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

4  Ministers in a Coalition

80. The IfG's report on coalition government, United We Stand?, argues that junior ministers in departments where the Secretary of State is from a different party are facing an increased workload. This is because they act as "watchdog ministers", ensuring that the department's policies are acceptable to the coalition partner. Thus, it is argued, coalition governments mitigated against fewer ministers.

81. The report argues that "such ministers carry a heavy burden in providing a Liberal Democrat voice across the full range of departmental business, as well as leading on their own specific area of responsibility." It continues "Insiders confirm that Liberal Democrat ministers are facing greater pressures on their time as a result, but their more junior status entitles them to less support than that provided to secretaries of state."[106] These arguments seem equally applicable to departments where the Secretary of State is a Liberal Democrat and the junior ministers are Conservatives. This is a view that was echoed by Rt Hon Peter Riddell who stated that "Coalition governments tend to require more junior ministers".[107]

82. The report concluded that these junior ministers should be provided with more support both at an official level, but also in the form of special advisers to help with tasks that officials are not able to conduct. The report also recommended that additional Liberal Democrat ministers should be appointed in departments that currently have no Liberal Democrat representation. Currently Defra, DfID and DCMS as well as the Wales and Northern Ireland Offices have no Liberal Democrat minister.

83. Not all witnesses were convinced that it was necessary to have a Liberal Democrat in every department. Lord Norton noted that studies of coalitions had found that the stability of a coalition government was greatest when the proportion of ministers from each party reflect their strength in the legislature. He also thought that the fact there was not a Liberal Democrat in every Department would encourage greater inter-departmental working.[108]

84. We asked Norman Baker MP, the Liberal Democrat Minister in the Department for Transport, if he recognised the IfG's description of watchdog ministers. He said that he found this account "a bit patronising to Lib Dems to say that is what our role is. Our role in government departments is to behave as ministers do."[109] However, he went on to acknowledge that there did need to be a mechanism to ensure that the Coalition agreement was adhered to.

Clearly, there is a need to ensure that the Coalition agreement is not being broken, but the Secretary of State has said to me that he has been given the duty by the Prime Minister of making sure the Coalition agreement is delivered as far as the Department for Transport is concerned, and that's what he does.[110]

He also thought that the coalition set-up led to a more detailed consideration of new policies because "both parties have to be happy with an issue", and thought that this kind of more detailed process for developing policy would be a good way to proceed even if the governing parties were not in a coalition.[111]

85. The need to reconcile different viewpoints within Governments is not a challenge unique to the Coalition. There have often been conflicting ideas within Government, both from different departmental interests and different wings inside a single party just as the Coalition combines parliamentary parties. The mechanisms of Cabinet Government that already exist are designed to work through these differences when deciding Government policy, and they should be sufficient to deal with any challenges posed by having two different parties share power. This was reflected in Sir Gus O'Donnell's evidence when he said that the existence of a Coalition had served to reinforce the mechanism of Cabinet Government:

there have been a lot of Cabinet Committee meetings taking place, and coalition forces that because it's the way of—this word—coalitionising everything; to make sure it goes through a Cabinet Committee. In a coalition, I would predict we will have a lot more Cabinet Committee meetings.[112]

A Coalition cabinet committee has been created to "manage the business and priorities of the Government and the implementation and operation of the Coalition agreement", which is served by an informal Coalition Operation and Strategic Planning Group.[113] This demonstrates that mechanisms of cabinet government can be adapted to meet the challenges posed by coalition government.

86. Sir Gus O'Donnell also highlighted that the Coalition had not led to an end in intra-party disputes and that the mechanism of Cabinet Government was being used to resolved policy disagreement, whether they were between or within the two Coalition partners.

I think what we've found on a number of these committees—the Home Affairs Committee would be an example—is that there has been as much argument and challenge from members from within the same party as there has between members of the different parties. It's the process of coming to collective decision making.[114]

87. We are not persuaded by the argument that coalition government requires additional members. All parties are coalitions of different viewpoints so there will always be a need to reconcile different positions within Government when formulating policy. The normal mechanisms for cabinet government should be sufficient to deal with these challenges. The existence of the Coalition should therefore not provide any justification to increase ministerial numbers on the grounds of increased workload.

88. Studies that do argue that consultation and co-ordination between coalition partners is more demanding than under single party governments do not necessarily advocate an increase in the number of ministers. A comparative study of coalition found that in several countries that have experience of coalition Special Advisers and senior civil servants play an important role in managing the coalition. For example, in Scotland:

An important coordinating role is played by the small team of political advisers working to the two leaders, whose number was increased to facilitate coalition management.[115]

While in New Zealand:

Much of the coordination is undertaken by the political advisers attached to each minister. Advisers combine advice on subject policy issues with wider coalition management.[116]

One Special Adviser who was interviewed suggested that 60% of his time was spent on the latter.

89. Of the countries studied by this report only Denmark didn't have Special Advisers playing a role; instead senior civil servants play some role in relation to coalition management. With the report finding that "in the absence of a cadre of political advisers, senior departmental officials are also called on to provide more political advice for ministers, a role that becomes more acute when the government is a coalition or enjoys only minority status."[117]

90. Even if the Coalition does create additional work, this is not work that would justify the appointment of additional ministers. As studies of other countries with experience of coalitions has shown, Special Advisers and senior civil servants can perfectly adequately perform the consultation and co-ordination tasks created by a coalition.

106   Institute for Government, United We Stand?, p 32 Back

107   Ev 56 Back

108   Q 143 [Lord Norton] Back

109   Q 236 Back

110   Q 222 Back

111   Q 239 Back

112   Evidence taken before the Public Administration Select Committee on 28 October 2010, Session 2010-11, HC 555, Q 43 Back

113   "Cabinet Committee System", Cabinet Office, September 2010, Back

114   HC 555, Q 47 Back

115   Ben Seyd, Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Abroad, (Constitution Unit, January 2002) p 97 Back

116   Ibid. p 110 Back

117   Ibid. p 102-103 Back

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