2 Ministerial Functions |
7. Ministerial functions are several. Some occupy
a considerable amount of time. We are in no doubt that ministers
are busy, more so now than before despite an increase in numbers.
However, activity needs to be distinguished from achievement.
Effectiveness also needs to be distinguished from efficiency.
Ministers may achieve desired outcomes but not necessarily by
employing optimum resources. Activities that are politically desirable
also need to be distinguished from essential tasks. The two are
not mutually exclusive but not all tasks deemed desirable by ministers
are necessary to fulfilling their essential duties. Our aim is
to identify the core tasks of ministers - those that ministers
have to fulfil and which cannot be carried out by others - and
how those tasks may be fulfilled efficiently. This, we believe,
is the means of delivering on the Prime Minister's goal of achieving
more with less.
8. Over the course of this inquiry we were left in
no doubt that ministers are kept extremely busy by their jobs.
Mike Penning MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the
Department for Transport (DfT), described his typical day as starting
at 5:30 am and finishing around midnight.
Norman Baker MP, another junior minister at the DfT, commented
that he had been "quite surprised by the amount of work
that there is to do as a minister".
Chris Mullin, a former minister, told the Committee that there
was "no shortage of work";
while Tony Baldry MP, another former minister, commented that
he did not think "there was any time when one wasn't working
as a minister pretty hard."
9. However, it was less clear whether they were always
spending time on activities that needed to be performed by a Minister
of the Crown. For example, in his diaries Chris Mullin makes it
clear that he believed that he was having little impact upon policy
during his time as a minister and that many of the tasks delegated
to him were trivial:
The number of letters awaiting signature after my
absence is so large that overflow is housed in two large cardboard
boxes on the floor of my office [...] That's all I am really,
a glorified correspondence clerk.
To Birmingham, ostensibly to open the International
Water Exhibition [...] in fact the exhibition had been open a
couple of hours by the time I arrived [...] So much ministerial
activity is entirely contrived and pointless.
This was a view that he repeated when he appeared
to give evidence:
There is [...] a certain amount of pointless activity
that could be cut out [...] I think there has probably been an
increase in pointless activity.
10. Jonathan Baume, the General Secretary of the
FDA, told our previous
Committee that he was aware of cases where civil servants had
been required to create projects to occupy junior ministers.
The more junior ministers you haveand we have
more junior ministers than everthe more work you have to
find for them [...] one of the biggest single frustrations about
the political process within the civil service is just the number
of junior ministers you have and the work projects that have to
be designed and engineered at a political level.
11. We asked Sir David Normington, then Permanent
Secretary at the Home Office, if he had ever had to create work
for a minister to keep them busy. He diplomatically answered "not
in recent times."
The Rt Hon Peter Riddell, senior fellow at the Institute for Government
(IfG), also mentioned that senior civil servants he had talked
to considered "that they certainly have too many Under-Secretaries
and they could normally volunteer at least one" that
could be dispensed with.
Too much to do?
12. The challenge we therefore posed to our witnesses
was exactly which ministerial activities could be curtailed. What
exactly constitutes this pointless activity identified by Mr Mullin?
Was he correct in describing it as pointless? If so, how can we
ensure that ministers do not participate in it? We focused on
junior ministers as they were subject to the majority of negative
comments, as most of the "pointless activity" seems
to be delegated to them. In addition, if there is going to be
a reduction in ministerial numbers those reductions are likely
to be made from amongst the junior ministers; reducing the number
of Secretaries of State would require making substantial changes
to the machinery of government.
13. We received a number of suggestions of what activities
ministers could stop doing including:
i. Spending too much time acting as a departmental
ambassador - giving speeches at conferences, receiving delegations
and making visits.
ii. An excessive amount of media work. It was
suggested that greater use of official spokesmen could be made
to reduce the demands placed on ministers by this activity.
iii. Certain parts of ministers' parliamentary
duties were also highlighted as being a less than optimal use
of ministers' time. Chris Mullin commented that "the demands
on ministers from Parliament have greatly increased in recent
years" singling Westminster Hall out for particular attention.
unnecessarily involved in attempts to run their departments. Lord
Rooker said that he thought many ministers were under the impression
that they were there to manage their department, when they were
supposed to govern it to change the way the ministers interact
with their departments and the type of decisions that they take.
may be unfair to characterise these activities as "pointless".
For example giving speeches at conferences, one of the most frequently
cited examples can help maintain a good working relationship with
key interest groups by going to these events.
