new Minister in a Coalition Government and telling the Committee what it's like. Then you can make your own decisions as to what we need and how we need them.

Q192 Chair: You must both be quite surprised that you are Ministers. Mr Penning, going back a few years, you were the press officer to the whipless MPs, during the Maastricht rebellion of the early 1990s, and you've come a very long way.

Norman Baker: That was a long time ago, wasn't it?

Mike Penning: It is a huge privilege, and I have to pinch myself sometimes—not least when the Prime Minister calls you while you're in Sainsbury's doing your shopping to confirm your appointment. It is a huge honour and a privilege, but also a huge culture shock to come from being an Opposition spokesman to being a Minister of the Crown.

Q193 Chair: I should declare an interest. You were then elevated to the lofty heights of being press officer in Central Office and responsible to the then Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, namely myself. So you bring some experience to your present job.

Mike Penning: It all comes to those who wait.

Q194 Chair: I remember that you were also running something called the Campaign against a Federal Europe.

Mike Penning: Yes.

Q195 Chair: You used to be very interested in that issue, but you seem to have dropped that issue since you became a Member of Parliament.

Mike Penning: That issue was won, if we're talking about the party position, and it was Conservatives against a Federal Europe.

Q196 Chair: Did you ever speak in a debate since you got into Parliament about Europe?

Mike Penning: I have spoken about Europe, yes, and continue to talk about Europe.

Q197 Chair: But you support the Government's policy on Europe?

Mike Penning: I'm the Deregulation Minister at the Department, as well, and a huge amount of the regulation that I have to look at, after it's come from other colleagues as well as my Department, is European legislation. I have strict instructions to the officials—that come from the powers above me—that if we have to implement, we do the bare minimum on what we have to because of the cost to business.

Q198 Chair: When you became a Member of Parliament, you quite rapidly became a Whip, so were you always ambitious to be a Minister?

Mike Penning: I have to say, Mr Chairman, I've never been a Whip.

Q199 Chair: I beg your pardon; I stand corrected. But you were quite ambitious to be a Minister?

Mike Penning: No, I was ambitious with such a small majority. I had a majority of 499 when I was elected in 2005; I still, to this day, think the most important job that I have is being a constituency MP. I'm a Minister of the Crown, but my role in life on this planet is to look after my constituents. I now have a slightly larger majority, which is great news for me, but this gives more credence to the fact that you need to look after your constituents.

Q200 Chair: Mr Baker, you must be even more incredulous that you're sitting in a Government Department with red boxes and civil servants around you?

Norman Baker: It's on the record, in fact, that I did predict a hung Parliament several months before the general election; unfortunately I didn't put a bet on it. I also thought that the logical outcome of that, given that the Labour Party was likely to go backwards, would be a Lib Dem­Tory arrangement. In those circumstances, I took the view personally that a Coalition was the preferable option to some sort of day-to-day, mouth­to­mouth arrangement. I'm surprised to some degree, but in a sense I did anticipate that we would end up where we were.

Q201 Chair: Does that include swallowing such difficult medicine as voting for increases in top-up fees?

Norman Baker: You'll have wait until Thursday to find that out.

Q202 Chair: So you're not going to tell us whether you're going to support the Government that you're a member of?

Norman Baker: It's a complicated issue to do with the Coalition agreement, as you know, in terms of what the Coalition agreement says about that particular issue, which isn't black and white. There is a meeting of my parliamentary party and I will wait and see what people say at that meeting.

Q203 Chair: These are very complicated issues, particularly in the Coalition. I'm not going to question your integrity, whatever you decide to do, but you must be as surprised as anybody that you're confronted with such a dilemma.

Norman Baker: It's no secret that it's not a very happy position to be in. I imagine these matters occur with Government generally, whether as a Coalition or otherwise.

Chair: I think that's correct.

Q204   Robert Halfon: Do you believe the doctrine of collective responsibility is the same, given that we now have a Coalition Government, as has existed over the last 20 years or so?

Norman Baker: I believe that if you were to vote against the Government, you have to resign, if that's what you mean.

Q205 Chair: Vote against the Government?

Norman Baker: Yes.

Q206 Chair: If you abstain, that would be classed as a resignation?

Norman Baker: I don't know whether you want to spend a lot of time on this particular issue, which is perhaps not germane to your general inquiry.

Q207 Chair: I think it is actually.

Norman Baker: There is a Coalition agreement that says that, on this particular issue, the Lib Dems have the right to abstain, and that is particularly provided for in the Coalition agreement.

Q208   Charlie Elphicke: Just to pick up on a point Mr Penning was making, he said that he had originally got elected to the House of Commons in highly marginal circumstances. At the last general election, you said that your majority increased slightly. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?

Mike Penning: I was being slightly tongue­in­cheek, to be fair, Mr Chairman.

Q209 Chair: I'm not sure that this is within the remit of the Committee—the size of the Minister's majority.

Mike Penning: To answer the question, I had a majority of 499. With the boundary changes, the estimate took that down to 130. I now have the honour and privilege of having 13,466, which makes for, as I said earlier on, a really difficult balance of time between being a Minister and your constituency commitments. Then of course the other strange group in this is family, which we all forget sometimes.

Q210 Charlie Elphicke: That was where I was heading before Mr Penning told us the swing, which sounds probably about the largest in the House of Commons.

Mike Penning: It was the largest swing against Labour, 14.4%.

Q211 Charlie Elphicke: How do you as Ministers—you too, Mr Baker—manage the whole issue of trying to be a constituency MP, trying to be a Minister and make decisions, and trying to spend some time with your friends and loved ones and maintain an element of normality?

Norman Baker: It's very difficult. I have been quite surprised by the amount of work that there is to do as a Minister; if you do your job properly and conscientiously, then it does take a huge amount of time. I was actually up to, for example, 1 o'clock last night because I promised the Secretary of State a paper on something that I have a meeting with him on later on this morning, so I had to finish that and I ended up doing that last night. My normal working week would be into Parliament on a Monday morning and really not going home until Thursday evening; that does mean that constituency work is boxed into the Friday. Last week, I spent seven hours—I counted—signing letters just in the constituency when I got back to Lewes. Of course, then, as Mike says, you have to look after your family as well, so you end up with huge demands on your time. I agree with Mike absolutely that the people who employ you, ultimately, are your constituents, and we ignore that at our peril.

Q212 Chair: Would one of you like to describe a typical working day?

Mike Penning: I will if you want. It's probably easier if I just do a couple of days, Mr Chairman.

Chair: Okay.

