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

Written evidence from Professor Kevin Theakston, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds


1. In constitutional terms the position of junior ministers in the British system of government today is the same as in the 19th century when the job was invented. They have no formal or legal powers of their own: any executive authority they have is by delegation from their ministerial chief. They share in the Government's collective responsibility to Parliament but in policy terms they are formally responsible to their Secretary of State rather than to Parliament (though in practice, if things go badly wrong, the junior minister may end up walking the plank). Historically, they had mainly a parliamentary role (and this is still an important aspect of the work) but the departmental and policy-making roles have grown more important in recent decades. Ministers are encouraged in the Ministerial Code to devolve on to their juniors responsibility for a defined range of departmental work and many—particularly at Minister of State level—carry special titles (a practice started by Harold Wilson in the 1960s). But what the job of a junior minister has amounted to in practice has usually varied between one department and another, and has depended greatly on the style of the Cabinet minister involved and his or her relations with the junior minister(s).

2. Junior ministers are sometimes written off as marginal or irrelevant dogsbodies, as political and departmental Cinderellas. Lord Digby Jones described being a junior minister as "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have." Professor Peter Hennessy has said that "in Whitehall terms, junior ministers are the wretched of the earth and are often treated as such." Tony Blair's former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, said "there is an awful lot of make-work in junior ministerial jobs." Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull argued "a lot of what they do could be done by officials." Chris Mullin complained in his diaries about his "pointless existence" as a junior minister, the low-level drudgery, his "utter lack of influence" and the absence of team working in government.

3. On the other hand, Baroness Joyce Quin's experience convinced her "there can be real job satisfaction" because "some jobs at the secondary level have substance and a proper measure of independence", with some junior ministers being able to take decisions and make a difference in their own defined sphere. Cabinet ministers are already overloaded; without the support of junior ministers their jobs would be impossible. In all this, civil servants take their cues from ministers. Formally (as spelt out in the Ministerial Code) junior ministers cannot give directions to permanent secretaries, meaning a civil service "appeal" to the top minister is always possible. Junior ministers in the past have always found that their scope and clout depended crucially on whether they had the confidence and backing of the Secretary of State, and the same will go for junior ministers in the present Government.

4. The move to coalition government adds a new dimension in the sense that a Secretary of State in charge of a department (and civil servants) may not be able to treat, say, a Parliamentary Under Secretary as the lowest form of political life and of little account—to be told to "get back in your little box and stay there", as one uppity junior minister was once instructed by his boss in the previous Labour Government—particularly when that junior minister is the only representative of the Liberal Democrat Party in a ministry headed by a Conservative Cabinet minister. There are nine major Whitehall departments headed by Conservatives that include one Liberal Democrat in the junior ministerial team (six of these at Minister of State level, three at the more junior "Pussy" level, as it is sometimes dubbed). These juniors all have their designated departmental responsibilities, and in formal terms their roles and responsibilities may seem as limited and circumscribed as with any other junior minister. But politically they have an important "watchdog" role, trying to represent their party's interests and provide a Liberal Democrat voice and input on a wider waterfront, across the full range of departmental business. This may involve more ministerial team meetings, these junior ministers being put more in the picture and having greater access to policy papers outside their own departmental responsibilities than would normally be the case, and a shift in the usual views of political seniority and hierarchies. Their wider role may mean these junior ministers will need more private office support and perhaps in some cases even their own special advisers (though current rules limit them to Cabinet ministers and ministers who attend Cabinet). But for most junior ministers from the larger party in the coalition—the Conservatives—working under chiefs from their own party, the underlying realities and determinants of their role, status and influence have not necessarily changed.

5. The long-term increase in the number of junior ministers has been widely commented on. In 1914 Asquith's Government had only 15 junior ministers; in 1945 Attlee appointed 32 junior ministers; counting on the same basis (Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers of State), Brown's Government in 2010 had 77 junior ministers while Cameron's has 65. British governments are, overall, bigger and have many more junior ministers than their international counterparts. Up until the 1950s most government departments had only one junior minister but now ministerial teams are much larger: currently ten departments have four or more junior ministers (one has six); in the previous Government one department (Business, Innovation and Skills under Lord Mandelson) actually had nine junior ministers. Whitehall mandarins sometimes complain about departments being "over-ministered"; Lord Turnbull claimed most departments could be run with just three ministers. At the same time there is concern about the size of the "payroll" vote in the House of Commons, with proposals regularly made to cut the number of ministers or to set a percentage quota of MPs who could be in government.

6. In 2009 the Irish Taoiseach reduced the number of junior ministers in his government at a stroke by 25%. In Britain, as a first step, there is probably scope to shave off one junior ministerial post per department (and save other ministerial posts by the overdue merger of the territorial offices for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), cutting up to 20 junior ministerial posts. A reduction in the size of governments and in the number of junior ministers need not involve a loss of administrative quality, parliamentary accountability or governing capacity, provided that those junior ministers who are appointed are of high quality and have a real job to do. Fewer junior ministers could—and should—mean that those who serve in the "foothills" of government may be more likely to have a significant and satisfactory role.

October 2010

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