However, it illustrates how there will always be greater demands
on ministers' time than can possibly be met; therefore it is necessary
to prioritise how this time is spent. For example, Tony Baldry
MP described his various junior ministerial positions he held
as involving "project
management [...] doing electricity privatisation",
and a "a four-year stint in the Department of the Environment
[ ... doing] process management. As a junior minister you were
involved in making everyday decisions that had to be made in relation
to local government or to government agencies."
There is no doubt that, for example, managing the privatisation
of the energy market is an important task that needs to be done.
The question is whether it is appropriate or necessary for a minister
to do it?
15. The impression these accounts provide is one
where ministers are too involved in the day-to-day running of
their departments; take too many relatively minor decisions; and
engage in numerous activities that could be delegated to others.
One unidentified former Lords minister has said that:
I made more decisions in the first week [as a minister]
than I did in two years as [head of a large organisation].
This draws their focus and energy away from their
primary objective, providing leadership and setting the overall
policy of their departments. As Lord Norton described it ministers
should "focus on what is strategically important, rather
than just getting through the paperwork".
16. This is not a new phenomenon. In his book, "How
to be a Minister", Gerald Kaufman drew attention to the
constant stream of invitations that a minister receives:
Even if they disagree with your government's policies,
every trade association likes to have a ministerial representative
to grace its lunch or dinner. So you will be constantly invited
to be guest of honour at the annual lunch of the Concrete Mixers'
Benevolent Association or dinner of the Guild of Roof Tiling Employers.
The impact of such unnecessary work was essentially
acknowledged in Gerald Kaufman's advice as to what to do with
the avalanche of invitations: "Reject them all.".
17. Similarly Lord Hennessy argued in "The
Hidden Wiring" that the burden of unnecessary work on
ministers makes them less efficient and can cause them to make
If nothing is done [about ministerial workload ...]
the efficiency of Government [...] will continue to suffer [....].
As they say in social services world, these people need help,
and as so often in life, they are the last ones to realise it.
18. The impression that ministers' time is poorly
spent has been reinforced in a report by the Constitution Unit
on the experience of ministers who were appointed from outside
Parliament ("outsider ministers"). This found that:
Almost all outsider ministers interviewed thought
that traditional understandings and expectations of ministerial
office had become outdated. For a start, it involved outmoded
ideas about what any one individual could realistically handle.
All outsider ministers registered concern about the amount of
work a junior minister was expected to do. "It was the most
exhausting job I'd ever done. It was relentless", said one
former businessman and outsider.
One Minister interviewed felt that this was caused
by "the lack of clear lines of delegation." All
outsider ministers who were interviewed during this research project
thought that the role of a minister should be limited to strategic
direction, rather than being a "jack of all trades".
[Ministers] shouldn't get involved in running the
department. I think there should be a much clearer cut of responsibilities:
permanent secretaries should run departments and ministers should
deal with policy. Otherwise it's hopeless. Very few ministers
have ever run anything. There is no way you're going to convert
them into good managers.
Another stated that what was needed was a rethink
of what it meant to be a minister and that "Governments
need to be more honest about the capacities of the Executive."
Lord Smith of Finsbury, former Culture Secretary, has gone on
the record saying that the amount of paperwork he had to contend
with was "plainly ludicrous" and that much of
this work often had to be done in the evening due to the number
of appointments he had during the day. He commented that this
"was no way to run a life let alone a country
19. The number of decisions that ministers are currently
expected to make became apparent when current ministers gave evidence
to us. Mike Penning MP said that he was involved in both decisions
that "are hugely important to the country" and
"really small decisions, really quite small decisions."
However he emphasised that even these small decisions could "impact
around the country" and that it was important that these
decisions were taken by junior ministers.
What should ministers do?
20. The question we therefore have to answer is what
should ministers do. What is their proper role? There have been
many academic accounts of what ministers do. For example, the
Constitution Unit report on outsider ministers contains the following
table describing the different skills and roles that ministers
are conventionally expected to fulfil.
Table 1: The Skills and Roles of a Minister
|Understanding the policy-making process
||Leadership in the Department
||Negotiations with other Departments/ Cabinet
||Briefing media, giving radio and TV interviews
|Setting clear strategy, objectives and priorities
||Setting budgets and controlling expenditure
||Handling relations with governing party
||Meeting and negotiating with interest groups
|Approving green and white papers.