Mike Penning: I usually say goodnight to my wife at some stage on a Sunday night; that is usually the last time I have a face­to­face conversation with her until Thursday evening, even though we sleep in the same bed every night. My car comes for me at quarter past six, which means that I'm usually up by half-past five. I do my box and work in the car coming into the Department, and then carry on with other documentation that is in the box, or already in the office, until nine. Then I am usually in meetings in the Department during the day; there is always a huge demand on the diary. It's very difficult; people have the right and need to see you as a Minister, but, at the same time, you have to prioritise. You can have anything up to eight or nine meetings in a Department in one day. At the same time, you have to keep abreast of your brief. At the moment, I am the Shipping Minister and the Roads Minister, so with the inclement weather we've had on the roads, there have been huge issues to do with the Highways Agency. I've been in constant contact with them and had briefings from them. A lot of big issues are going on in shipping at the moment, which I've been involved in, and a lot of issues—as Mr Elphicke understands—to do with ports at the moment.

At the same time, a lot of it is cross-brief for me as well. For instance, I am the Deregulation Minister, so perhaps legislation that Norman or other Ministers have been putting through has to come back through my office again for approval. That is quite frustrating, but is actually a good mechanism to make sure that we do not have too many SIs and too much legislation coming down.

In the evenings, I normally get over to the House by about sixish and try and have a conversation with some colleagues; if you detach yourself from colleagues, you don't know what is happening in the House or what is happening in their constituencies. Perhaps, they have worries or concerns about your brief that they can talk to you privately about. Leaving time depends on the votes—I was actually working at the office here at the House of Commons last night until ten—then you're in the car, going back home with the box or whatever briefing papers for today. As I say, I like sleeping in the same bed as my wife—it's a strange thing to do—but we don't have a conversation very often because I was home at quarter past 12 and I was back up at quarter to six this morning.

That normally happens till Thursday evening. Then, like most constituency MPs, we move into constituency mode Friday and through the weekend.

Q213 Chair: Mr Baker, do you want to add to that or does that answer do for you as well? Except you come in on your bicycle.

Norman Baker: Yes—a ministerial bicycle. Like Mike, it's the same sort of schedule to some degree; he could have mentioned external visits that we do. For example, I went to open the Leeds cycle hub, which I think is an important thing for Ministers to do, because it is a vote of confidence in that mode of transport and to say this is where we think transport is going in terms of local transport. That sort of thing is important to give a ministerial stamp to. There is reading submissions from civil servants, which obviously takes quite a long time in terms of formulating and developing policy. There is then selling policy, which is equally important to get the Government's message across, which means dealing with pressure groups, dealing with businesses, dealing with media. There is the business of the House and there is a huge amount of work to do in replying to parliamentary questions and letters.

Mike Penning: Colleagues' letters.

Norman Baker: It takes probably an hour a day just to do that. I don't mind that because when I was in opposition I used to feel that, as an ordinary backbench MP, you must have the right to contact a Minster and get a decent reply. That is part of doing your job as a constituency MP. Now I am on the other side, I want to make sure that Members of Parliament who have a query get a proper answer.

Q214 Chair: Do you think it is really necessary for a Minister to be at all the meetings that your civil servants arrange for you to meet with delegations and representations? It has been put to us in evidence that people are actually more interested in meeting the key officials, rather than the Ministers that come and go?

Norman Baker: Civil servants don't arrange the meetings; the Civil Service produces a list of requests of people who want to meet you. We then say "yes" or "no" to those. I nearly always say "yes" to an MP who wants to come in and see me, because I think that is right. Sometimes I will say "no" to a group that I think is not relevant. Sometimes I will say, "You should meet officials." I take those judgments in terms of my areas as to how to deal with those meetings. So, I don't allow civil servants to say, "Here's your diary; it has all been filled up for you with meetings that you don't know anything about." The meetings that go in my diary are meetings I've pre-authorised and am happy to have.

Mike Penning: The same for me. My diary is a difficult job for my diary secretary, particularly with my role in my constituency, but it has to be approved by me for it to be in the diary. I haven't looked at the evidence that you've taken, but for a lot of people it is hugely significant to meet a Minister of the Crown and hear their points made.

Q215 Chair: It's what we're calling "the ambassadorial role". You think that's important?

Mike Penning: No, I disagree; we make decisions. In terms of the assumption that civil servants make decisions on a Minister's behalf, I don't know what happened in the previous Government but it certainly doesn't happen for me. I have turned down more than enough requests from officials to do something or agree something, and that is perhaps because we're new and we have a slightly different view. It's very difficult for the civil servants who were working under the previous Administration and now are under the Coalition—a completely different Administration. The hardest question I always put back to them is, "Why? Why are you asking me to do that? Why are you asking me to sign that off?" That is very difficult if you haven't been asked that question on a regular basis before.

Q216 Paul Flynn: Can you give us examples of decisions that you've made or changes that have happened in the past six months because Mike Penning or Norman Baker was doing the job rather than anyone else?

Mike Penning: I laid a written ministerial statement yesterday on the legislation on ship-to-ship transfers, which is obviously a hugely difficult piece of legislation. There are a lot of views on both sides and it was laid two days before the general election was called. I suspended that legislation when I first came in because I don't think there was correct consultation. I have amended that legislation because of the consultation that I asked to take place. The civil servants probably would admit if they were here that they didn't want it to take place, and the new legislation will be on the statute book within the next couple of weeks.

Q217 Paul Flynn: And Norman?

Norman Baker: I will give you the most recent example in my head. There has been some concern about the reimbursement arrangements for concessionary fares for the deals between operators and local authorities. I was concerned that the guidance wasn't quite right. I arranged for the main bus operators to come in and I listened to what they had to say. I thought they had a couple of good points to make and I required the guidance to be changed as a consequence.

Q218 Paul Flynn: The Institute for Government described your position, Norman, as being a watchdog in the Department.

  Chair: We're going to come to that later.

Q219 Paul Flynn: Alright, I'll carry on with this. The general feeling that we've had from other junior Ministers is that the job was one in which they had very little influence, and very little change. You had a very strong profile as a backbench MP on the environment. How much has your mouth been bandaged since you've taken ministerial office?

Norman Baker: Obviously, I can't go around giving my views on the whole range of subjects outside the Department for Transport, otherwise colleagues would become somewhat upset by that. One of the first things I was told, when I did make some comment on day one, was, "Do remember you're speaking for the Government when you say something." Therefore, there has been a degree of self-censorship outside the Department for Transport.

Q220 Paul Flynn: What decision you've taken or comment you've made are you most ashamed of?

Norman Baker: Most ashamed of? I don't think I'm ashamed of anything yet, as a matter of fact. I think the Government's working quite well. I am proud of the Coalition; I think it is cohesive and it works well. In terms of the Department for Transport, there is a good synergy between Ministers. There is a good ministerial team, if I may say so.

Q221 Paul Flynn: You have a whole range of responsibilities in your portfolio. How much time do you give to being a watchdog to make sure that the Conservative members in your Department don't step out of line with the Coalition agreement?

Norman Baker: Do you want me to go there now?

Q222 Chair: We were going to come on to it. Give a quick answer now, but we are going to do a bit later on.

