21 February 2016

As Parliament returns from recess, our new briefing paper explores ministers’ views about Parliament and how well the Civil Service understands this aspect of ministerial life. Nicola Hughes introduces the paper.

This is almost the only medium in which you can lose your job in about half an hour, and a lot of officials don’t get that at all.

“…you feel very isolated as a minister. You have to ask your colleagues what is going on in the House of Commons.

“I’d always seen being a constituency MP as a full-time job. I suddenly acquired another one, where the department were fairly grudging about the fact that I had the first one to do at all.”

These comments illustrate a strong theme from our recent Ministers Reflect interviews; that ministers felt civil servants did not understand Parliament well enough. This matters because performing well in Parliament, and staying connected to the political world, is an important part of being an effective minister. To stay in favour with Number 10, ministers must speak well in debates, steer bills through with minimal fuss, answer robustly to scrutiny and maintain the confidence of the backbenches. Doing these things well – not to mention balancing them with departmental business, other policy and communications responsibilities – requires the support of officials.

This disconnection between Parliament and Whitehall departments manifested in a number of different ways for the ministers we spoke to, including:

  • Poor understanding of House procedures, for example civil servants not knowing the rules for adjournment debates or acknowledging the importance of a three-line whip.
  • Failure to understand the importance of constituency matters, for example departments giving ministers little or no time to keep up with casework.
  • Poor support for speeches and debates, for example ministers receiving overly technical briefings that lack political nous, which they then have to re-write.

All of these issues are explored in the short briefing paper we are launching today, Ministers Reflect: on Parliament.

Although efforts to bridge this gap are being made in Whitehall, we conclude that building better mutual understanding between Whitehall and Westminster should go beyond ad-hoc schemes and technical training courses for officials – a longer-term cultural shift is needed. Over the coming months, the Institute will be working together with colleagues in Parliament and the Civil Service to develop sustainable solutions to these problems.