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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 289-353)

Q289 Chair: I wonder if you could identify yourselves for the record please.

Dan Corry: I'm Dan Corry.

Q290 Chair: And what is your function now?

Dan Corry: I'm an Economic Consultant starting that job in January and I have been a Special Adviser in many Departments since 1997 up to 2010.

Q291 Chair: In particular, I remember, in the New Local Government Network.

Dan Corry: I had three years running the New Local Government Network, where we used to meet a bit. I was also a civil servant in the 1980s. So, I have seen things from a Civil Service point of view as well as the Special Adviser point of view.

Q292 Chair: A champion of localism

Dan Corry: I am. I'm a rare breed, perhaps, you might think, in the previous Government.

Q293 Chair: Mr Rickett?

William Rickett: I'm William Rickett. I was a Director General in the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I am now a company director and a consultant.

Chair: Thank you for being with us today.

Q294 Greg Mulholland: Good morning, gentlemen. I do apologise: I have to leave shortly after asking my questions; I have another engagement, but I hope you will forgive me. We just had a very interesting session with two junior Ministers, who resolutely made the case that we have exactly the right number of Ministers, which perhaps won't surprise you to know. The reality is that the number of Ministers has been rising over the last 100 years. Do you think that the current level of Ministers that we have—I say that obviously in the context of the current Coalition Government, but equally in the context of the last single-party Government—is the right number of Minsters and, if not, how many do you think we should have?

Dan Corry: My viewpoint on all this comes from sitting alongside the Secretary of State in quite a lot of Departments, and then in Number 10. So, it is looking down on it, rather than up from the junior ministers, so it might colour my perspective. I don't think on the whole that it is right to say that there are too many. The quality varies enormously. You sometimes have junior Ministers who, for one reason or another, the Secretary of State doesn't particularly trust or whatever, they don't give them much work to do, and it's all slightly pointless. You have some excellent junior Ministers who take a particular policy and run with it in a way that the Secretary of State never could. There is an amazing amount of parliamentary and party business that a junior Minister has to do. I find it hard to generalise. There have been Departments where it has felt like they've had junior Ministers sloshing about and they didn't have much to do; there are others where it seemed there were a lot of junior ministers, yet they were still very stretched. I don't know if it is still true, but it comes to my mind that BIS, when it got very big—all of higher education, industry policy and employment, and all the rest of it—had an enormous amount of Ministers. I suspect it still does, but it was hard to say that they weren't all doing something useful.

William Rickett: As your previous witnesses said, you'd be quite hard pressed to find a Minister who wasn't very busy. Certainly, there are certain aspects of their workload that has been growing over the years: EU work, international work, much more attention to the media—those sorts of things—what they awfully call "stakeholder management" has grown too. There are a lot of Ministers that are very busy. The question is whether they need to be that busy and whether they are achieving anything. There are some aspects of the way Government has developed that, I would say, probably reflect some inefficiencies. There is now a tendency to insist on a constant flow of events and what are called "announceables"; to publish ever-longer documents, at ever-shorter intervals; to legislate ever more frequently; to move Ministers around more frequently; and change the structures of Departments more often. Those all add to the activity and workload of Government in a not very effective way. They are part of wider cultural issue, which I can talk about if you like.

What I am saying is there are lots of busy Ministers; you need to look at whether they are doing things that they need not do. The argument that we're going to cut 25% to 30% out of the running costs of Departments suggests that one ought to look at what Ministers are doing because they should be taking a lead in reducing the running costs of their Departments. To cut 25% out of your Department's running costs implies that you are going to be doing less. So the question is: "Will Ministers be doing less?"

Dan Corry: I agree with a lot of that. My only concern is, as I say, having seen it as civil servant and then as a political adviser, that in a sense, if you cut down, the Civil Service would then be in charge of everything else. I'm sure the Department for Transport could probably get by with two, if you like: a Secretary of State and one Minister. Do you want that? Is that the right sort of thing to do? Could those two Ministers give a lead in all the areas? It comes back, a bit, to what the Ministers were saying about accountability earlier. I do agree with the point. Where you're going to cut a lot of civil servants in Departments, not to cut the senior team is a bit strange. It's not what's happening in the quangos that are being cut, or local government that is being cut, or all the rest of it. They cut the senior level directors and the absolute senior directors in the Department are the Ministers, so it's a bit strange not to cut any of them. But you have to be careful and look at the consequences if you do cut them.

William Rickett: It's dangerous to think that, if the Minister is not in charge of the subject, then the civil servants are. Ministers need to exercise strategic and political control over their Departments, not to do everything. They are always going to be delegating some functions to civil servants. They have to strike the right balance. I think in some cases, the balance goes the wrong way. I would just say, I'm not sure you're going to make very large savings in the numbers of Ministers, even if you cut out the inefficiencies and the ineffectiveness. The first thing in improving the effectiveness of Minister would be to have them in post for more than six months at a time.