  Paul Flynn: We are coming on to it, yes.

Norman Baker: As I said, there is a degree of synergy, so it is probably less of an issue in the Department for Transport than it may be—I don't know—in other Departments. I don't have a problem with any of the policies, frankly, which we've been advocating. In fact, I'm very pleased with them. For example, the emphasis on rail is just where I would want it to be. Clearly, there is a need to ensure that the Coalition agreement is not being broken, but the Secretary of State has said to me that he has been given the duty by the Prime Minister of making sure the Coalition agreement is delivered as far as the Department for Transport is concerned, and that's what he does.

Q223 Paul Flynn: Michael, the first time I saw you doing your ministerial duties was at the Armistice Day service for the Merchant Navy.

Mike Penning: Yes.

Q224 Paul Flynn: I've never seen a Minister there before.

Mike Penning: Correct.

Q225 Paul Flynn: You don't have a major role in that, but your presence was greatly appreciated by everyone involved. Do you think it is reasonable for you to give up a Sunday morning to attend an event like that? As I say, you didn't have a role in it and it is very much a minor event, presumably, compared with your ministerial duties.

Mike Penning: You have to look—I try to do this as a Minister—at "What would I like to see a Minister do if I were, for example, a representative of the Merchant Navy or the HM Coastguard?" I am the Shipping Minister. It's a portfolio I'm very proud of; it's a national portfolio. That day recognises those who have fallen serving their country in the Merchant Navy. I thought it was important that I was there; I thought it was astonishing that Ministers hadn't been there before. I will freely admit that I was embarrassed that there was not a representative of the Coastguard there; there will be from now on, and I will be there each year. Paying your respects is as important, at times, as getting people in, dragging them over the coals, and telling them how it should be done. So, yes, my wife would perhaps have liked me to have done something else that morning, but she understands me. If you've served, and I have served, I'm lucky enough to have served, then to me it was a no-brainer: you have to do it.

Q226 Paul Flynn: Bearing in mind your constituency duties and your family duties, do you think that is a reasonable use of a Sunday morning?

Mike Penning: Yes, I do.

  Paul Flynn: Okay.

Q227 Robert Halfon: You've both described your workload in great detail. I appreciate how hard you both work, but even if you have ten Ministers in your Department, to use a transport metaphor, isn't it a bit like the M25: you build another lane, and it's still full of traffic? It doesn't matter how many Ministers you have; because of the kind of work you do, there will always be huge amounts of paperwork. Is there not, surely, a more efficient way of doing things, so that you don't have to work until one in the morning?

Mike Penning: There are other ways of doing it. I'm lucky; I don't get travel sickness reading or working in a car, so I spend the hour going home and the hour coming in working on my box, which means that I don't tend to take work into my home. If a box arrives for the weekend, then I do. In the last six months, we've managed to get the box—this is what we're particularly talking about—contents to a level that is really relevant. Now, I admit, early on I was saying, "What the devil is that doing in there?" But if we want Ministers to be responsible, rather than just being a mouthpiece or a watchdog, then they need to understand their brief and take responsibility and put their signatures next to documents that they've read and they've done. Now, do all Ministers do that? Have all Ministers in the past done that? I don't know.

Q228 Robert Halfon: But do you not agree that even if you had ten Ministers in your Department, or 20, they would all come along and say exactly the same thing about how big their workload was? It wouldn't necessarily reduce it.

Mike Penning: Honestly, before I came to this Committee I sat and thought to myself: we have a Minister of State, two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State and a Secretary of State." My portfolio is hugely wide-ranging and very large for a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and to take that out and give part of it to Norman and part of it to Theresa, I just can't imagine how they would ever get any decisions made or anything done. Unless they left it to the civil servants to make the decisions, which I don't think is the right way.

Norman Baker: I agree with Mike. I would also say, if you're looking to make things more efficient, that the efficiency is got not by removing the accountability, which Ministers provide; it's actually by looking at how the Civil Service works. Quite often, I get briefs that are, frankly, far too thick and unnecessarily thick. Someone has been sitting there for two days writing this, but I actually don't need it because most of it I know anyway and the other stuff is a political judgment. I'm given speeches to read out that I don't read out normally because they don't sound like me or say what I want to say. What I want in terms of speeches, mostly, is a series of bullet points, if that, or even just a number of statistics and I will get on and make it, but that is counter-intuitive to the Civil Service, which likes it all settled in a nice orderly format.

Q229 Robert Halfon: Do you not think that the red box system is incredibly inefficient because some Ministers, as you say, work all night doing it. It is crazy to be looking at a red box after a day's work. Iain Duncan Smith says he doesn't do a red box; he just takes stuff in a plastic bag, literally, and he works on it that way. It seems to be a crazy system for running a Government.

Norman Baker: Personally, I don't have a red box very often; on about three occasions since I've been appointed I've had a red box sent down to my home at a weekend where there has been no alternative. When I go home, I like to switch off. I don't like to mix family life with work. Even though I don't get home very often, I like to be home and be at home. So I tend to work in the office or occasionally my room in the House; that is where the work gets done, not at home.

Q230 Greg Mulholland: Good morning gentlemen. Norman, you will be glad to know that I won't be asking you anything about Thursday's vote whatsoever.

Norman Baker: Well, I won't ask you in that case.

Q231 Greg Mulholland: I'm not saying I may not at a later or a different stage. This is particularly relevant to what you've said Mike; do you think that there are activities that you've been doing since your appointment that are not a good use of your time? You will be well aware of Chris Mullin and his book. Indeed, when he came to give oral evidence to this Committee, he said, "There is a certain amount of pointless activity that could be cut out. I think there probably has been an increase in pointless activity." Are you doing pointless activity that could be cut out?

Mike Penning: I read Chris's book before I was a Minister and I've gone back and read it since. It is perhaps being used wrongly as a reference book, rather than a diary, as to what it was like then. I don't know if Norman is going to agree with me on this, but I think the big difference is that the new batch of Ministers—particularly those who came in my intake and the one before with Norman—are not willing to just rubber stamp stuff. When I am being asked to go somewhere, there is only one occasion where I've said, "I'd rather have not been here, the way it was done." That was on a visit. I would have wanted to go, but I would like to have seen it done another way. The key to this is that I have several large agencies that under the previous administration were given huge autonomy; I've reined that autonomy in as hard as I can. This means that there is more work and that there will be more scrutiny, but I think that is right. But no, I don't actually agree with Chris.

Norman Baker: No, I think that is right. If Ministers find that they are undertaking pointless activity, I would suggest that they do not have a grip on their ministerial job because I don't believe what I do is pointless. I think it's quite focused. In a sense, just as Mike has created work for himself by reining in the agencies, I have created work for example by saying to the Civil Service, "If an MP wants to see me about an issue in their constituency, I will see them." When they say, "We don't recommend that you see them," I will say, "I'm sorry, but this Member is elected. He or she has a constituency to represent and I will see them."

