Time to reinvent the role of ministers

1 November 2011

A sharp clash between the Commons Public Administration Committee and the Government underlines the need for a review of ministerial numbers and functions - to match the sweeping changes now happening in Whitehall.

Transformation, the post-bureaucratic state, the Big Society – whichever title you use, a big rethink is now under way about how central Government operates. However, the soul-searching that is now engulfing the Civil Service has yet to affect ministers. Back in March, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) produced a report Smaller Government: What do Ministers Do? arguing that ‘many ministerial activities were unnecessary and could properly cease, giving ministers more time to focus on the key strategic decisions required to be taken in their department: a reduction in the overall number of ministers would help in this process of prioritisation’.

The Government has brushed aside the main recommendation to cut its size, saying that ‘the number of ministers should be dictated by need’ and this will continue to be kept under review, ‘particularly in the light of its proposals on House of Lords reform and changes to the number of parliamentary constituencies’. It stresses, rather, the reduction in the costs of ministers by, for example, cutting their pay by 5 per cent.

The official response even uses the deadly phrase that the Government ‘is grateful for the committee’s views’. However, the Government ‘believes that a reduction to 80 ministers [from the current 121] shared between the Commons and Lords over the course of this parliament as suggested by the committee is unlikely to be a realistic aspiration’. It also firmly rejects the committee’s call that parliamentary private secretaries should be limited to one for each department.

So patronage and politics rule. By not setting targets or making specific commitments about a reduction in the number of ministers, the Government is seeking to maintain maximum flexibility. But the committee is right: the present limits are porous because of the number of unpaid ministers. And when the number of MPs is reduced at the next election, there should at least be a proportionate reduction in the number of ministers.

However, it is not just a matter of numbers. There should also be a debate about what ministers do, particularly in the light of the proposals to devolve power and functions to quasi-independent commissioners and providers. This is shown by the arguments over the ultimate responsibility and accountability of the Secretary of State for Health in the current NHS bill. The Government response says that ‘ministers remain ultimately accountable to Parliament for the decisions and actions of their departments’. But will that continue when the current plans for changing the structure of health and schools are implemented? If ministers are no longer directly responsible for many state functions, they will need to rethink their roles, focussing more on setting strategy.

More generally, ministers need to be better prepared and supported in office, as the Institute argued in its report The Challenge of being a Minister, published in May. The committee and the Government agree on the need for better training to help improve ministers’ performance.  Ministers are ‘encouraged to undertake relevant training, which starts with induction with more specific training to follow as necessary’. That is fine but needs to be made more specific. The aftermath of the election showed the dangers of induction fatigue. What really matters is continuous support during ministers’ whole time in office. Our report suggested a formal process of appraisal. But equally important is that ministers should feel able to take informal and private advice about how they are doing. Being a minister is a tough job to do well.

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