Approving govt bills and delegated legislation
|Signing off major contracts (IT projects, defence procurement)
||Parliament: Answering questions; replying to debates; taking bills through; appearing before Select Committees
||Meeting with general public
|Reviewing policy, internally in the department, or with external partners
||Industrial relations negotiations (e.g., prison service, Civil Service pensions)
||Intergovernmental and EU negotiations
||Explaining and defending government policy
| ||Departmental case work (immigration, planning appeals etc)
|| || |
| ||Sponsoring NDPBs and Executive Agencies
|| || |
However, these accounts have tended to be more descriptive than
evaluative; focusing on what ministers spend their time doing
without directly addressing how they should spend
their time. Therefore, we have formulated our own account of what
we believe the proper role of a minister is. These functions can
be grouped in terms of the bodies with which ministers have a
relationship: Government, Parliament, and the public.
21. Within Government, a minister especially a Minister
of the Crownfulfils three key tasks. The first is to set
policy priorities. This is their primary function. Ministers are
responsible for setting the policy and providing leadership to
their department to ensure their objectives are met. Once policy
is set it is the job of civil servants to ensure that the outcomes
are delivered. This function of ministers has been made particularly
clear by the existence of a Coalition Government. The two parties
agreed a programme for government and then ministers, within their
own departments, created business plans which set out how they
would be delivered.
22. This does not mean that when policy has been
set the minister will have no further involvement with it; the
implementation of policies can be as politically sensitive as
the policy decision itself. It is not possible to draw a line
through the policy process after which no more ministerial involvement
is required. The process of designing and implementing a scheme
can raise issues that require a minister to make further political
judgements. In such a situation, civil servants should present
ministers with a range of options about how the policy could be
implemented, the minister should make a decision and then the
civil servants act on that instruction.
23. The second function that a minister must perform
within government is to negotiate on behalf of their department,
in cabinet committees, in bilateral meetings and in formal meetings
of the Cabinet, as well as with the Treasury about their spending
programmes. The classic study of British Cabinet Ministers by
Bruce Headey found that these two tasks being able to take
a view and to fight departmental battles within governmentwere
those that civil servants looked to ministers to fulfil.
Ministers must also represent the UK at inter-Governmental meetings,
such as the EU Council of Ministers.
24. Thirdly, ministers must also ensure those charged
with running the department, their senior civil servants, are
able to do so, but they should not personally manage the department.
We welcome recent decisions to have Secretaries of State chair
their departmental boards and to have junior ministers as members.
Setting strategic direction at board level, thereby setting the
overall objective of an organisation, is the right focus for ministerial
effort, rather than attempting to micromanage the department.
Once policies are decided and priorities are set it should be
possible to delegate implementation to civil servants and agencies.
The guidance and strategy that ministers have provided should
be sufficient to enable civil servants to make these decisions.
Answering to Parliament
25. Ministers must also discharge certain duties
in Parliament. They must be accountable to the legislature through
answering oral and urgent questions, opening and responding to
debates and appearing before select committees. Ministers must
also explain and justify their legislative proposals as they go
The public face of Government
26. Acting as the public face of Government is an
important ministerial function. Ministers need to get outside
their departments and meet a wide range of stakeholders to ensure
that their policy decisions reflect the reality on the ground;
and to guard against them getting captured by their department's
own agenda. Attending public events, while essential to ensure
that ministers keep in touch with the issues affecting the people
they serve, will necessarily compete with other demands on their
time. Ministers must prioritise the numerous demands on their
time to ensure that their energy is directed to where it is best
A NEW APPROACH TO BEING A MINISTER
27. We are arguing that ministers should be released
from their unnecessary duties to allow them to focus on their
core functions. David Laughrin, a fellow of the Public Leadership
Centre at Ashridge Business School, advocated ministers
focusing on a limited range of activities and policy options.
He argued that successful ministers need "focal intelligence"
which he defines as the ability to focus on an "insightfully
limited selection of policies related to what matters most now,
and in the future [...] and not to be distracted by the hubbub
of other traffic that will come their way". He draws
a comparison to the concept of 'Mission Command' in the armed
services where commanders:
Make absolute and unequivocally clear the strategy
and goals they are seeking to pursue. However, they will largely
leave the implementation and detailed work to others, except for
a few key topics and selective audit of broader effectiveness.
28. Achieving this will require a change in political
culture both inside and outside Whitehall. William Rickett, a
former senior civil servant, spoke of recent governments':
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.
He concluded that the key lesson was to concentrate
"on achievement rather than activity" which he
believed would be the most effective way to reduce the number
29. As Dan Corry, a former special adviser, emphasised
this situation is not solely of the Government's making. He thought
that pressure from the media to be seen to be doing something
meant the politicians felt obliged to come up with new "announceables":
If you could have a different world, where there
wasn't 24/7 media, [where] 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?
