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

Written evidence from the Regulatory Policy Institute's Better Government Programme

The Better Government Programme, a free-standing entity within the Regulatory Policy Institute, focuses on the machinery of government and regulation and on improvements to policy and regulatory processes. In 2009, a commission established by the Programme produced a series of recommendations on improving trust in institutions and processes. As part of its work, it considered the role and functions of Ministers and this submission draws on that analysis.

The submission, which focuses on the Committee's questions one to four, does not necessarily represent the corporate view of the RPI.


  1. There are few constitutional arguments against the appointment of Ministers from outside Parliament. Prime Ministers should be free to select Ministers from the widest possible pool of talent.
  2. There is no reason why unelected decision makers should not be as accountable as elected Ministers to Parliament and the public.
  3. A significant move to appointment of non-political Ministers might limit the less attractive aspects of politicised debate over policy and public administration and would introduce greater separation between Executive and Legislature.
  4. Public and media accessibility demands make it difficult to reduce the number of formal decision makers, but better policy making and governance model may only require an elected Secretary of State and one other political chaperone for non-political appointees in each Department.
  5. Concern that unelected decision makers may be technocratic and out of touch with the public mood can be addressed through departmental policy governance boards combining elected and non-political members.

1. What do Ministers do and is their work best done by Ministers who are drawn from Parliament?

1.1  Ministers currently have four roles:

  1. To act as the political managers of their departments, progressing and taking responsibility for the Government's policies.
  2. To act as the ultimate decision makers on any issue within their Departments.
  3. To act as the link between their Departments and the legislature, accounting to Parliament for their decisions and providing the highest level of accountability for their Departments' work.
  4. To act as the ultimate departmental representatives of the Government in public fora.

1.2  Is that work best done by Ministers drawn from Parliament? Before answering, we should consider whether it is constitutionally a requirement, or at least desirable, that Ministers should be members of either House. Not necessarily, we would submit, for the following reasons:

  1. Citizens do not vote for Ministers. While electors can collectively dismiss a constituency MP because of poor performance as a Minister, they are formally asked to vote only for a representative for that constituency. They have no say in the appointment or removal of Ministers (whether drawn from the Commons or Lords) once a government is formed.
  2. Some maintain that decisions in the system of government can only be considered legitimate if they are taken by those electorally mandated to make them. But that implies that decisions taken by the unelected - bodies such as the Competition Commission, Monetary Policy Committee and sector regulators - under delegated powers lack legitimacy. Legally and constitutionally, that is clearly incorrect.
  3. Some also suggest that only those drawn from Parliament can be truly accountable to the public; but that concept should only prevail if accountability as we currently experience it is effective and if it would not be possible for those outside Parliament to be at least as accountable to it as Ministers are now. The current experience is that this is insupportable. Traditional accountability mechanisms, such as questions in the House or the ability to vote out a government every few years, have encouraged a culture of obfuscation, point scoring rather than calling to account, and Lines to Take rather than true explanation. And there is no reason why unelected decision makers, who regularly appear before Select Committees now, should not also answer Oral Questions or handle Standing Committee stages.[1] In short, there is no need to pair "unelected" with "unaccountable".

1.3  Aside from points of principle, there is the question of credibility and competence. Elected Ministers are often seen as amateurs whose decisions are made without the benefit of personal expertise. They are less the best people for the job than the best people (or just the rewardees) that Prime Ministers have chosen from the small pool - one likely, under proposals to reduce the number of constituencies, to get even smaller - of their own party's (largely) elected members. And election does not confer on an individual a special skill of competent decision making that is lacking in others. In the United States and France for example, there are no concerns over the ability of presidents to select the most capable individuals to Cabinet-level positions without confining themselves to the legislature. Why should a Prime Minister not be given the same freedom provided, we reiterate, that unelected Ministers are placed - and perceived to be - in a position of genuine accountability? There is certainly no constitutional barrier to it.