Q232 Greg Mulholland: There has also been a suggestion in some of the evidence that we've had that civil servants have sometimes made work for junior Ministers, particularly at the Parliamentary Under-Secretary level. When we asked Sir David Normington, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, if he had done that, he rather intriguingly replied, "Not recently." In your Department and in your experience have you had the impression that the Civil Service is finding things for you to do?

Mike Penning: If you don't take control of your office and your portfolio, you will drown in paper. Have no illusions about that—that is the way the Civil Service operates. But they also respond when you say, "Why? Why are you putting that in there?" I used to get speeches written for me. They don't write them for me anymore; they just use bullet points. Anybody who knows me in the House knows I've never read a speech since the day I was here. I memorise what I'm going to say and I go out and do that. That gives the Civil Service a complete heart attack, because they do not have control over exactly what you're saying, word-for-word, but it's for Ministers—I really do stress this—to take control. If Ministers feel that it is out of control, then they need to address it, rather than the civil servants; the Civil Service will just do what the Civil Service does, which is to produce more and more and more for you, but if you say to them, "That's the way I want my office to operate. That is the way I want my box to operate, and my diary," etcetera, etcetera, you can control it.

We are a very busy Department, but even with the events in the weather that have been going on for the last few weeks, we have time to talk to colleagues. I agree with Norman; the one thing I am absolutely adamant about is that, if colleagues want to come and see me, either in the House, at a political meeting, or in a departmental meeting, they get it. It is for the Ministers to get a grip.

Q233 Chair: Mr Baker, has anybody made work that you've discovered afterwards? What about attending conferences and going off and speaking at events?

Norman Baker: As I say, I do think that there is a role for Ministers—you used the word "ambassadorial"—to represent the Government policy outside. If you have a major conference going on with key players in the sector, like the UK Bus Awards that I went to the other day, then I think it is discourteous not to turn up and represent the Government on those sorts of occasions. As I said earlier on, I will receive a list of invitations and I will make a judgment in each particular case as to whether I should go or whether I shouldn't.

Mike Penning: On those sorts of things, Mr Chairman, I think that is very important. We were in opposition for a long time, and the one thing that I know from when I looked after Shadow Ministers or when I was a Shadow Minister myself is that if you turn up at an event like a conference and the Government is not there, it means you get the credibility while being in opposition. I know it's silly, but it means so much to organisations. I am going to the Prince Michael International Road Safety Awards and it means a lot to them to have the Road Safety Minister there. That is right.

Q234 Greg Mulholland: I am conscious that we need to press on. If I could just ask you one question. I'm very tempted Mike, to ask you, having gone through a boundary change and seen your majority go down and then successfully having got a huge majority, what you thought about your own Government abolishing the seat and making that majority potentially worthless—but I won't ask you that. I would like to ask you both a question that goes back to the balance, which I do think is very important—the need for you as human beings to balance your two roles as Ministers and MPs, which is a unique and important part of our system, with your family life. Do you not agree that that means that Friday in the constituency for all of us—barring emergency business of Government, which you will sometimes have to do—should be sacrosanct; and that therefore it's quite wrong to have private Members' Bills scheduled on Fridays, so that when we're doing our surgeries and other engagements, we're also getting stick from people, "You know, you're a terrible MP because you're not there voting for a brighter life or sustainable livestock," or whatever? Do you not think that is wrong and needs to be addressed?

Norman Baker: Personally, I agree that it would be helpful if all of us had all Fridays off; I think that's right. I do know that the British Parliament sits longer each year than most other comparable Parliaments. Certainly, I've said to my office, "I don't want anything on Fridays, barring emergencies. I want to be absolutely clear it's constituency day." Indeed, I've said to them not to put things on Thursday afternoons on the basis that, if there is only a one-line vote, then I can go home on Thursday afternoon. The quid pro quo for that is that you work the long hours, into the early hours sometimes, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but I'd rather do it that way rather than string everything out through the week.

Mike Penning: I am actually looking forward to the boundary changes because I will expand rather than contract.

Q235 Greg Mulholland: An even bigger majority then?

Mike Penning: An even bigger majority. I agree Fridays are hugely important to me and to my constituents. We have a duty Minister schedule. To be fair, even when I have been duty Minister it hasn't really affected me. Having the occasional day—I think I have one coming up—where I will be duty Minister on the Friday—means that months in advance we've scheduled that in and actually I will take some time on the Monday morning or Thursday afternoon and give that time back to my constituency that I've lost on Friday.

Norman Baker: I'm duty Minister on Christmas Day, for your information.

Chair: Good for you.

Mike Penning: I'm Christmas Eve.

Q236 Chair: Mr Flynn, have we done your watchdog question?

  Paul Flynn: I don't think we have. I'll start on it.

  Chair: Shall we move on?

  Paul Flynn: The Institute for Government has suggested that being a watchdog is the role of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the Department; not only do you have your portfolio to look after, but you have to keep your eye on the other Ministers to make sure that they abide by the deal that was done.

Norman Baker: That is a bit patronising to Lib Dems to say that is what our role is. Our role in Government Departments is to behave as Ministers do, whether they are Conservative or Lib Dem, in whatever Department they're in, and to get on with our portfolio and to deliver Government policy which was agreed through the Coalition agreement. Having said that, both sides of the Coalition have an interest in making sure that we identify obstacles coming ahead; if there is an issue that is going to cause a problem for one party or the other, it's sensible to try and be aware of that in advance. Of course, it is sensible for Ministers of both sides to have a watching brief, in a light touch way, over what's happening in the Department. We have a Ministerial meeting every Tuesday, when the Secretary of State and the three Ministers in the Department come together. That is an opportunity to talk about wider issues as a Ministerial team. The Secretary of State has also said to me that it's a good idea in terms of forward planning that we think about having ad hoc meetings on specific issues so we can see what is coming down the track, to use a railway metaphor. That is the way we work to try and make sure that we know what is going on and what is likely to happen. If there is an issue that is particularly sensitive for either the Conservatives or the Lib Dems, then we know about it long before it happens and we can feed into that point in a structured and cohesive way.

Q237 Paul Flynn: You took a line, I think Norman, that was opposed to the last Government—a line on the environment—and a line that is very much opposed to this Government as well, possibly even more so. Don't you find the difficulty there, in personally doing the dirty deals, the compromises, and doing these on behalf of your party?

  Chair: It never happens in the Labour party.

Norman Baker: The Coalition is a compromise by definition. The reality is that we didn't win the election, neither did the Conservatives, that's why we have a Coalition Government. As far as the environment is concerned, I'm very happy with what the Government is doing: we have major investment in rail; we have £560 million for the local sustainable transport fund and we have good support for the buses. I deal with the environmental issues in the Department, so the air pollution issues come to me, so I get to influence them directly. Beyond the DFT, we have all the stuff that Chris Huhne is doing: the renewable heat incentive and so on. I think we're doing rather well on the environment.