Q295 Greg Mulholland: Can I ask you a question specifically Mr Rickett, if I may? Clearly, I'm sure, all civil servants have a view privately about Ministers that they work with and whether there is the right number of Ministers in a Department, but does the Civil Service ever offer advice within Departments—obviously confidentially—as to how many Ministers would be appropriate for that Department?

William Rickett: Yes. When there is a reshuffle going on, I'm sure Permanent Secretaries are regularly asked how many Ministers they think are needed. At the time of the creation of DECC, I was certainly asked how many Ministers I thought would be needed, but you offer advice, it gets fed into No. 10 and the answer comes out.

Q296 Greg Mulholland: You give advice. Does it get listened to?

William Rickett: Yes, I think so.

Q297 Chair: Do Departments tend to bid for more Ministers?

William Rickett: Not necessarily, because having too many Ministers can create problems—Ministers feeling that they haven't enough to do or that they must create some role for themselves; getting unhappy that they're not making an impact or having an influence. There are some dangers in having too many Ministers. I know Andrew Turnbull had a rule of thumb that you needed a Cabinet Minister, a Lords spokesman and a Commons spokesman, but that is a model for a small Department. I don't think it works for the large Departments you sometimes find yourself in.

Q298 Chair: In the present Administration, you're rather thin in Lords Ministers, to the extent that Whips are answering for whole Departments, and unpaid Ministers of State are standing in in the House of Lords because we've put so many Ministers in the House of Commons. Do you have a thought about that?

William Rickett: I'm aware that one of the themes of your inquiry is whether you should be using the Whips more to deal with parliamentary business. From a Civil Service point of view, it is much harder work briefing a Whip than briefing a Minister, simply because you have to put more effort into it, understandably. Also, it does seem to me to be watering down Parliamentary accountability.

Q299 Robert Halfon: How would you divide up the ambassador role of the Minister, the salesman role, the parliamentary work and the decision making that they have to do?

William Rickett: It will vary from post to post. If you're the Minister responsible for European and international energy issues, you'll be spending an awful lot of time either in Brussels or in Cancun or wherever dealing with international business. You may find yourself hard pressed to make enough time for Parliamentary constituency and the strategic leadership you need to give the Department. It is quite difficult to generalise about what proportion you need to give to the various components of a role because they will vary from post to post.

Q300 Mr Walker: Reducing the number of Ministers is not all about savings. We mustn't bring it down purely to monetary terms. It's about the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. As you may have heard in the last evidence session, we now have in the region of 145 to 150 people who have ministerial or payroll responsibilities out of 350-odd. There are two different hares running here: on the one side, it's very expensive: it's about £500,000 to keep a Minister in position, even the most junior Minister. On the other side we also have this balance within Parliament. For example, it's not necessarily the case that we would reduce the number of Ministers in the Department for Transport because that's pretty important, but the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has four Ministers. It's impossible to imagine what they all do. Do you not think that there are some Departments that may be over­Ministered?

Dan Corry: I wouldn't deny that there may be. It does depend on what is happening at the time and so on. In that Department, for instance, if I look back on some of the days in the previous Government, you did need someone who was focusing all the time on sport. Depending on who the Secretary of State was, to be honest, sometimes they were interested in one aspect of the job, and sometimes not. There was all that kind of tourism stuff. You have to have someone in the House of Lords in your team. It can be a slight problem because the Commons are not getting at them in the same way. I'm sure there will be times—and this may be a time—when you could take DCMS down to three. As William said, it's not going to transform the world or anything like that. I don't think it would transform the sort of balance that you're talking about and having such a big payroll vote. Of course, you should always look at these things. Picking up the question before, certainly whenever we were looking at potential machinery of Government issues there was always a good look at how many Ministers would be required if you did that. Could you save some? Could you not? People were always looking at that sort of thing. Obviously, politics comes into it as well and sometimes Prime Ministers want to put an extra Minister in for political reasons, or party political reasons, and I'm sure that's happening today.

William Rickett: Of course you can reduce the number of Ministers, but to some extent it depends on taking a view about the workload too. There used to be a Department of Energy in 1991; it was abolished in 1992; we got rid of three of the four Ministers and ended up with a Minister of State in the Department of Trade and Industry. That was because of a view about the shrinking workload of the Department—we'd privatised a lot of the industries; we'd deliberately taken the view that energy was just another sector of the economy. That was a view taken then. Now, things have changed. Energy is now at the top of everybody's agenda. It requires a lot more political attention; the Government is intervening heavily in the market; it requires more Ministers. Whether it requires as many as it has, whether it needs to publish a White Paper every six months and have a Bill a year, whether every Minister has to appear at every media event or conference—those sorts of things are about, in a sense, the culture of the Government. At the moment, certainly when I was working in Government over the last ten years, the culture was very interventionist and very active. Lots of activity and lots of intervention; it's not surprising that the number of Ministers tended to rise.

Dan Corry: Can I just say something? In a sense, you get from what William is saying - and he's a terrific civil servant and there are lots of good civil servants who would say similar things - that they would rather the Ministers did not publish any White Papers; did not do any media.

William Rickett: No, that is not what I said.