1.4  Both Government and Opposition have recognised that the public trusts non-political "experts" (however defined) above politicians to make certain types of decisions[2] or to manage processes. We have mentioned the MPC and Competition Commission, but we have also seen the establishment of bodies such as the Office of Budgetary Responsibility and the UK Statistics Authority as a result of suspicion of political intervention. Where Ministers have relinquished powers (for example in setting interest rates or in most merger cases) confidence in the objectivity of processes has improved (even if they are no more transparent or certain) because their replacements are perceived as focused only on their job and not on demagogy or playing Party games. On the other hand, "expert" in this context is often associated with a technocratic approach to government under which evidentially "correct" decisions do not take account of the public mood, to which Ministers drawn from constituency MPs are more exposed; but that does not mean that unelected decision makers are by definition out of touch or incapable of equity.

1.5  The record of Ministers appointed from outside Parliament has been mixed, but they have rarely been placed in major decision making positions and in recent years have been used mainly as consigliere between the Government and their former sector. Many have found it hard to cope with the aggressive nature of party political culture (it is difficult to imagine Beveridge getting his welfare proposals through today), which suggests that even though a widespread move to non-political Ministers might introduce a civilising element into policy debate, even the most capable of such appointees may need to sit alongside "political" Ministers (or at least mentors such as Special Advisers) in order to deliver policy effectively. But that may be considered more as an indictment of party political gaming than of the ability of non-political appointees to make and deliver sound decisions. It is however important to avoid appointments on the basis of personal profile and political acceptability without consideration of their ability to understand and work effectively within the Whitehall machine.

1.6  There is a second element to the Committee's question - what should Ministers do? Do we need to adhere to the convention (or fiction, given the scale of delegated power) that Ministers should be regarded as involved in and responsible for all policy decisions? There may be arguments in favour of reviewing this principle:

  1. It encourages them to involve themselves in management of a system the size of which is impossible for the great majority of transient Ministers to control. It also encourages an environment in which Ministers are criticised both for taking credit for policy and for evasiveness when blamed for problems that in most cases were not their fault.
  2. It encourages the personalisation of power, with Ministers claiming responsibility for popular decisions and running away from poor ones; and with Opposition parties opportunistically seeking to blame Ministers for every failure of government, regardless of involvement.
  3. In the absence of stronger constraints, it permits Ministers to impose on what they have said should be an evidence-driven process decisions that may be driven by the desire to court short-term popularity or to reward supporters.
  4. Even when Ministers do not involve themselves, the strength of the constitutional fiction[3] is such that unnecessary risk is often created through uncertainty over political intervention.
  5. Several witnesses to the Committee's Better Government inquiry [HC 983] shared the view that the convention that Ministers are deemed to know of and be responsible for everything that goes on under their command should not be sacrosanct. Sir Steve Robson[4] said that:

"delegation... is a good route to go but it is only going to bring profound benefits if Ministers cease to be responsible for micro issues", adding that Ministers "account for the broad policy, they account for the structure they put in place.... they account for the top hires, and they account for the incentives they give their top hires—and that is it", observing that so long as ministerial responsibility exists, "delegation is not going to bring the benefits it can do because it is never going to be real delegation."

Kenneth Clarke MP observed[5] that:

"The relationship between the politicians and the Civil Servants has changed very badly. We have taken to absurd lengths the idea that politicians lay down policy and Civil Servants deliver.... They [Civil Servants] will administer things better if they play the key role they used to have in the formulation of policy."

Sir Richard Mottram[6] added that:

"big departments should be run on the principle that the Secretary of State is effectively the executive chairman for strategy and policy, and the non-executive chairman for the leadership and management and proper conduct of business of the department, and the Permanent Secretary should be held to account for all of these things."

1.7  The members of our Trust Commission had mixed views on this:

"I do not believe responsibility for policy making should pass from elected politicians to unelected Civil Servants or to other, shadowy individuals who would have "no interest in anything but doing the job". How would these paragons be identified or chosen? There has to be a real risk that they would be drawn from the massed ranks of political cronies. Be that as it may, I fear that far from enhancing public trust, this diluting of democracy could do the opposite. It would certainly give politicians/officials/advisers/others a heaven-sent opportunity to blame each other and evade responsibility for mistakes even more effectively than they do now."