Q238 Paul Flynn: Nuclear power for instance?

Norman Baker: Sorry?

Paul Flynn: I seem to recall that you were opposed to nuclear power.

  Chair: I think this is slightly off the subject of what Minsters do, I have to say.

Mike Penning: I just wanted to say that Norman is right: we have these formal meetings and we can ask for things we put in our diaries, but actually we don't live in silos up there. I wander into Norman's office and we have a cup of tea and I talk to him about something that's worrying me or bounce an idea off; Norman does exactly the same to me. I know it must be difficult for colleagues because the Coalition is brand new and we haven't had one for a few years, to say the least, but it actually works very well. We agree on many more things than we disagree on, and there is a process in place should we then disagree.

Q239 Paul Flynn: This was the impression given to us by a number of witnesses, that because of the Coalition it's necessary to have possibly a larger number of Ministers than would be essential, in order to keep this watchdog role.

Norman Baker: I don't think the number of Ministers is in any way related to the Coalition. The Coalition generates perhaps more consideration of an issue because, in a sense, both parties have to be happy with an issue, but actually that's quite sensible. The dangers of one-party Government—this is a Lib Dem view, if you like—are that there are not enough voices saying, "Is that right?" When you have two parties trying to do something, there is always a voice that is slightly different saying, "Is that right? What is the justification for that?" I actually think that policy is much improved by that process.

Q240 Paul Flynn: Are you comfortable with the Coalition policy of maintaining the number of Ministers, increasing the number of Lords, and decreasing the number of Members of Parliament?

Norman Baker: The policy on Ministers is what you've asked us here to talk about today. I'm very happy with the policy on Ministers. As Mike said, if we had one less Minister at the Department for Transport, that would be an enormous workload increase for the three of us who were left. I think the number of Ministers is about right.

Mike Penning: I can't see where this link is. I know Norman has the watchdog, but I cannot see where the argument is that there are more civil servants because of the watchdog role. Frankly, I find it ludicrous.

Q241 Paul Flynn: The argument is that the power of the backbenchers will go down if you reduce the number of MPs. We don't know what's going to happen with the Lords, but certainly there is an increase there. The relative power between those who are in the Government, who have to follow the Government line, the payroll vote, is maintained and we have fewer backbenchers. That's the argument.

Mike Penning: That's a completely different argument, surely, as to what the role of the Minister is. The checks and balance side is there, but the role of a Minister, as to what work we do on a daily basis, which is I think was what we were asked to come and talk to you about, is completely different from that.

Q242 Paul Flynn: We've had a lot of evidence. You're in your honeymoon days as Ministers now, but we have had evidence from Ministers—not just Chris Mullin, but others as well—who said that they were there; they would move from one relatively meaningless junior Ministerial job to another one, sometimes spending their whole parliamentary careers going from Department to Department, and then, at the end of 10 years or so, look back and decide that they had achieved very little.

Mike Penning: Doesn't sound great to me.

Q243 Paul Flynn: There is an element that says it's in the Government's interests to maintain the large number of Ministers and others who are in the payroll vote, so when the difficult vote comes along they can guarantee that they'll get their business.

Norman Baker: If we're serious about accountability, which we are, and thus the whole public bodies reform, for example, and we're serious about making sure that a Minister is responsible for activities who is answerable to Parliament, rather than some obscure civil servant, who is not answerable, then I think the number of Ministers is about right. That's my honest view.

Q244 Chair: Can I just challenge you on that? Ministers in the Lords are just as accountable as Ministers in the Commons. Anybody can be summoned before a Select Committee and held accountable. This accountability argument is bit spurious, isn't it? You don't have to be an MP to be accountable.

Norman Baker: We don't actually have a Minister in the Lords, but Ministers in the Lords are not elected and therefore are not accountable in the same way as Members of Parliament who are Ministers as well. I think there is a difference there, if I may say so. You might make a separate point about PPSs. I don't know if you intend to go on to that. There is an issue, in my judgment, as to whether we need as many PPSs as we have.

Q245 Robert Halfon: Do you have any PPSs?

Norman Baker: No.

  Chair: Sorry, you're jumping in a bit. Can I go to Mr Elphicke please?


Q246 Charlie Elphicke: Yes, with PPSs, don't you think it's a case that it's a bit like the Dodo saying everyone must have prizes. They don't do anything particularly practical, but they are just kind of locking in the payroll vote? Is that fair or unfair?

Mike Penning: I think that is unfair. We have two PPSs now, but the lead has been with us for some time, and his role is brilliantly important because he comes to us with the backbenchers' views.

Q247 Chair: But do you need two in the Department?

Mike Penning: It's a big Department and there is a lot of work to be done. It's above my pay grade to say how many there should be, to be honest with you.

Chair: It's very telling that you're talking about "the lead PPS".

Mike Penning: At the end of the day, we will use them. They will be worked to death, I can assure you.

Q248 Chair: They do send out a lot of rather otiose letters inviting us to table questions. I don't need a PPS to write to me in person on headed notepaper.

Mike Penning: But you're a very experienced Chairman.

Q249 Chair: But it is not necessary.

Mike Penning: There are others who actually ask.

Q250 Chair: We all know that a few minutes in a division lobby can solve the questions problem; you don't need to write to everybody.

Mike Penning: All I can say to you is that, especially the new intake, which is very large, they regularly ask for briefings on things that perhaps an experienced Chairman or some of your Committee, Mr Chairman, would just do off the cuff; you'd know about it and it's easily done. There is no training school here for these guys and they need help.

Q251 Charlie Elphicke: Can I just pick up on an issue?

  Chair: After you, after you.

  Charlie Elphicke: You raised it earlier about the decisions you get.

Q252   Chair: Before we leave PPSs, can I just say you are sitting here without any PPSs sitting behind you. Is it necessary for PPSs to sit in Select Committees behind their Ministers?

Mike Penning: That's a decision for individual Ministers. If I was a PPS today, no I wouldn't. In Westminster Hall, and places like that, I do find it useful. Of course, we're not meant to take notes directly from the civil servants in Westminster Hall—it comes through the PPS—and in Committees as well.

Q253 Robert Halfon: Why can't it be done by the Commons clerks? Why does it need to be done by the PPS?

Mike Penning: It's not a role for the Commons clerks. It's a political role.

Q254 Robert Halfon: But all it is is passing notes; it's not anything else.

Mike Penning: It's more than that. It's not just passing notes. There is an argument both ways, but all I would say is that, if you didn't have PPSs, there would be people doing it anyhow, and we all know that takes place.

Q255 Chair: The point is that there wouldn't be so much patronage in the House of Commons over MPs.

Mike Penning: If the Committee is worried about that, that's a separate thing. The thing that Norman and I am here about is actually, "Do they help us do our job?" And the answer to that is "yes".