Lobbyists, businesses, charities and the media would
have to accept having reduced access to ministers, if we want
ministers to spend more time focussing on their core job rather
than creating "announceables". We believe that the current
set-up creates a vicious circle the more ministers focus
on ambassadorial work and making announcements, the more such
activity is expected of them and therefore the more time they
are forced to devote to these activities. It is not in the public
interest for ministers to be so media driven.
30. Having fewer ministers would help bring about
a new system of ministerial working. This seems to be the experience
of Lord Rooker when he was a minister in the Northern Ireland
Office before devolution. He said that the fact that there were
only four ministers with responsibility for all aspects of government
in Northern Ireland meant that officials were forced to "fillet
out the key strategic decisions that as a minister you really
had to do. So you didn't get all the minutiae that you got in
the Westminster Red Boxes. You were highly targeted."
Charles Clarke, former home secretary, has made a similar point
Civil servants need to be cleverer in getting ministerial
agreement to criteria for decisions to be taken under delegated
powers. Ministers needed to be cleverer at refusing to be seduced
into believing that they need to take every decision to know every
individual policy detail. The culture of ministers and officials
needs to be changed.
Government's drive to reduce public expenditure is forcing all
public servants to re-evaluate the way they work; ministers should
be no exception. Like the rest of the public service ministers
will have to find ways to do more with less. Currently ministers
engage in unnecessary activities and take too many low level decisions.
Some activities ministers engage in gain little from having a
minister conduct them and they could cease. This would provide
ministers with more capacity to focus on the important tasks and
provide them with the time necessary to give them proper detailed
consideration. ministers must focus on the key strategic decisions
that need to be made in their department. Having fewer ministers,
so that they have to prioritise on their core responsibilities,
could help bring about this change in culture.
32. One argument against reducing the number of ministers
has been that it undermines the doctrine of individual ministerial
accountability. If ministers take fewer decisions and focus on
a smaller range of issues this raises the question of who should
be held accountable for those decisions that ministers are no
longer making. Currently, the doctrine of ministerial accountability
means that ministers are formally accountable for all decisions
taken by their department. The Ministerial Code states that:
Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and
be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of
their departments and agencies.
The Minister in charge of a department is solely
accountable to Parliament for the exercise of the powers on which
the administration of that department depends.
33. The need for ministers to be accountable for
their actions was one of the main arguments made for retaining
the current number of ministers. Norman Baker MP argued that the
current number of ministers was essential "if you want
accountability and good decision making in Government".
Similarly, Mike Penning MP argued that if the number of ministers
was reduced this was likely to result in either overloading the
Secretary of State or having "civil servants taking decisions
that should be taken by ministers, which would be worse decisions".
34. The extent to which this doctrine is applied
in practice is questionable. Ministers are already answerable
for a great many decisions taken in their name by officials. As
our predecessor committee, the Public Service Committee, noted
in its report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility
in 1996, "Modern government is so complex, and a Minister's
functions so various, that ministers must delegate most of them."
They exercise what Professor Diana Woodhouse, Oxford Brookes University,
has referred to as 'explanatory responsibility',
explaining or accounting for the department's actions. Such responsibility
is often confused with culpability, or what Woodhouse terms 'sacrificial
responsibility'. The convention is as important for establishing
lines of authority within Government as much as it is a means
of identifying culpability for the actions of others. In the words
of Nevil Johnson, "it defines who is responsible for what
rather than who is responsible for whom".
It is the basis on which power has been vested in ministers on
an ever-increasing scale.
35. The popular perception of the doctrine is that
it ensures that a minister resigns in the event of a serious error
occurring within the department for which the minister is responsible.
However, this perception has little basis in fact in terms of
ministerial resignations. As the IfG note, "Ministerial
resignation due to departmental error has never been particularly
Lord Wilson, former Cabinet Secretary, agreed arguing that:
I do not think that the research bears out the statement
that Ministers resign when civil servants get it wrong. I think
it is about whether Ministers retain the confidence of their Back
Benchers and of the Prime Minister.
Ministers are as, if not more, likely to resign for
reasons of personal impropriety or disagreements over policy as
they are for departmental errors. The most recent example of a
minister resigning for departmental failing is Lord Carrington
who resigned as Foreign Secretary following the invasion of the
Falklands in 1982.