"I would not be comfortable with geneticists setting the policy for stem cell research, but once they have been given their policy parameters by politicians I don't think the political class can have anything more of value to say on the subject and the scientists should get on with it. Likewise, I don't think the Bank of England should fix the monetary framework or its targets, but it should have the independence to meet its set objectives in whatever way it sees fit. Nor should the FSA write banking legislation, but it should be free from political influence when it supervises a financial firm...

I would be happy with a position that says that the elected political level should clearly and transparently set policy, preferably at a high enough level that it doesn't need endless revision. The system should then encourage appointed experts or agencies to carry out these policies as independently as possible. Also, independence isn't a carte blanche to run away with an issue, as it must always be tempered by, for example, accountability to Parliament; or review (ombudsman, judicial etc.) if it strays beyond the parameters that were set by the high level policy objectives."

This submission favours the second approach; and, as we explain in 2. below, it could lead to a reduction in the number of Ministers, at least as we know them now.

2. Are there too many Ministers, not enough, or is the level about right?
(a) Are current statutory limits on the number of Ministers set at an appropriate level?
(b) Is there an optimal number of Ministers in the interests of good government?

2.1  The complexity of each Department's portfolio (and this is unlikely to decline significantly even if direct responsibility for some sectors is devolved because decision making will, at least to some extent, be replaced by oversight) and the need to provide reasonable access to Ministers through visits and speeches makes it difficult to reduce the number of Ministers without imposing unsustainable strain on those who remain.

2.2  Some commentators point to the appreciable growth in the number of Ministers over the past 50 years (examined in the Committee's Too Many Ministers? report). In that report, the Committee concluded that:

The ever-upward trend in the size of government over the last hundred years or more is striking and hard to justify objectively in the context of the end of Empire, privatisation, and, most recently, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (para 5)

2.3  But that overlooks the nature of modern government. "Good government" is about more than just the efficient delivery of fairly made policies and decisions. In a world of "stakeholders" and 24 hour news media, Ministers are expected to be seen, and to account and be a spokesman for the Government to a far greater extent than their predecessors. It would be difficult to envisage that a smaller cadre of those doing the work of Ministers could satisfy the demands of today's concept of accountability. But that does not mean that such work should be reserved only for Ministers as we know them now.

2.4  We do not agree with the Committee (ibid, para 9) that it would be desirable to cap the number of unpaid ministerial posts. While we agree (ibid, para 15) that appointment to a ministerial post as a reward should not be condoned, it is for governments to determine whether the creation of Ministers is necessary provided that the salary burden is limited. However, there would not appear to be any good case for increasing the number.

2.5  A review of decision making and accountability conventions, as discussed in 1. above, might lead to a reduction in the number of Ministers. We examined a model under which decisions within the system should be regarded as having been taken by people with relevant expertise; be seen to be based on a fair balancing of evidence and to be taken in the national interest; and be subjected to true scrutiny, with the additional benefit of introducing greater separation between the Executive and the Legislature. It might have the following characteristics:

  1. The convention that Ministers make all decisions and are responsible for everything would be replaced with a radical change in role. While the Prime Minister's ability to appoint the Cabinet would be unchanged, Departments would be restructured on the lines of a managed fund or the BBC Trust, under which the Secretary of State would appoint (from the best available talent, which could include Parliament, and perhaps by competition) and chair a board that would allocate budgets, decide on policy objectives and parameters and give directions to sector specialists, who would be responsible for detailed policy making and implementation.
  2. The board would therefore be akin to trustees, responsible (and accountable to Parliament) for governance; the executive staff for execution (although we would envisage them discussing implementation options with the Board). While the operation of the BBC Trust has been called into question, a parallel to its model, under which the roles of and relationship between the trustees and the executive would be defined by published protocols, similar to the relationship between Ministers and sector regulators and akin in concept to Service Level Agreements (or the BBC Trust's Purpose Remits and Service Licences) could be considered. Failure of governance or execution, as defined in the protocols and in statute, would be judicially reviewable.
  3. The Board (not including the Secretary of State) and senior executive level appointments would be subject to confirmation (not just nomination) hearings by the relevant Select Committee or by a joint Commons/Lords committee, which could vote against appointment.
  4. Responsibility for errors should be attributable where they are caused, and not always to the top of departments.[7] Officials, regulators and NDPB heads should be directly accountable to Parliament as well as to the Board.
  5. The board would have the support of a scrutiny cabinet to monitor executive performance.
  6. Board members would lead during Whole House stages of legislation but the Board and officials would jointly be answerable during the Standing Committee stage in order to improve the quality of responses to amendments and questions.