Dan Corry: I'm exaggerating, but you know what I mean. They think they do far too much. They don't really understand how much political work Ministers need to do. They need to be with their colleagues in the House. They need to be out in constituencies. They're not only on the road doing the road trip; they are also talking to local parties—all of that kind of stuff. It is always frustrating for civil servants that they are doing all this. In a world where, as you say, there are sometimes crazy White Papers, of course there are and so forth, but the rhythm of the way politics is today—maybe this Government will be different, but it isn't so far—means that that stuff will happen and the question is, "How do you manage it?" If you could have a different world, where there wasn't 24/7 media, people didn't say they have no momentum, we could say, "We're not going to publish a White Paper for two years in Education because we've set the policy. We're going home." That would be great, but who is going to have the nerve to do that?

Q301 Mr Walker: I have been on this Committee longer than—no, not longer than Paul. I have just begun to realise that the establishment is fantastic at looking after itself. Here we are, in the midst of the most swingeing cuts, and Ministers are going to sail along merrily, and there is no threat to their job from a reduction in Ministers, although they might be reshuffled out. Senior civil servants miraculously leave their positions and either end up being paid a fortune to sit in judgment on Members of Parliament or end up with these sorts of quasi-public sector jobs paying significant sums of money. Is it a legitimate concern that actually the establishment, senior civil servants and Ministers, is really in collusion to ensure that they're insulated from the cuts and the economic hardships that lie ahead? This is how it is beginning to look to me and I think it's beginning to look like that to a number of my colleagues on this Committee.

William Rickett: Go back to the 1990s, when the Government was reducing the size of Government; we cut 30% out of the senior structure of the Department of the Environment when I was the finance director there. I don't know that we cut the number of Ministers; I suspect we probably did. It's a question of political leadership. If Ministers are determined to reduce the size of the Civil Service, they're perfectly capable of doing so.

Q302 Mr Walker: It does seem staggering that almost every Permanent Secretary that leaves a department ends up in another quasi-public sector job paying significant sums of money: Sir Ian Kennedy on IPSA; we saw David Normington, who has now taken over the Public Appointments Commission. It just does seem that you have a remarkable afterlife; you're a bit like nuclear toxic waste; you just go on, and on, and on. That's not a personal attack against you, Mr Rickett.

William Rickett: All my posts are in the private sector, and that was a deliberate decision.

Q303 Mr Walker: You are to be applauded for that.

William Rickett: It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that every public sector post has been filled by a retired civil servant.

Q304 Mr Walker: No, but it does feel that many of them are filled by former Permanent Secretaries.

William Rickett: Well, they're clearly all filled on merit then.

Q305 Chair: Permanent Secretaries seem to have a role in their selection.

Dan Corry: Can I just raise one point? Willy went back to the 1990s, and there was a theory then that we'd have, it was all called Next Steps Agencies then, quangos, if you like; the idea that you pull a lot of stuff out of Departments and stick that in independent bodies. With that should have come less work for Ministers and so on. If that's true, we're now going the opposite way; the quangos being abolished and the stuff is all being brought back in-house, so that may have implications for the number of Ministers that you need.

Q306   Paul Flynn: About this idea that there is frenetic activity that goes on to give an impression of progress but achieves very little, could you tell me, either or both of you, the three greatest achievements by junior Ministers that you can remember?

Dan Corry: One I certainly remember in the early days of DTI was really seeing through the minimum wage. Labour had come to office with a commitment to a minimum wage, but the details were a massive issue. Ian McCartney was a terrific junior Minister who drove that through. So the Secretary of State, who had to worry about energy policy and trade policy, lord knows what else, had a junior Minister who got fantastic agreement to the extent that the minimum wage is now a consensus across all the parties—fantastic.

Q307 Paul Flynn: It was a political decision; it was part of the party programme, getting into office with a huge majority, so it was going to become law anyway, but it was done in a brilliant way.

Dan Corry: If you look at what it was in 1997, it just said that there would be a minimum wage and it would be agreed somehow between the partners. That was more or less all. Exactly what the rate was going to be; whether there was going to be a youth rate; a regional rate; what were you going to do about tips; what were you going to do about benefits in kind, there was an enormous amount of stuff and you had a terrific Minister of State driving that through.

Q308 Mr Walker: Who was that? McCartney?

Dan Corry: Ian McCartney

Q309 Paul Flynn: That's interesting. Can you think of great achievements by junior Ministers?

William Rickett: I spent a lot of time in the Department of Energy, which was a small Department in which the Secretary of State tended to take most of the decisions. That is to some extent still the case. I worked with Lord McDonald on the 10-year plan for transport, which he led and delivered and which I thought was an important step in producing a long-term framework for transport investment. I worked with Dick Caborn on one of the many reviews of the planning system that we've had, but which laid the groundwork for many of the subsequent reviews actually. Malcolm Wicks played quite an important role in the energy review of 2006.

