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


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.[9] 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".[10] Chris Mullin, a former minister, told the Committee that there was "no shortage of work";[11] 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."[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

10. Jonathan Baume, the General Secretary of the FDA,[16] 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 have—and we have more junior ministers than ever—the 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.[17]

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."[18] 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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21]

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.[22]

iv.  Getting 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. [23]

14. It 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.[24] 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."[25] 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].[26]

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".[27]

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.[28]

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.".[29]

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 poor decisions.

If nothing is done [about ministerial workload ...] the efficiency of Government [...] will continue to suffer [....].[30] 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.[31]

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.[32]

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".[33]

[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.[34]

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."[35] 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 [...]".[36]

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[37]

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.

Within Government

21. Within Government, a minister— especially a Minister of the Crown—fulfils 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 government—were those that civil servants looked to ministers to fulfil.[38] 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 through Parliament.

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 spent.


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.[39]

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.[40]

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 of Ministers.[41]

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?[42]

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."[43] Charles Clarke, former home secretary, has made a similar point arguing:

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.[44]

31. The 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.[45]

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".[46] 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".[47]

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."[48] They exercise what Professor Diana Woodhouse, Oxford Brookes University, has referred to as 'explanatory responsibility',[49] 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".[50] It is the basis on which power has been vested in ministers on an ever-increasing scale.[51]

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 prevalent."[52] 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.[53]

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 life.

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.[54]

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;[55] and Johnston McNeill, Chief Executive of the Rural Payments Agency, who was sacked when the deadline for calculating Single Payment Scheme entitlements was missed.[56]

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 said that:

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.[57]

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.[58]

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,[59] rather than one of day-to-day responsibility for decisions taken by local decision-makers.

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 [...]

It continues:

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. [60]

45. The Procedure Committee recommended, in its Fourth Report of the Session 1998-99,[61] "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 Questions must:

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."[62]

46. It would be open to the House to pass a resolution, similar to that agreed on 25 October 1999 in relation to devolution[63], 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 longer responsible.

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 Age'

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."[64] 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."[65]

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.[66] 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.[67]

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.[68] 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 take.

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.[69]

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.[70]

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.[71]

We very much welcome this acknowledgement that the current number of ministers cannot be justified indefinitely.

55. The 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.[72]

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", [73] a fact the report said was already privately acknowledged in Whitehall.[74] 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.[75]

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 Ireland"[76] and noted that successive Cabinet Secretaries had, since 2001, suggested this to incoming Prime Ministers.[77] 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."[78] This reluctance of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to "let go of mother" at Westminster does not bode well for the present settlement.

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.[79] 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."[80] 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[81] although other witnesses thought the existence of the Coalition might undermine the case for this post's abolition.[82] 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

10   Q 211 Back

11   Qq 59 [Chris Mullin] Back

12   Q 57  Back

13   Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin, (2009), p. 30 Back

14   Ibid. p. 37 Back

15   Qq 4-5 Back

16   The Union which represents senior civil servants. Back

17   Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 12 March 2009, Session 2008-09, HC 352-i, Q 61 Back

18   Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 16 November 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 601-i, Q 125 Back

19   Q 106 Back

20   Q 118 [Peter Riddell], Q 8 [Chris Mullin], Qq 9-10 [Lord Rooker], Q 132 [Professor Hazell] Back

21   Q 22 Back

22   Q 13 and Q 14 [Lord Rooker] Back

23   Q 9, Q 131 [Mr Riddell] and Q 294 [William Rickett] Back

24   Q 341 Back

25   Q 11 Back

26   Dr Ben Yong and Professor Robert Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves: Appointing Ministers from Outside Parliament, (London, 2011), p 34 Back

27   Q 130 Back

28   Gerald Kaufman, How to be a Minister (London, 1997 ed), p 24. Back

29   Ibid. p. 24. Back

30   Peter Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring, (London,1995), p 171 Back

31   Ibid. p172. Back

32   Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, p 34 Back

33   Ibid. p 35 Back

34   Ibid. p 35 Back

35   Ibid. p 35 Back

36   "No way to run a life let alone a country" Guardian Professional: Public Leaders Network, 17 September 2010,  Back

37   Yong and Hazell, Putting Goats Amongst the Wolves, pp 13-14 Back

38   Bruce Headey, British Cabinet Ministers (London, 1974). Back

39   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

40   Q 294 [William Rickett] Back

41   Q 322 Back

42   Q 300 [Dan Corry] Back

43   Q 22 [Lord Rooker] Back

44   "No way to run a life let alone a country" Guardian Professional: Public Leaders Network, 17 September 2010, Back

45   Ministerial Code, paras 1.2 b and 4.6 Back

46   Q 278 [Norman Baker] Back

47   Q 278 Back

48   Public Service Committee, Second Report, Session 1995-96, Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility, HC 313-i, para 11. Back

49   Diana Woodhouse, Ministers and Parliament (Oxford, 1994), pp. 30-1. Back

50   Nevil Johnson, In Search of the Constitution (London, 1980 edn), p. 84. Back

51   Ibid. p. 84. Back

52   Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability Issues Paper (London, 2010), para 9 Back

53   Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 1 February 2011, Session 2010-11, HC 714-ii, Q 152 Back

54   Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability, para 10 Back

55   HC Deb, 20 November 2007, col 1102 Back

56   HC Deb, 16 March 2006, cols 104-105WS Back

57   Institute for Government, Ministerial Accountability Issues Paper, para 2 Back

58   Ibid. para 18 Back

59   Woodhouse, Ministers and Parliament, pp 28-9. Back

60   Erskine May, 23rd Edition (London, 2004), p 348 Back

61   Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of the Session 1998-1999, The Procedural Consequences of Devolution, HC 185  Back

62   Ibid. para 10 Back

63   Votes and Proceedings, 25 October 1999, p159  Back

64   HM Government, The Coalition: our programme for government, (London: May 2010), p11 Back

65   Ibid. p 29 (emphasis added) Back

66   "The Prime Minister's speech at Civil Service Live event", The Official Site of the Prime Minister's Office, 8 July 2010, Back

67   Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 28 October 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 555-i, Q 61 Back

68   Public Administration Select Committee , Too Many Ministers?, para 4 Back

69   HC Deb, 8 November 2010, col 34  Back

70   Evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 27 July 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 397-i, Q 63 Back

71   HC Deb, 25 October 2010, col 132  Back

72   Q 135 Back

73   The Constitution Unit, Three into One Won't Go: The Future of the Territorial Secretaries of State, (London: 2001), p 8 Back

74   Ibid. p 15 Back

75   Department for Constitutional Affairs, Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements, Cm 4444, October 1999, p1  Back

76   Q 136 Back

77   Q 138 Back

78   Q 136 Back

79   "March 2010 Civil Service Statistics", Office of National Statistics Statistical Bulletin , 19 November 2010,  Back

80   Q 112 [Peter Riddell] Back

81   Q 54 Back

82   Q 55 Back


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