Ministerial directions are formal instructions from ministers telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection from their permanent secretary.
Each permanent secretary – the most senior civil servant in each department – is also the ‘accounting officer’ for their department: the person who Parliament would call to account for how the department spends its money. They have a duty to seek a ministerial direction if they think a spending proposal breaches any of the following criteria:
- Regularity – if the proposal is beyond the department’s legal powers, or agreed spending budgets
- Propriety – if it doesn’t meet ‘high standards of public conduct’, such as appropriate governance or parliamentary expectations
- Value for money – if something else, or doing nothing, would be cheaper and better
- Feasibility – if there is doubt about the proposal being ‘implemented accurately, sustainably or to the intended timetable’
The permanent secretary of a department writes to their Secretary of State expressing their concerns, seeking a direction.
In response, the ministerial direction instructs the permanent secretary to implement the decision. As a result of this direction, the minister, not the permanent secretary, is now accountable for the decision.
In a written statement in October 2017, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss told Parliament that departments might need to spend money to prepare for Brexit before it passed the relevant legislation allowing them to do so. In these instances, she said ministers should issue a "technical direction, allowing critical spending to be incurred ahead of Royal Assent, whilst ensuring transparency to Parliament." They operate much like traditional ministerial directions.
Not that often, really. There have been 70 since 1990, 20 of those since the 2010 election.
It’s sometimes said that more are issued in the run-up to an election, but this isn’t really the case. The main exception was before the 2010 election, when 14 directions were issued in two years. This was due to an expected change of government, and responses to the financial crisis in the form of fiscal stimulus measures and bank bailouts which broke normal rules.
Only three directions were issued under the Coalition, all of them in early 2015.
Since May 2015, the following ministerial directions have been written:
- Gifting some of the Government’s shares in Royal Mail to employees – first direction (BIS) (June 2015)
- An urgent request for a government grant by the charity, Kids Company (CO) (June 2015)
- The costs of the Flood Reinsurance, or Flood Re, scheme (Defra) (June 2015)
- Gifting some more of the Government’s shares in Royal Mail to employees – second direction (BIS) (October 2015)
- A fund to support SSI steelworks apprentices following the closure of the Redcar steelworks (BIS) (October 2015)
- The proposed Garden Bridge in London (DfT) (May 2016)
- A proposal to increase special advisers’ severance pay (CO) (July 2016)
These are the directions issued while Theresa May has been Prime Minister (since July 2016):
- Deciding not to recover overpayments made to local authorities as a result of calculation errors (MHCLG) (March 2018)
- The feasibility, and resulting value for money consequences, of implementing the T Level qualification before 2020 (DfE) (May 2018)
- Support for export of Typhoon aircraft to Qatar (UK Export Finance) (July 2018)
- Increased cover for Iraq (UK Export Finance) (April 2019)
- Financial assistance for subcontractors affected by the collapse of Working Links (MoJ) (May 2019)
- Remediation of private sector residential buildings with unsafe cladding (MHCLG) (May 2019)
Since October 2017, the following technical directions have been issued:
- Spending on EU exit preparations in advance of the EU Withdrawal Bill gaining Royal Assent (Defra) (January 2018)
- Spending on EU exit preparations in advance of the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Bill (DfT) (February 2018)
- Spending on EU exit preparations in advance of the EU Withdrawal Bill gaining Royal Assent (BEIS) (March 2018)
- Spending on establishing the Trade Remedies Authority in advance of the Trade Bill gaining Royal Assent (DIT) (March 2018)
One of the more famous ministerial directions was issued on the Pergau Dam affair in 1990. In this instance, funding for a project in Malaysia was deemed not only a poor use of development aid money but – given its connection to arms sales – also illegal under UK law. This affair eventually led to the introduction of the ‘value for money’ criterion which replaced an ill-defined requirement for public spending to be ‘prudent and economical’.
Since 1990, ministers at the Ministry of Defence have issued the most directions at 14, although there have been none since early 2010.
Grouping current departments with their predecessor bodies and agencies shows that defence, business, trade and industry and transport are the areas with the most directions since 1990. Since 2010, business and transport have dominated.
The vast majority of ministerial directions issued since 1990 have been on value for money grounds. No directions have ever been issued solely on regularity grounds, while the first direction to include feasibility as a reason (it was only introduced in 2011) was issued at DfE in 2018.
Before the rules were changed in 2011, directions could remain secret for years. Since then, departments have been required to publish the existence of a direction – though not the direction itself – no later than when they publish their annual accounts. They must tell the Treasury, who must tell the Comptroller and Auditor General (the head of the National Audit Office), who then tells the Public Accounts Committee.
Recent directions have been published on GOV.UK relatively soon after they’ve been issued. Both the directions in relation to the Kids Company and Pacer vehicles were published the day after they were written, but it took months for the Garden Bridge direction and DfT technical direction to be published.
One former permanent secretary told the Institute for Government that they would have regarded asking for a direction as a professional failure. In their view, directions suggest a lack of confidence in ministerial decisions, and show a public rift in what is supposed to be a private working relationship.
But there can be good public policy reasons for issuing ministerial directions, as two examples from former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling show:
- A direction was issued to allow the Treasury to guarantee UK deposits in Icelandic savings accounts despite there being no legal obligation to do so, in order to reassure depositors throughout the savings market
- When Darling was Secretary of State for Social Security, he issued a direction not to seek repayments from hundreds of disabled people who had received benefits in error. This was seen as a reasonable political judgement – demanding money from vulnerable people who received it because of a department error was considered unjustifiable.
The issuing of a direction – even over small sums of money, such as £500 in the case of a Ministry of Defence direction in 2000 – may also be seen as the accountability rules being taken seriously and the system doing its job.
Some civil servants have told the Institute for Government that the threat of a ministerial direction can be effective. The conversation about one – especially over value for money – can be a useful tool for permanent secretaries trying to help improve ministerial plans.
One former permanent secretary put it to us, ‘I did say on not a completely trivial number of occasions, “If you were to persist in going down this route, Secretary of State, I could get to a point where I might have to seek a direction from you’’. This had, in their view, a ‘galvanising effect’ on discussions to avoid a direction being sought.
There’s no data on when the possibility of directions is raised, although one senior Whitehall figure suggested that their department seriously considered about one every three months, and another that the Treasury dealt with a couple of enquiries every week.
Read these related comments for more on ministerial directions:
- Following the Pound: Accounting officers in central government (Institute for Government, September 2013)
- Whitehall Monitor: Accounting officer directions, 1990 to 2013 (Institute for Government, May 2014)
- One direction: first accounting officer ministerial direction published since 2010 (Institute for Government, February 2015)
- A sense of direction: when permanent secretaries object to ministerial decisions (Institute for Government, July 2015)
- Firm direction: Kids Company and ministerial directions (Institute for Government, August 2015)
- Managing Public Money (HM Treasury, July 2013 revised August 2015)
- Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers’ money (National Audit Office, February 2016)
- Ministerial directions (House of Commons Library, October 2018)