Q310 Paul Flynn: You're provoking me with that final one. I did a bit on that one; I think Malcolm Wicks was brilliant in social security; I think he was completely lost on energy. That's your decision and probably civil servant-led. The impression we had this morning from two new Ministers who were highly active backbenchers was that their time was entirely filled—they would say they are very, very busy people—and now they have an additional job and they're still very, very busy people. How much of it was work that was being made to fill their time, rather than work that is essential?

William Rickett: There is a risk that junior Ministers become essentially parliamentary spokesmen, representatives at conferences, speakers at annual lunches, fodder for European Council meetings, representatives on UK trade missions and so on. This is not to belittle some of these functions. Some of those things are important and some of them are important in terms of the accountability of Government too. There is a sense, sometimes, in which the Secretary of State tends to take all the key decisions and tends to feel the need to be on top of all the issues because of the constant media exposure.

Q311 Paul Flynn: You mentioned the word, "announceables" in your evidence, a word I haven't heard before, and a lot of these are "re-announceables" or "re-re-announceables". Is part of the activity that's going on very much to do with public relations and Government presenting themselves in a way by artificially making announcements of no significance whatsoever?

William Rickett: Dan will say that they're an important part of promoting the political agenda and he will say that if I say something is a "pointless activity" I am speaking as a bureaucrat. To give you an example, every three or four months you receive a letter from Number 10; the last one, I remember, was headed "Summer Activity"; it said, "Can all private offices please ensure that there is constant flow of announcements and events throughout the summer recess? Will you please make sure you have at least one event every week?" My immediate reaction was that this letter should've been entitled "Pointless Activity" rather than "Summer Activity". I exaggerate and I caricature to make a point; there are some things that are features of our political system now that are not about efficient and effective Government from a bureaucrat's point of view.

Q312 Paul Flynn: This is part of Government that all Governments feel that they need this drip feed of adulation from the popular press and the insatiable beast of the 24­hour news?

Dan Corry: There is a bit of that, but for instance we're coming up to Christmas and I must say the Conservative party was always terrific at planning Christmas. They would have announcements just about every day. We were always useless in Government. Around this time, we would be saying, "We're either going to let the Opposition have a free hit in the press over Christmas or have we some things we can say?" You could sit back, same as over the summer, and just say, "We'll leave it to the Opposition." I would be very interested to see if the Coalition is not doing exactly the same. I agree the danger is that it leads you into little announcements that you weren't going to make anyway; if it's something that you were going to announce anyway and it's a reasonable announcement and you decide to bring it into the summer rather than leave it till October, which is very busy with all the party conferences, there is nothing wrong with that.

William Rickett: It's destructive of good policymaking.

Dan Corry: There is an ideal of policymaking, which, I probably would agree with Willy, would be lovely. It wouldn't have the society and culture that we have. Maybe we can get back to that at some point, but I don't think it's about to happen soon. I don't think you should make decisions about junior Ministers on the basis of a perfect world.

William Rickett: My argument is that the political system does have this feature. We have a very adversarial system in which there is a premium on knowing everything, so senior Ministers don't delegate anything. There is a premium on being seen to be active; the Government must do something, so you have lots of initiatives and announcements. It is a competitive culture in which Departments don't join up because they're all vying for attention. We now have this churn of Ministers and churn of Departments, and that leads to churn of policy and it means that not much attention is given to delivery. We also have a blame culture about this, so there is not enough learning that goes on. These seem to me to be aspects of the inefficiencies of the current political system. I'm not saying that it's the Ministers' faults or the Opposition's fault. It's just that, having watched it for 35 years, these seem to be some of the worst features of it.

Q313 Chair: Isn't our system in fact better than most systems in other countries?

William Rickett: I am exaggerating for effect. Good Ministers can ignore all these features. They can concentrate on the strategic issues and on getting things done and improving things, rather than on activity rather than achievement. Sorry, that was a bit of a rant.

Q314 Paul Flynn: Isn't true that some of the major changes carried out by any Government were between 1945 and 1951, when we had a Prime Minister who never read the papers except to get the cricket scores. We had the suggestion this morning that Chris Mullin was a rubbish Minister. Wasn't it the fact that Chris Mullin was probably too intelligent to be satisfied with the ministerial dross that was been handed to him as a work? He was critical of it. But most Ministers are happy to do the work and pretend it is something amazingly important.

Dan Corry: I think Chris Mullin was a good Minister actually. It's the same in any organisation; if you are bottom of the pile, you will get the stuff that nobody else wants to do. There will be a certain amount of that. I don't think that's to do with politics or the number of Ministers. If you only had three, the bottom person is going to get a lot of the rubbish that no one else wants to do. I heard the Ministers before saying that they thought there was no difference between a PUS and a Minister of State. I don't agree. Certainly, the way Secretaries of State see them, they see Ministers of State as very important to them and they want them to be driving an area of policy. Sometimes, the feed down to the PUSs is less good. Usually, they will have a bit of policy, where they can get their teeth into it, see if there is something they can do with it, and drive it. But they will be the ones having to do the dinners that no-one else wants to do. This is how it tends to work.

William Rickett: It varies.