36. The distinction has variously been drawn between
policy errors and failures in the implementation of policy. If
an action by a civil servant is outwith a minister's policy direction
or something for which the minister cannot reasonably have been
aware, there is no obvious reason why the minister should do other
than account to Parliament for what has happened and ensure that
corrective action is taken ('amendatory responsibility', in Woodhouse's
terms). The distinction between policy and operational actions
is not necessarily watertight but it has a practical utility and
in large part may be taken to reflect the reality of departmental
37. For example following the Maze Prison escapes,
James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, declined
to resign following an inquiry which criticised "a major
failure in security for which the governor must be held accountable".
In the face of arguments that "the responsibility for
the administration of a Department remains irrevocably with the
Minister in charge", Prior stated that:
I do not think it right for the House to accept that
there is any constitutional or other principle that requires ministerial
resignations in the face of failure, either by others to carry
out orders or procedures or by their supervisors to ensure that
staff carried out those orders.
More recent examples of officials rather than ministers
being held accountable for errors of this kind might include:
Paul Gray, Chairman of HMRC, resigning following the loss of child
benefit data; and
Johnston McNeill, Chief Executive of the Rural Payments Agency,
who was sacked when the deadline for calculating Single Payment
Scheme entitlements was missed.
38. Reducing the number of ministers need not affect
the ability of ministers to be answerable to the House. As now,
senior ministers can deal with the broad issues of policy within
the department. Furthermore, ensuring that ministers discard tasks
that are not essential has the effect, if anything, of making
clearer those tasks for which they have responsibility. Other
matters can be dealt with not only by a smaller number of junior
ministers (particularly Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State
whose primary purpose, as their title implies, is dealing with
their departments' business in the House) but also, as we shall
suggest, by others, including whips. We believe that the recommendations
we make can be implemented without undermining the answerability
of ministers to Parliament and, if anything, may improve it.
39. However, and this is the more significant issue,
if the Government is to devolve responsibility for large areas
of public service delivery to a local level then it raises the
question as to whether there is a clear or compelling need for
ministers to answer for those decisions, other than in the event
of a chronic failure of those bodies to fulfil their tasks.
40. At a speech to the IfG the Deputy Prime Minister
It will take time to shift responsibility away from
our over-centralised, bureaucratic state. [...] Ministers standing
at the despatch box will continue to be held responsible for local
decisions over which they no longer have any control. This will
feel uncomfortable, to say the least: responsibility without power,
the curse of the decentralising Minister.
As the IFG notes this is a paradox. It raises questions
about the division of accountability and responsibility, and the
role of ongoing oversight shorn of the ability to influence. It
also questions whether it is practical to retain centralised accountability
for decentralised services, and what the implications of doing
so might be. This is not a new problem. In 1968 the Fulton Report
recommended an early and thorough review of the whole question
of Ministerial accountability in relation to the hiving off of
functions, but no such review was then carried out.
41. It is clear
that the Coalition's plans to devolve responsibility for service
delivery to a local level puts additional pressure on the convention
of ministerial accountability. Consideration may need to be given
as to whether the role of the minister becomes - in Woodhouse's
terms - one of 'redirectory responsibility', redirecting questions
from Members, rather
than one of day-to-day responsibility for decisions taken by local
42. This inquiry
has not identified a perfect solution to these questions around
ministerial accountability but one possibility would be for the
Ministerial Code to make explicit reference to "redirectory
responsibility" as a legitimate aspect of ministerial accountability
in the context of a more decentralised state. This would militate
against the contemporary practice in governments from all parties
to remain answerable for many functions for which departments
no longer exercise direct control.
43. The doctrine of ministerial accountability, as
we have noted, is important for determining the matters for which
ministers are accountable. If those responsibilities are shifted
elsewhere, then answerability for their exercise should also logically
transfer with them. Whereas ministers remain ultimately accountable
for executive agencies since these represent a hiving-off
of responsibilities within Government it is not
clear that they can and should be accountable for the decisions
taken by bodies that no longer fall within the responsibility
of government departments.
44. The current habit of grilling ministers and expecting
them to answer on every local detail militates against efforts
to devolve and to decentralise. If Parliamentarians continue to
ask ministers questions about issues that they are not, or should
not be involved with, it will encourage ministers to interfere
with these matters. Erskine May states that:
Questions to Ministers must relate to matters for
which those Ministers are officially responsible [...] It is not
in order in a question to ask for action to deal with matters
under the control of local or other statutory authorities, or
of bodies persons not responsible to the government [...]
Questions on matters which have been clearly devolved
to the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly
or the Scottish Parliament relating to the details of policy or
expenditure are not in order. 
45. The Procedure Committee recommended, in its Fourth
Report of the Session 1998-99,
"that, after devolution, the range and details of questions
to be put to the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales should
be reduced to matters relating to their Ministerial responsibilities."