Chair: Do you want to do your hierarchy question?

Q256   Charlie Elphicke: Maybe we should have a further investigation into what PPSs do, Chairman. Just turning back to your instant jobs, you talked earlier Mr Penning about the decisions you take; could you give us an idea of how many decisions you make and how your work rate compares with your predecessors'?

Mike Penning: We don't know what our work rate is compared with our predecessors'; the only thing you could look at there is how quickly you respond to correspondence and how quickly we do PQs and things like that. We're making decisions now—literally today—on things like future training in the maritime industry and SAR-H, the future of the coastguard helicopters. Those decisions are being made now and they are hugely important to the country. Then there are really small decisions, really quite small decisions, that have an impact for instance on road safety or a decision as to how we fund road safety partnerships, which will have a huge impact around the country. Some people agree with what we're doing, and some people don't. We believe in localism, so we want local people to make decisions. However, there are other smaller decisions.

The biggest question and the hardest thing for civil servants to adapt to is Ministers coming in and saying, "Why? No, I'm not going to sign that off. Why are we doing that? Why are we doing that?" Whereas certainly in the latter part of the previous administration, it was not as questionable as we are now.

Charlie Elphicke: They were all housetrained.

  Chair: We must move on.

  Charlie Elphicke: I know.

  Chair: Just very quickly.

Q257 Charlie Elphicke: Two very short points Chairman, if I may. Chris Mullin, in his diary, writes about a Departmental agenda, civil servants doing their own kind of thing. Do you ever find some kind of review or project is going on that suddenly surfaces and that no one knew anything about, or is that just hocus-pocus?

Mike Penning: No, it does. I found one literally in the last few weeks, where a review was started before the general election, which I knew absolutely nothing about, and has carried on under the Coalition under the same guidance, the same remit, without any input from the new Coalition Government at all. That's Norman's and my brief as well. I've hauled that in, suspended it, but that sort of thing does go on. Of course it does. It happens in any company and any organisation; the job of the Ministers with their Private Office, which is the really important part, is to give the Department the steerage to say you don't do that sort of thing, you bring it to the Minister.

Charlie Elphicke: Finally, very briefly.

  Chair: No, sorry, I'm moving on.

  Charlie Elphicke: Very briefly.

  Chair: I'm being very patient.

Q258 Charlie Elphicke: Do you think the truth is that Chris Mullin was actually just a rubbish Minister, not up to the job, and should never have left the backbenches? It actually depends on the character of the person.

Norman Baker: I don't think we're qualified to comment on that, are we really?

Mike Penning: The only thing I would say is that there is a bit of sour grapes out there. I think that it is really obvious for everybody to see.

Chair: Mr Halfon on hierarchy.

  Robert Halfon: Can I just ask something slightly different?

Chair: Alright.

Q259 Robert Halfon: How prone are you to what Gerald Kaufman describes as departmentalitis?

Norman Baker: You mean "going native"?

Q260 Robert Halfon: Going native, and just focusing on your Department and not the wider bit of the Government.

Norman Baker: Of course, you end up speaking to your colleagues and senior civil servants more than other Departments, but we always keep our eye, or I hope we do, on the bigger picture, which is delivering the Government's overall agenda. If you take the environmental policy that Mr Flynn was referring to earlier on, then quite clearly the Department for Transport has got a major role, but we can't do it alone. So we do have meetings with other Departments. I've met Anne Milton, the Health Minister, to talk about cycling; I've met Ministers from DEFRA to talk about air pollution, so we do interact like that. There are Cabinet Sub-Committees; I've been on the Public Health Sub-Committee and one or two other ones as well. In that way, you keep contacts across Departments, which is important; if you didn't do that, then you actually would not be able to deliver the Government's policy sensibly.

Q261 Robert Halfon: Would you regard it as a victory if you stopped significant cuts to your Department, yet it might hit the Government's wider economic plans?

Norman Baker: It depends what those cuts were. There are some cuts that I'm very happy we should make because we had evidence of a waste of money. On the other hand, some money is well targeted and it would be very unfortunate if that were to be cut. From my own perspective, there are one or two grotesquely expensive road schemes that were—steady on Mike—lost in the spending review, when the Department thought they were too expensive for what was required. It's right to look at those schemes. We're not going to just say that we want to maximise spending; that would be ludicrous and an irresponsible way of going about business.

Q262 Robert Halfon: So do you have the same view?

Mike Penning: I agree. One of the things that the spending review did was to make Departments look very carefully at what they were spending on in a minutiae way that has never really been done before. For instance, if you look at the road programme that Norman has alluded to there, in the negotiations every single road programme had to be fought for through the Treasury. My budget is what I have now, which has been agreed coming down from the Secretary of State and agreed by the Treasury. We had to literally fight the corner and sometimes not fight the corner, because, as Norman said, there were some huge wastes going on, and actually to end up with a budget that you can honestly say is right. Of course, there is a squeeze on in different parts of my Department that is making things very, very tight.

Q263 Robert Halfon: Thank you. Moving on, what is the difference between a Minister of State and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, in your view?

Mike Penning: I'll be the honest one: absolutely none. The Minister of State stands in for the Secretary of State when the Secretary of State isn't available. In the day­to­day role, I can't see a single difference whatsoever.

Norman Baker: I agree with that.

Q264 Robert Halfon: So what's the point of having Parliamentary Under-Secretaries? Why not have a deputy?

Norman Baker: I'm not sure there is a function. Like I said, for avoidance of doubt, that is absolutely no reflection on Theresa Villiers, who I think is a very good Minister. But I don't actually see a difference in role. She has her portfolio, which deals with rail and aviation and so on, we have our own portfolios, and we answer to the Secretary of State, so I don't see what the difference is.

Q265 Robert Halfon: You wouldn't answer to the Minister of State?

Mike Penning: No.

Norman Baker: No.

Mike Penning: Just to clarify this, if the Secretary of State isn't available or he can't be in two places at once, the deputy, if you wish, is the Minister of State, and I know that Theresa was at the Council of Ministers only the other day deputising for the Secretary of State. There has to be someone who does that.

Q266 Robert Halfon: Why not just scrap Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and just have Ministers of State?

Norman Baker: Well, of course we could do.

Mike Penning: I think that is a very good idea.

Q267 Robert Halfon: But reducing the numbers as well?

Mike Penning: No, you can't reduce. We come back to this again. I hope the Committee is open-minded, rather than has made a decision before. The actual physical workload, whether you're a Minister of State or a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in your portfolios, is relatively the same. If you took one of us away, and gave for instance my shipping and maritime responsibilities to Norman and the whole of the roads programme to Theresa, I have no idea how they would do that.

Q268 Robert Halfon: What about if a lot of your Parliamentary activities were done by a Whip, like Westminster Hall debates?