Dan Corry: Most junior Ministers are not just doing garbage.

Q315 Chair: Not just doing garbage.

Dan Corry: Remember as well, there is some stuff that the parliamentary system churns out. Remember as well, it's your first step on the Ministerial ladder. A lot of them want to be seen to have done a decent job and to shine a little bit, and particularly to make sure that Number 10 is noticing that they're doing a jolly good job. That's very important to them. It's what a lot of politicians are in it for: to climb up the greasy pole.

Chair: We all remember David Mellor on the West Bank.

  Mr Walker: PPSs is the first step.

Q316   Robert Halfon: Going back to what you said about summer initiatives, I was a special adviser for an opposition member between 2001 and 2005. Of course we always did these Christmas and summer initiatives, and the reason is because you knew that if you didn't do it the other side would; a case of prisoner's dilemma, which is the nature of the political system that we live in. If you don't do, everybody says, "Oh, the Conservatives are doing nothing because they're all sunning themselves on the ski slopes," or whatever, and vice versa. I think the political system is part of the problem, and the media forces these pointless initiatives as everybody has to be seen to be doing something, when in reality they're doing very little. On the issue of the number of Ministers, isn't the real key point, actually, to get rid of Departments? We talked about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—that was created by John Major not so long ago. The Department for International Development and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—why can't these Departments be merged? In that way, you wouldn't have the numbers of Ministers. Are there any Departments that you feel could be got rid of tomorrow that wouldn't make a blind bit of difference?

Dan Corry: I would go with your instinct. But certainly the history of the Labour Government is not great on these mergers. We started off with DETR, with environment and transport and everything together. I then worked in its successor, when environment went, and it was DTLR. It only survived a year before it split up. Working in the DTLR area, transport never really wanted to be part of the rest of the Department, and they never did integrate, and they were very, very happy when they were on their own again. Those things didn't always work. You see the biggest problem in a Department like BIS, where the Secretary of State at the minute presumably is spending an awful lot of his time on the issue of tuition fees and probably can't be giving much attention to anything else that that Department does. People always used to play around with tourism; you could put tourism from DCMS back into DTI; you could probably put sport somewhere else. You can do things; you can break up DEFRA, you can put agriculture into BIS. You would lose a bit of focus, but I'm sure there is more room for some of that.

  William Rickett: I think this is wrong. The functions will remain there even if you move them around. So the Department for Culture, Media and Sport used to be the Department of National Heritage and a bit of DOE and a bit of something else. So you just move them around.

Q317 Robert Halfon: Yes, but hang on, what was before of the Department of National Heritage?

William Rickett: Well, the Ministry of Museums and Arts and Libraries or something. It was the Office of Arts and Libraries and then it grew into the Department of National Heritage by taking a chunk out of DOE.

Q318 Robert Halfon: It has got bigger?

William Rickett: No, it was just shuffling the deckchairs around in a different way to create different types of jobs and sometimes justifiably in response to changing political priorities.

Q319 Chair: At vast expense.

William Rickett: My problem with this is that it is extremely disruptive, it's very expensive and it tends to mean you get a completely new set of Ministers who then have to learn the job all over again. I was Director General of Energy for just under four years. I was probably in four different Departments by name, though I stayed in exactly the same place. I had four different Secretaries of State. I had probably three different Ministers of State. Energy is a complex subject. I wouldn't expect a civil servant to get on top of the subject in anything less than six months; it's unfair to ask a Minister to do that. If you then move him on after nine months, you've only three effective months as a Minister and then you have to start all over again, and each new Minister wants a new policy.

Q320 Chair: Are you in fact saying that if Prime Ministers didn't move their Ministers around nearly so much, then you probably wouldn't need as many Ministers?

William Rickett: I am saying that that is one of the efficiencies you could seek in the ministerial cadre: not changing the structure of Departments too much.

Q321 Robert Halfon: But before you had a Department for International Development it was all done in the Foreign Office, and Lynda Chalker was the Minister for Overseas Aid.

William Rickett: My point entirely.

Q322 Robert Halfon: Exactly; the world didn't come to an end. You can cut the number of Ministers by cutting these Departments and still do the same job.

William Rickett: You don't need to cut the Department. As long as you have Ministers who are on top of their jobs and are concentrating on achievement rather than activity, you ought to be able to cut the number of Ministers.

Q323 Chair: I think that's a very good phrase, "achievement rather than activity".

William Rickett: And I take your point; the political culture is about lots of activity and it's quite difficult to break out of that, but I happen to think that in the end Ministers who are only activity and no substance tend to get found out.

Q324 Robert Halfon: Can you name any?

William Rickett: No. I probably could, but I'm not going to.

Q325 Robert Halfon: Do you think the devolution by the Government of some power, like elected police commissioners, the Big Society stuff, will take away some of the responsibilities that Ministers currently have and therefore mean it's easier to cut the number?