They went on to say:
We believe that any reformulation of the rules about
i. recognise the fact of devolution, and limit
the range of permissible questions accordingly;
ii. provide guidance to Ministers about the matters
the House will expect them to deal with;
iii. avoid drawing Ministerial responsibility
so tightly that questions about the relationship between the devolved
legislatures and administrations and the United Kingdom government
or parliament are ruled out of order."
46. It would be open to the House to pass a resolution,
similar to that agreed on 25 October 1999 in relation to devolution,
limiting questions to subjects for which Ministers are responsible
following the devolution of responsibility for service delivery
to a local level.
47. We understand that, in the absence of any specific
instruction from the House, the Table Office would rely on its
interpretation of the relevant legislation and on the pattern
of answering established by Ministers to decide whether or not
a question was admissible.
48. We conclude that a three-part approach is needed:
i. Members recognise the difference Parliament
has made in passing the legislation and exercise self-restraint
in not tabling questions on matters for which ministers are no
ii. Ministers, in answering questions, respect
the new legal framework and decline to reply on matters for which
they are not responsible.
iii. The Table Office takes full account of any
legislation as well as the pattern of answering by ministers and
advises Members that questions on matters for which ministers
are no longer responsible are out of order.
Following the implementation of
the Government's proposals to devolve responsibility for public
service delivery to local communities we would invite the Procedure
Committee to re-examine the rules surrounding the content of Parliamentary
Questions to ensure that they reflect new realities about responsibility
and accountability for service delivery.
Ministers in a 'Post-Bureaucratic
49. The Government has repeatedly stated its intention
to promote the Big Society and respond to the existence of a post-bureaucratic
age by returning power to local communities in a whole range of
areas. The Coalition Agreement included a commitment to "promote
the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy
to local government and community groups."
On the same theme it promises to "support the creation
and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social
enterprises, and enable these groups to have much greater involvement
in the running of public services."
50. Speaking to civil servants last July the Prime
Minister spoke of government moving "into a post-bureaucratic
age". He set out his intention to turn government on
its head; taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into
the hands of people and communities. He wanted to give people
the power to improve public services through; transparency, local
democratic control, competition and choice. The Government is
advancing a public service reform agenda that emphasises greater
decentralisation in significant areas such as education, health
and welfare, with much greater power and responsibility being
vested with local communities.
Sir Gus O'Donnell expanded on this point; he said that the Prime
Minister's speech showed that in the future:
civil servants shouldn't think of themselves as being
responsible for delivering outcomes. That is one of the key things.
So I think this is the idea of localism devolving power and for
the civil servants to be helping the Coalition Government to set
up structures, and the politicians will be responsible for whether
those structures actually deliver the outcomes they want.
51. We intend to evaluate the concepts of the Big
Society and the post-bureaucratic age in a future inquiry. Here
we shall accept the Government's account and ask "If the
Government's vision for a post-bureaucratic age is realised, what
will this mean for the role of ministers?"
52. One of the often cited reasons for the expansion
of ministerial numbers in the post war period is that it coincided
with the Government taking on many more functions, most notably
as a consequence of creating the welfare state.
This implies that the degree of devolution of responsibility the
Government intends to embark on will provide an opportunity to
reduce ministerial numbers. Local authorities and community groups
will be given responsibility for the delivery of services and
ministers will shift their focus to creating the framework within
which these services are delivered. As a result ministers should
be directly responsible for less, and have fewer decisions to
53. We recognise that radical reform cannot happen
immediately. Ministers will be required to drive this transformation,
sometimes in the face of inbuilt opposition from the current system.
When Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP announced the creation of departmental
business plans he said:
We are keeping the number of ministers consistent
in order to ensure that we can impose political will on the machine
to get the fundamental reforms that give power out to the people
of this country.
Similarly, Rt Hon Francis Maude MP told us:
getting to a point where you have smaller Government
and big society requires a hell of a lot of stuff to be done.
54. There is a something of a paradox here and one
that works to the advantage of the Executive. Certainly after
these reforms have become embedded there would be no case for
maintaining the present number of ministers based on arguments
about the administrative needs of government. The Government has
already suggested that it might be open to reducing ministerial
numbers, although not immediately. During the debate on an amendment,
tabled by Mr Charles Walker MP, to the Parliamentary Voting System
and Constituencies Bill which would have reduced the number of
ministers, the Deputy Leader of the House said that:
It is likely at some stage in the future we will
reduce the number of ministers.
We very much welcome this acknowledgement that the
current number of ministers cannot be justified indefinitely.