2.5  This change must be coupled with a move away from rapid changes in ministerial posts. As one of our Commission members commented,

"Compare the longevity in post of the CEO's of the UK's top 25 firms with that of Cabinet Ministers. Frequently changing guard is very largely a measure of how inadequate too many SofS's are for the posts they are given. Having a half-life measurable in months is the antidote to continuity, accountability and effective governance. Mastery of a Department develops over time. I recall meeting and being impressed by how seriously XXXX had mastered the hugely complex XXXX brief when in opposition. Weeks after hearing how much effort he'd put into getting on top of the subject and how much he looked forward to making a contribution to an increasingly important/overdue national debate on the subject, he was given a completely different job to do. This isn't even Cabinet stuff, so how much worse is it when the brief goes wider?"

2.6  Would a smaller number of Ministers with reduced powers deter parliamentary candidates because their prospects of promotion would be more limited? Leaving aside the priority that should be given to an MP's traditional role as constituency representative, the evidence suggests that there was no shortage of candidates when the Government was half its present size.

2.7  And would ending the right of the unelected to hide behind Ministers inhibit the desire of those outside Parliament to put themselves forward for public service? It may be felt that if people are not prepared to be called to account they are the wrong ones for the job.

3. If proposals to reduce the number of MPs are implemented, should the number of Ministers also be reduced?
(a)  If so, to what extent?
(b)  How should it be done?

3.1  There is a difference between Parliament and the Executive. The number of Ministers should be geared to the demands on them, and if we pass a point in delegation/devolution where decision making gives way to oversight and the focus of accountability for policy and service delivery shifts, the number can be cut. If the Government's declared aspirations come to fruition we are likely to end up with smaller departments with fewer functions and significantly smaller budgets. That would suggest fewer Ministers and fewer quangos. But while Ministers talk about decentralisation in the same breath as spending cuts, we do not yet have clarity about which functions are to be shed by Whitehall and who, if anyone, will pick them up. Some would consider it optimistic to assume that there is a latent army of eager volunteers with the right skills and in the right places to bring the Big Society to life.

4. What implications does coalition government have for the role of Ministers and how they operate, both collectively and at the level of individual departments?

4.1  None. Ministers' duty is to the Crown, not to any political faction. Trust in Ministers would be materially improved if they were regularly reminded of this.

August 2010

1   And Ministers are arguably at their most accountable on the Today or Question Time programmes, which are not restricted to MPs or Peers. Back

2   The Committee may wish to decide whether there is any conceptual reason why, for example, the Food Standards Agency is trusted to take most decisions on food safety but only Ministers are considered appropriate decision makers on GMOs. Back

3   The courts have acknowledged that the principle of ministerial decision-making in reality means a collaborative process: "To treat the minister in his decision-making capacity as someone separate and distinct from the department of government of which he is the political head and for whose actions he alone in constitutional theory is accountable to Parliament is to ignore not only practical realities but also Parliament's intention."-Diplock LJ in Bushell and Another v Secretary of State for the Environment [1981] AC 75 at p 94.  Back

4   Better Government, Public Administration Select Committee, HC 983, Q83-84 Back

5   Ibid, Q135 Back

6   Ibid, Q27 Back

7   The Conservatives (It's Your Money-A New Plan for Disciplined Spending in Government, 2009) proposed including a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers in the employment agreements of all senior officials, with disciplinary implications if it is breached. We agree, but believe that Parliament should have the power to discipline officials and Ministers for failure of duty.  Back

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