William Rickett: I'm not sure that devolution or localism does reduce the burdens on Ministers. To give you an example, the devolution to Scotland and Wales created all sorts of interfaces that became quite complicated to manage. So where we decided we wanted to have decommissioning plans for nuclear reactors, the financial aspect of the plan was a reserved matter, because it was to do with finance; the environmental aspect of the plan, in other words the plan itself, was a devolved matter because it was an environmental issue. You get complicated policy issues that then need to be managed across boundaries and take up quite a lot of Ministerial time.

Q326 Robert Halfon: If you could take the Department of Health, they announced last week that they're going to have these public health local boards. So surely when an MP gets up in Parliament and he says, "I'd like to ask the Minister why such and such is suffering from obesity," the Minister can legitimately reply, "Well, that's nothing to do with me."

William Rickett: If the Minister is prepared to delegate authority completely, and to say, "It's nothing to do with me," then it ought to reduce the burdens on Ministers.

Q327 Robert Halfon: But isn't that the whole idea of the NHS Board and the public health boards and so on, so therefore you can cut the number of Ministers in the Department of Health?

William Rickett: In theory; I am just concerned that our political system will put so much pressure on Ministers to answer these things that they will find it difficult to do that, but yes. Yes.

Q328 Robert Halfon: If you go back to when Iain Duncan Smith was leader and he asked Tony Blair about the Rose Addis case in the Royal Free Hospital, I always thought—however much I enjoyed the politics of it at the time—that it was an absurd thing that the Prime Minister should know and be responsible for a tragedy in a hospital in North London.

William Rickett: Exactly.

Q329 Chair: Before you go on Mr Halfon, can I just point out that we used to have a Scotland Office with a Secretary of State, a Ministry of State and two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State. We still have a Scotland Office with Secretary of State and, I think, a Minister of State. Is there a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State as well? I can't remember. But that's in addition to the 18 Ministers, the ten Cabinet Ministers and the eight junior Ministers in the Scottish Executive. They can't all be doing absolutely essential jobs, or does the creation of an extra layer of legislative authority just create another 18 jobs for Ministers?

William Rickett: I think there's certainly scope for savings in the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offices; other witnesses have said this. You could have a Minister in the Cabinet Office with a constitution secretariat responsible for coordinating those sorts of issues. My point was slightly different, which is that devolution creates new political issues for UK Ministers.

Chair: It certainly does.

William Rickett: And sometimes they're very complicated and quite tricky to manage

Q330 Chair: And politically very difficult.

William Rickett: And politically very difficult. But you could certainly find savings in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices. I can see politically why people have found that quite difficult to do.

Q331 Robert Halfon: Going back to the Rose Addis point, surely the Minister should not be responsible for such statements and the fact that the Minister's time is spent in dealing with individual cases is completely absurd. If you took all that away, would it reduce the burden on Ministers and then subsequently the number of Ministers?

William Rickett: Yes, well, that's what I was trying to get at. The best way to approach this is to see how to reduce the burdens on Ministers and to reduce the pointless activity that I've caricatured it as, and you ought to be able to reduce the number of Ministers.

Q332 Chair: But that's the point about devolution, isn't it? You can no longer table a question about housing in Scotland, because it's a devolved matter and it's not a departmental responsibility in the UK Government and therefore it's not a question you can get an answer to? Shouldn't that also apply in local Government? If we believe in localism, Mr Corry, shouldn't it be possible for the standing orders of the House to be changed so that Ministers are actually no longer responsible for answering questions about the detail of how many cones are there on a particular local road or whether schools are being operated properly by a local authority? Because an individual school is a matter for local authority, not a Government Minister.

Dan Corry: Except if the school policy is heading towards every one being an academy and essentially bypassing the local authority and being funded directly from the centre, then the Minister does have responsibility. So I think it depends how localism works out, and you're right: eventually, particularly if local authorities were raising their own money, so they were making their own decisions and they were allocating money, then it's a matter for them to answer for what's going on in their area.

Q333 Chair: So it's about money?

  Dan Corry: Well, it's about how much you genuinely have empowered local decision makers and therefore it's for them to answer for the decisions they've made, or whether they were restricted because they had to make some decisions because they couldn't decide to raise more money or whatever. So that's the funding issue. But it's also the politics; you make a very good point about Prime Ministers answering for particular incidents in a locality, and when we get to the place where the Prime Minister, when asked this—if they're allowed to ask the question—says, "It really is nothing to do with me," will the public say, "Absolutely"? Will the press say "Absolutely"? The Prime Minister will be wondering that as well. When we've got to the moment they can do that, and everyone says, "Of course it's nothing to do with him, absolutely right," then we will be able to remove some of the Ministers and so forth. I don't know how long it will take us to get there. We're a country that has always seen the world through a rather sort of national prism.

William Rickett: Probably better to say that is the responsibility of the local health board, rather than that it's nothing to do with me, but still.

Dan Corry: People want someone they can vote out. The health board isn't elected. It may be different with councils, mayors and elected police commissioners, but you can't vote the public health board out if you don't like it.