Government has set out a radical agenda for the reform of public
services which focuses on decentralisation and moving responsibility
for service delivery to a local level. While ministers will be
required to implement these changes, a smaller centre that is
not directly responsible for delivery will require fewer ministers.
56. To realise
the Government's aspiration to reduce the number of ministers
we recommend that, following the introduction of these reforms,
the Government conduct a fresh review of ministerial numbers by
midway though this Parliament. We expect this review to identify
scope for significant reductions. If this does not happen we will
interpret this as a sign that the Government has failed in its
ambition to devolve real power and responsibility to local communities;
a central tenet of its Big Society agenda.
Ministers and departmental structures
57. At the start of this Report we recalled the Prime
Ministerial view that the public sector should be expected 'to
do more for less' in current straightened financial circumstances;
with most Government departments seeking 33% savings in their
administrative budgets. The ministerial ranks should not be exempt.
58. We asked our witnesses if they could identify
any ministerial jobs, or even entire departments which they thought
could be combined or abolished. However, Lord Norton commented
that the Lords Constitution Committee's Report on devolution had
recommended that the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Office
be merged into a single Department for Constitutional Affairs.
There is no reason why you need this separation because
most of the relationships with the different parts of the UK are
with the subject-specific Departments, not with the Scotland Office
or the Wales Office. There is no reason why they shouldn't merge.
It almost looked as if that would happen until [...] it was discovered
that the Secretary of State for Wales is mentioned in statute,
so you can't do it overnight.
59. A report which examined the role of territorial
secretaries following devolution found that "part of the
case for a merger [of the roles] is that the Secretaries of State
do not have enough to do", 
a fact the report said was already privately acknowledged in Whitehall.
The report describes the role of these Secretaries of State as
being essentially "liaison and troubleshooting",
a view which is supported by the Memorandum of Understanding between
the UK Government and the devolved administrations.
The Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland also have responsibilities within the UK Government
for promoting the devolution settlement, for ensuring effective
working relations between the Government and the devolved administrations,
and for helping to resolve any disputes which may arise.
60. Professor Hazell recommended a new set up involving
a Secretary of State and two junior Ministers "so that
there was still someone nominally from Scotland, Wales and Northern
and noted that successive Cabinet Secretaries had, since 2001,
suggested this to incoming Prime Ministers.
However, he recognised that such a reform would be politically
difficult and that "political fear that has prevented
this reorganisation [...] the fear of offending national sensitivities."
This reluctance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to "let
go of mother" at Westminster does not bode well for the present
61. Merging together these departments would not
involve a major reorganisation given the relatively small size
of the three respective offices. The most recent figures available
show that the Scottish Office currently employs 100 full time
equivalents (FTE), the Welsh Office 60 and the Northern Ireland
Office 110. This
change would save two Cabinet posts and one junior minister. It
would also enable devolution issues to be considered in the round,
rather than treating it as three separate bilateral relationships.
In addition, as the devolution settlements become more similar,
with Northern Ireland having recently gained policing and justice
powers and Wales having voted to acquire primary legislation powers,
the case for treating each separately is diminishing.
62. Another suggestion, made by Rt Hon Peter Riddell
was that the functions of the Department for Culture, Media and
Sport could be transferred to other departments following the
London Olympics. His argument was that the Department's spending
review settlement made it very difficult to see the long-term
survival of the Department: "Post-2012 there isn't very
much for it to do and it could be easily absorbed elsewhere."
Since these comments were made DCMS has been given additional
responsibilities for broadcasting and media, which may alter the
balance of the argument.
63. Chris Mullin questioned whether the position
of Deputy Leader of the House was necessary
although other witnesses thought the existence of the Coalition
might undermine the case for this post's abolition.
We will return to the issue of the Coalition and ministerial numbers
in Chapter 4. It has also been argued that the workload of the
Leader of the House is more than enough for one person. Furthermore
the role of the Leader of the House will need to be re-appraised
when the House Business Committee is created.
64. We recommend
that as departments adapt to meet the requirement for a reduction
of a third in their administration budgets, the continuing existence
of ministerial posts as well as those of officials should be within
scope of the restructuring plans. This should include examining
which departments could be merged together to reflect their decreased
responsibilities. Similarly, the Government's review of ministerial
numbers should focus on functions rather than posts. It is essential
to identify those tasks of Government which need to be fulfilled
and then allocate ministerial posts as appropriate to carry them
out. What must be avoided is the patronage-driven route of creating
posts and then allocating tasks to keep the office-holder occupied.