Norman Baker: I think that would be quite wrong. We're not standing there reading out a speech; we're not some sort of robot. We're there to interact with Members, listen to what they have to say, be able to respond to questions, take interventions and make sensible points by way of response. I think it would be insulting to Members, frankly.

Q269 Robert Halfon: In a debate last week Andrew Rosindell did a debate on overseas territories and James Duddridge read out a speech because there was no Minister available. No one seemed to think the earth had fallen in because of that.

Mike Penning: I would be enormously unhappy as a Minister if one of my colleagues did that. We've done it—we have stood in for each other in debates on more than one occasion. The reason for it is, as Parliamentarians, if we're going to listen to an argument put by a colleague and respond to it, that does not mean reading a pre­prepared speech. That is no criticism of James; if James was asked to do that, so be it. But for me, and those of you who know how I respond to speeches, I don't use a pre-prepared speech; I will respond to the debate and I think that is very, very important in a parliamentary democracy.

Q270 Robert Halfon: Can I just ask one more thing? It is actually slightly contrary to what you were saying earlier. You were saying that some of these organisations just want senior civil servants to come to them, but I tend to take your view that people want Ministers to come to the annual Bus Awards or whatever it may be because of the status you convey. Is there not more of a role for Ministers literally as travelling salesmen—to be out there selling the Government to these kinds of organisations all day, and having other people do the grind of briefings and commentaries?

Mike Penning: Then you remove accountability.

Norman Baker: You have to be able to do both because you can't go and sell it unless you've created it or helped create it and you know it intimately. You have to do both sides of the job. But I agree that going out there and selling is important. We all do that all the time. When we had the announcement about the electrification, we were sent—the four of us—to all points of the compass to make sure that that was conveyed.

Q271 Robert Halfon: Surely, the problem is that it is not working because you're doing paperwork at one o'clock in the morning. How can you do paperwork at that time and remain in top-notch condition?

Mike Penning: I would argue that it is working. We ain't complaining. Who is complaining?

Q272 Robert Halfon: Yes, but it isn't an efficient system.

Mike Penning: Who says it's not efficient? It works. We all have different ways of running our offices. Norman and I don't take paperwork home. I know Iain very, very well; Iain took more paperwork home when he was Leader of the Opposition than anybody I've ever met in my entire life, and Betsy would go up the wall with him about it. Different Ministers do different things. I can imagine what other Ministers do, because the Chairman and I have known them over the years. The way it works for me, as Norman was saying, is to get as much of my departmental work done in the early part of the week to free up the most time for me. For me, because I travel home every night and it's an hour's journey, that is basically a box, roughly, unless there is a big submission in there. The bigger submissions you can read on your way back in in the morning. My handwriting is appalling anyway, so I tend not to sign in the car, because it just becomes a complete scribble rather than minor scrawl.

The interesting thing is that selling is really important; I'll just touch on this. I was lucky enough to go to St Petersburg last month to an International Road Safety Conference because we have some of the safest roads in the world and they wanted us there. What the ambassador had done and what the Foreign Office had done is actually use us as salesmen for UK plc while we were there. There were huge meetings with businesses and the St Petersburg government and the Russian Government. That is our role: to be advocates of UK plc.

Q273 David Heyes: There are some who advocate training and development for MPs before they take on the ministerial office; in fact, some of our expert witnesses have been advocating that to us in earlier sessions. Mike, you said it was a huge culture shock becoming a Minister?

Mike Penning: Yes.

Q274 David Heyes: Have you had any formal training or preparation for the office, either before you took it on or since you've taken it on?

Norman Baker: You get preparation in my case by being the Shadow Spokesman, as a matter of fact, and the same with Theresa Villiers, who shadowed Transport beforehand. That is actually quite useful because it gives you a lot of preparation in terms of the issues and how they interrelate. In terms of when we got there, then we're given a Ministers Handbook, which I have here, from National School of Government, which we were handed. I also had a meeting with the Permanent Secretary who talked you through some of the issues. There was obviously advice from civil servants. There was a legal briefing, which you were given by the Department's top legal officer. Obviously, we get advice as we go along, but I think it's difficult to write down an exact job description because, just as every MP approaches his or her job in a different way, I think it's difficult to say that every Minister should approach a job in a different way. You end up working it out for yourself. To some extent, it has to be that way.

Mike Penning: I would really worry if you had to do a course and pass a course to be a Minister, because we're not clones, we're individuals. Each individual does it differently. I'd have failed the course; whatever course you put me on I'd probably fail it, because I'd have my own way I'd like to do it. In the democracy we have, it's for the Prime Minister to decide; he decides how long I will be a Minister. The average life expectancy of a Minister in my portfolio is eight months.

Norman Baker: You're almost there, Mike.

Mike Penning: I'm almost there, but it will be the Prime Minister who decides. I just don't think we want clones. It's a bit like Parliamentarians. We want people from different backgrounds with different attributes, doing things different ways. At the end of the day, it has worked for an awful long time, hasn't it?

Q275 David Heyes: What you've described is a very thorough briefing and preparation in that sense and not training, which most people regard as helping you to improve your skills and the way you go about doing your job. There has been nothing of that sort offered.

Mike Penning: If it were offered, I would turn it down. Would you?

Norman Baker: Well, it depends what it was. I can't think what would be useful. Part of the skills of being a politician, in so far as you have them, you learn them before you get to office: how to communicate with people, I hope; how to prioritise your time; and how to absorb information quite quickly. Those are the skills that a Member of Parliament has to have, so in that sense a Minister just has the same skills.

Mike Penning: Don't get me wrong. I went and gave evidence—I think I was the second Minister ever to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament—and because it was new there were loads of briefings offered to me on how you do it. Frankly, after about the first five minutes I realised that I was more than likely to do it the way I wanted to do it, not the way that some civil servant decided. He was very skilled, but for presentation skills, I'd be my own man, and going up and talking the way I wanted to.

Q276 Chair: You're a WYSIWYG Minister.

Mike Penning: Sorry?

  Chair: You're a WYSIWYG Minister.

  Mr Walker: What you see is what you get.

Q277 Robert Halfon: The same expert witnesses that we've had, who advocated training for Ministers, have also been advocating a system of appraisal for Ministers. Now, Mike, you said, if I have the quote right, "It works. Who's complaining?" That's your opinion. Have you reflected that with anyone? Has anyone appraised what you do, given you any feedback on your performance?

Mike Penning: Anybody who knows our Whips system knows that we get appraised on a daily basis, whether you're a Minister or a backbencher. I just find it very difficult. This is not a UK plc Company; this is UK plc Government. There have been Ministers appointed, who, when the next reshuffle comes, will go to the backbenches and spend the rest of their career on the backbenches, probably because that is what they might want or the Prime Minister wants or whatever, and it all comes to everybody at some time. For me, the more individuals who are Ministers, the better this job is being done, because there isn't one way to do it; whatever advice, whatever specialist comes in and gives evidence to the Committee, I will argue that quite a few of them have their own axe to grind, but the more individuals, the more characters, the more personalities we have that are not trained out of them—like they did when I joined the Guards—the better this place will be.