Q334 Mr Walker: Just quickly, we have Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland—there's six Ministers there. Why can't we have a Secretary of State for Devolution and three Ministers of State for each of the countries? That's two savings straight away. I just cannot fathom why that isn't the case. But isn't it also the reality that we say, or some people argue, that Ministers are enormously important and do a fabulous job, but really outside the most senior appointments, the Prime Minister had no interest in it whatsoever. He will be guided and advised by the Chief Whip who is trying to balance factions within parties. It's upwards; it's up or out and really the Prime Minister just doesn't care, which does to me suggest that the role of Ministers or the role of the full 95 Ministers we currently have is actually not that important. David Cameron probably would be hard pressed to name 50% of the people.

  Chair: I think he would. I don't agree with that. He would name every one of them.

Mr Walker: Well, okay, he might know them, but he wouldn't have much to say about most of them I expect.

Dan Corry: I think it's certainly hard for a Prime Minister to know exactly what everyone's doing. In my experience they do care about who these people are, not least because if there's someone young from the backbenches and they hope they're going to be someone they can put in their Cabinet in a few years, they want to make sure they're in the right place doing a good job. If there's something they particularly care about—let's say they want to drive free schools or something—they want to make sure they have a Junior Minister, not only a Secretary of State, who they trust, who has the right views, and who's good presentationally. I think they do care about that. I agree with you on the devolution issue, because it's always been thought about in the past. You have to be very delicate when you remove a Northern Ireland Secretary of State and so on. It has to fit with what's happening on devolution. You have a lot of sensitivities in Scotland and Wales on these things, but at some point that clearly should happen. You could probably get it down to even less than you've just said.

Q335 Mr Walker: But how can we argue that Prime Ministers care about the majority of their Ministers, given that earlier in your evidence session we talked about how the average life expectancy of a Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet Office under the last Government was less than a year. Clearly Prime Ministers don't really care about their ministerial corps because if they did we wouldn't get these enormous levels of turnover.

Dan Corry: The turnover doesn't happen because they don't care. Turnover happens because somebody resigns on you. They do. Maybe this Coalition will be different.

Q336 Mr Walker: That is part of it.

Dan Corry: Well, it does happen. I'm sure it will happen in this Government. Or somebody has to resign because of a scandal, and then do you just put someone up; do you move some people across? Are you trying to keep a balance? I suspect this Government has quite a careful balance of Coalition partners in each Department they have to keep more or less okay. So it's not because you don't care, I think.

  William Rickett: I'm not quite sure what the Prime Minister's care or lack of care about a Minister has to do with whether their job is worthwhile or not.

Q337 Mr Walker: Because he's not really interested. At the end of the day he's not really interested. He's not really interested in whether someone is doing a good job or not. The primary motivation of a Prime Minister is to balance out the factions within the party. That is why, as Paul Flynn—who is no longer here—said, he had very good Ministers moved.

William Rickett: He will certainly care about it if it becomes an important political subject; the Minister concerned is in the public eye or whatever. It's like any large organisation: the Chief Executive needs to take an interest in who he appoints to do a job, but will care more about those who are in the front line of any particular hot issue than he will about the others, I would have thought. But I'm not quite sure what that's got to do with the workload on Ministers.

Chair: We have five minutes left.

William Rickett: Okay. Sorry.

Chair: Do you want to talk about Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries?

Robert Halfon: Okay. Can I just ask this?

  Chair: Yes, certainly.

Q338   Robert Halfon: In your experience how many ministerial appointments are down to patronage as opposed to merit?

Dan Corry: I don't think it's so much patronage, but there's an attempt to balance, and there certainly was in the Labour Government. The balance would be partly broad church within the party; partly be a North-South regional thing; it would partly be a gender thing. So you'd get quite a lot of that. So sometimes there'd be someone you'd think, "What on earth are they doing in that Department? They're not that great or they don't know anything about the topic."

Q339 Robert Halfon: But would you say the majority has patronage?

Dan Corry: No, most of the people are done because they're good, and the trouble when you've been in Government for a long time is that you have a lot of people who have come up through the system who have gone for one reason or another, and it starts getting a bit thin.

Q340 Chair: We heard two very hard­working, extremely strong character Ministers earlier this morning, who clearly feel that if there were fewer Ministers in their Department they would be very hard pressed. Do you understand their situation?

Dan Corry: I do. I agree with Willy that some of what's making them hard pressed is stuff that he thinks they shouldn't be doing. But I remember at DTI we always used to think, "Should anyone go the Chemical Industries Association Annual dinner?" and first of all "Should it be the Secretary of State? And if so why? And if not, should it be a Junior Minister and how Junior? And why are we going at all?" In the end, you usually decided that they would be deeply unhappy if nobody went. They felt the connection with Government, which was quite important if you went, would help communications over the next year.

Q341 Chair: So it's a PR exercise.

Dan Corry: The civil servants always pushed for the Ministers to go to these things because that helped them over the next year; our chemicals division or whatever it was could have a much better relationship with that sector because they'd got the Ministers to the dinners and so forth. I agree with Willy in a sense; some of those things are completely pointless.

William Rickett: Depending on the Minister, to be perfectly frank.