65. We also
recommend a serious look at the Whitehall Departments of State
for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (subject to the special
circumstances of the security consideration in Northern Ireland)
in particular to ensure that political structures in Whitehall
reflect and reinforce Parliament's clear intentions, expressed
in legislation, to devolve power and responsibility.
9 Q 212 Back
Q 211 Back
Qq 59 [Chris Mullin] Back
Q 57 Back
Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris
Mullin, (2009), p. 30 Back
Ibid. p. 37 Back
Qq 4-5 Back
The Union which represents senior civil servants. Back
Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on 12 March 2009, Session 2008-09, HC 352-i, Q 61 Back
Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on 16 November 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 601-i, Q 125 Back
Q 106 Back
Q 118 [Peter Riddell], Q 8 [Chris Mullin], Qq 9-10 [Lord Rooker],
Q 132 [Professor Hazell] Back
Q 22 Back
Q 13 and Q 14 [Lord Rooker] Back
Q 9, Q 131 [Mr Riddell] and Q 294 [William Rickett] Back
Q 341 Back
Q 11 Back
Dr Ben Yong and Professor Robert Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst
the Wolves: Appointing Ministers from Outside Parliament,
(London, 2011), p 34 Back
Q 130 Back
Gerald Kaufman, How to be a Minister (London, 1997 ed),
p 24. Back
Ibid. p. 24. Back
Peter Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring, (London,1995), p 171 Back
Ibid. p172. Back
Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, p 34 Back
Ibid. p 35 Back
Ibid. p 35 Back
Ibid. p 35 Back
"No way to run a life let alone a country" Guardian
Professional: Public Leaders Network, 17 September
2010, guardianpublic.co.uk Back
Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, pp 13-14 Back
Bruce Headey, British Cabinet Ministers (London, 1974). Back
David Laughrin, "Swimming for Their Lives-Waving or Drowning?
A Review of the Evidence of Ministerial Overload and of Potential
Remedies for It", The Political Quarterly, vol 8 (No.
3 July-September 2009), pp 339-350 Back
Q 294 [William Rickett] Back
Q 322 Back
Q 300 [Dan Corry] Back
Q 22 [Lord Rooker] Back
"No way to run a life let alone a country" Guardian
Professional: Public Leaders Network, 17 September
2010, guardianpublic.co.uk Back
Ministerial Code, paras 1.2 b and 4.6 Back
Q 278 [Norman Baker] Back
Q 278 Back
Public Service Committee, Second Report, Session 1995-96, Ministerial
Accountability and Responsibility, HC 313-i, para 11. Back
Diana Woodhouse, Ministers and Parliament (Oxford, 1994),
pp. 30-1. Back
Nevil Johnson, In Search of the Constitution (London, 1980
edn), p. 84. Back
Ibid. p. 84. Back
Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability Issues
Paper (London, 2010), para 9 Back
Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on 1 February 2011, Session 2010-11, HC 714-ii, Q 152 Back
Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability, para
HC Deb, 20 November 2007,
col 1102 Back
HC Deb, 16 March 2006, cols 104-105WS Back
Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability Issues
Paper, para 2 Back
Ibid. para 18 Back
Woodhouse, Ministers and Parliament, pp 28-9. Back
Erskine May, 23rd Edition (London, 2004), p
Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of the Session 1998-1999, The
Procedural Consequences of Devolution, HC 185 Back
Ibid. para 10 Back
Votes and Proceedings, 25 October 1999, p159 Back
HM Government, The Coalition: our programme for government,
(London: May 2010), p11 Back
Ibid. p 29 (emphasis added) Back
"The Prime Minister's speech at Civil Service Live event",
The Official Site of the Prime Minister's Office, 8 July
2010, number10.gov.uk Back
Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on 28 October 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 555-i, Q 61 Back
Public Administration Select Committee , Too Many Ministers?,
para 4 Back
HC Deb, 8 November 2010, col 34 Back
Evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee
on 27 July 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 397-i, Q 63 Back
HC Deb, 25 October 2010, col 132 Back
Q 135 Back
The Constitution Unit, Three into One Won't Go: The Future
of the Territorial Secretaries of State, (London: 2001), p
Ibid. p 15 Back
Department for Constitutional Affairs, Memorandum of Understanding
and Supplementary Agreements, Cm 4444, October 1999, p1 Back
Q 136 Back
Q 138 Back
Q 136 Back
"March 2010 Civil Service Statistics", Office of
National Statistics Statistical Bulletin , 19 November 2010,
Q 112 [Peter Riddell] Back
Q 54 Back
Q 55 Back