Mr Walker: Hear, hear.

Robert Halfon: Hear, hear.

Norman Baker: That's the general point of view. Civil servants tend to be naturally risk averse. If you don't have Ministers there you end up with a flat blancmange. You need to have Ministers there to say, "Why am I doing it this way?" and to think out of the box, because we will do that more than civil servants will.

Chair: Are you finished?

  David Heyes: Yes, I think so.

Chair: Thank you very much, Mr Heyes. Mr Walker has joined us late because he has had other parliamentary duties.

Q278   Mr Walker: Everybody is busy, and everybody works hard. I went to my local jobcentre and they have people earning £17,000 or £18,000 a year. They get sworn at and they get physically threatened, but they work really hard, and they're going to lose their jobs. There are senior civil servants within our county council that are going to lose their jobs. There are senior civil servants within Departments that are going to lose their jobs. The only group of people who think they should be insulated from losing their jobs is the ministerial corps. I was just wondering whether two of you could shed some light on that. Why does the ministerial corps feel that it should be immune from reductions?

Norman Baker: To be honest with you, we've dealt with that, may I say, earlier on. Essentially, the point is that, if you want accountability and good decision making in Government, then you have to not work on the basis that you automatically reduce the numbers of Ministers, because all that will happen then is that you either get civil servants taking decisions that should be taken by Ministers, which would be worse decisions, if I may say so, or you will end up overloading the Secretary of State, who ought to be thinking strategically and will end up taking decisions on minor matters that ought to be taken by other Ministers, which would be a bad use of his time.

Q279 Mr Walker: Sorry if it has been covered before, but it's a pretty tough sell to all those people who are going to lose their jobs—the many hundreds of thousands who are going to lose their jobs.

Mike Penning: In my own constituency, I have similar conversations. It is very hard. A moment ago we were arguing it was to do with the payroll vote. The key is not how many Ministers there are; it's whether the amount of Ministers you have can do the job. If someone could prove to me that you could do the job with fewer Ministers in the Department, then I would advocate that. I just cannot see, with the workload that's there, and the accountability that we all want to see as parliamentarians, how you could do that. In our Department, there are four Ministers; it's a huge Department.

Q280 Mr Walker: In some Departments—perhaps not in others—you could use the Whip for some of the adjournment debates. You could use departmental spokesmen perhaps more openly, like they do at No. 10, instead of Ministers having to do all the press. Every conference you're invited to is not necessarily one the Ministers has to attend.

Mike Penning: Let's just touch on that. When I was head of media for the Conservative Party in opposition, I used to scream blue murder that there was a No. 10 spokesperson, rather than a named individual that we could pursue. I just think that it's wrong. Where is the accountability in that? I know we've covered this, but a Whip reading out a pre­prepared speech for them is not, I think, Parliament working properly. How do you respond to an adjournment debate? I have done a lot of adjournments with some colleagues in this room in a way that I would've liked if I had been that person that got that adjournment debate.

Q281 Chair: Too often, the Minister at the dispatch box might as well have been a cipher.

Norman Baker: That's up to them, isn't it? They'll be judged accordingly. That's not how Mike is, and I hope that is not how I am. Tomorrow, for example, Theresa Villiers has asked me to cover a speech on rail for her, because she's not available to do it. I hope the Member who is calling the debate would rather have a Minister than a Whip there to respond to that particular debate. Perhaps, if you're looking to save money, you might look at the number of Whips. That might be an interesting idea.

Q282   Mr Walker: I hear what you're saying, that nobody has demonstrated that the job could be done with fewer Ministers, but nobody has demonstrated to my jobcentre in Waltham Cross that their job could be done with less people either; they're just expected to get on with it. They're going to lose a lot of people at a very difficult time in a difficult part of my constituency in a difficult part of Hertfordshire. Nobody has demonstrated to them that it is possible to meet the demands of their user group with fewer people. They're just being told to do it.

Norman Baker: The Department for Transport is making significant savings, so we are playing our part. We're making savings in terms of the number of people we have. We're making savings in terms of the amount of money we're wasting on fripperies. I answered a question the other day, because I deal with corporate matters as well in terms of PQs, on how much we spent on teas, buns and hospitality, or whatever it happens to be. It was £23 since May or some ludicrously small figure like that.

Mike Penning: The question costs four times that.

Norman Baker: That's also true. We have made economies. I have my ministerial bike to cycle between here and the Department, rather a ministerial car, because that is what I choose to do. We are taking the issue seriously, and right across the Government the Government is trying seriously to eliminate waste and I think successfully doing so.

Mike Penning: There is one way, and I want colleagues to be able to lay questions and I want them to be able to write, but there are a great number of questions at the moment where the information is in the public domain. This is costing a fortune for us to answer when actually it's available to any Member that wants it. How is that getting through the Table Office? It never used to happen when I first came to the House only in 2005. How that is getting through is simply because of the number of questions that are being laid, and that needs to be looked at. It is costing a small fortune answering questions that you can go on Google and get the answer instantly.

Q283 Robert Halfon: Why does it cost a small fortune?

Mike Penning: Because the Civil Service has a process that it has to go through.

Q284 Robert Halfon: If you're saying that Members can look it up on Google, why can't the Civil Service look it up on Google in the same way?

Mike Penning: Because the civil servant has to be paid. The rule is, as I understand it, that you cannot lay a question to a Department when the information is in the public domain. That rule is not being enforced.

Q285 Paul Flynn: Up until eight months ago, a lot of those questions were asked by Norman Baker.

Norman Baker: I was keeping rather quiet on that point.

Mike Penning: To be fair, I used to get rebuffed on a regular basis from the Table Office when I put in, and you get carded, and they come back, and you say, "Why's that?" and they say, "Because it's in the public domain."

Q286 Paul Flynn: But you're happy as poachers and gamekeepers?

Mike Penning: Of course, all poachers are.

Q287 Chair: Is the purpose of transparency that everything is going to be in the public domain, so Ministers don't need to answer any questions?

Mike Penning: Not any, but clearly, if it's in the public domain, why is a huge amount of taxpayers' money being spent answering the question?

Q288 Robert Halfon: I still don't understand why it costs so much to answer a question.

Mike Penning: We'll write to the Committee and tell them how much it is.

Paul Flynn: But that will cost a lot of money.

  Robert Halfon: I understand it's expensive, but I want to know why it is expensive. It may cost x amount, but why does it cost the Civil Service so much money to look on Google to find the answers?

Chair: Mr Penning has agreed to write to us on this subject. Thank you both very much indeed.

Mike Penning: It has been a pleasure.

Chair: It has been a pleasure for us as well. It will certainly add authority to our report. We're very grateful to you.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 10 March 2011