Dan Corry: They're pointless in a policy sort of way, which is what he's talking about, and therefore if the Junior Ministers that you spoke to before didn't have to do those they'd have a lot more time.

Q342 Chair: As a politician who sometimes goes to those sorts of things, you tend to learn a lot of things from people who speak to you informally that you wouldn't get by sitting in your Department and being briefed by the Civil Service. So it cuts both ways, doesn't it? So you need Ministers to be able to do those things. Do you agree with that Mr Rickett?

William Rickett: Yes, I do. I don't think civil servants recommend these things because it helps them. Well, it depends.

Q343 Chair: Well, it gets them out of the house.

William Rickett: Sometimes it didn't help. But let's put it that way.

Q344 Chair: I met one Minister of State who became a Transport Minister—actually Michael Portillo—and the first thing he did is clear the diary, because his predecessor did nothing but go on train journeys and look at motorways, and Mr Portillo decided he wanted to sit in the Department and actually do some policy and make some decisions.

William Rickett: I do think it is very important for Ministers to manage their diaries properly because there is otherwise a tendency for the civil servants to say, "Well, we can't think of any reason why you shouldn't accept this appointment." My concern was that the Civil Service wasn't very good at saying, "No, this is a complete waste of time."

Q345 Chair: So the final question is: what will be the consequence if the House of Commons said, "Sorry Government, you are going to have decide how to cut the cloth with 10% fewer Ministers in the House of Commons." That doesn't prevent them from appointing more Ministers in the other place; it doesn't prevent them from perhaps saying, "Well, we need to have more special advisers"; it doesn't prevent them saying all sort of other alternatives, but it reduces their patronage in the House of Commons. What would be the consequences?

William Rickett: I think if the House is prepared to put up with Whips, as you were talking about earlier with the Ministers, doing some of the adjournment debates and so forth, then there's a sort of deal to be done, but are they?

Q346 Robert Halfon: Can you get rid of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and just have Ministers of State? Do you need Parliamentary Under-Secretaries?

William Rickett: I think that junior Ministers are junior Ministers. In a big Department you may find a distinction between a Minister of State dealing with a big area that the Secretary of State has actually effectively delegated, whereas in a small Department they're all much of a muchness. In Transport, Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretary seemed to me to be much the same.

Q347 Robert Halfon: Yes, they said it was exactly the same.

William Rickett: But in the Department of Trade and Industry, when the Secretary of State was focusing all his time on energy, he would leave someone else to do employment law or competition law or regions or whatever, so they did have more of a real role and a delegated role. Parliamentary private secretaries seem to have grown in numbers. I'm not quite sure why. You could make more use of Whips. I think if you did just cut arbitrarily Ministers would just have to look at it Department by Department.

Q348 Chair: But wouldn't it actually be better if Whips were more involved in policy decisions in their Department? Obviously, they're meant to listen to backbenchers and feed in what backbenchers are feeling, and if they were more involved and answerable for policy in the Department, that would improve accountability.

Dan Corry: In my experience they often were involved in key decisions.

Q349 Chair: Most Whips are perfectly capable of answering an adjournment debate, not just reading a speech. That's up to them, isn't it?

Q350 Robert Halfon: Sorry, conversely to this argument of getting rid of Ministers, if you increased the numbers of Ministers, the workload presumably wouldn't decrease. As I said earlier, it would be just like a motorway, where you increase the lane and the traffic carries on in the same way as before. Would you say that's correct?

William Rickett: Well, actually, just like a motorway it might induce some extra traffic, because, when wondering who to send to the Chemical Industries Association dinner you might say, "Well, Bloggs can go because they have nothing much else to do."

Chair: So we can't have a predict and provide policy for Ministers.

Q351 Robert Halfon: If we had five Ministers in transport, they would all sit here saying the same thing: that they're working day and night. It wouldn't actually cut the workload, because the amount of Ministers, does not necessarily decrease the amount of work.

  William Rickett: Well, there's always a slight tendency for organisations to create work the more people you put into them, so I think it probably would create more work to create more Ministers.

Q352 Mr Walker: Just going back to this painting by numbers on ministerial appointments, I can think of two perfectly nice women: Joan Ryan and Sally Keeble. The Labour party had real talent languishing on its backbenches, and Joan Ryan and Sally Keeble, by common consent, did not cut the mustard as Ministers, and yet someone like Dr Tony Wright, who would have been a most effective cabinet Minister, never even got a sniff of Ministerial office, so to pretend that this is anything really to do with talent is a bit disingenuous, isn't it?

Dan Corry: Well, without going into individuals and all the rest of it, of course it's not totally that people are ranked on talent and the best ones get in. You guys are working in politics; you're not working in some sort of neutral place. But in general, I would say on the whole the cream does come to the top.

Q353 Mr Walker: You haven't sat in the House of Commons for the last five years.

Dan Corry: I didn't say in the House of Commons.

  Chair: Anything else to add? Gentlemen thank you very much. It has been a very interesting discussion for us and the quality of the discussion extremely high. Thank you very much indeed.

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