I’ve been thinking about the degree of party-politicisation of the UK civil service for some time and have come to a rather unusual conclusion: the UK needs party-political State Secretaries (equivalents of Secrétaires d’État in France, Staatssekretäre in Germany, Statssekreterare in Sweden). A State Secretary would have a role equivalent in responsibility to a Junior Minister, but would not be a member of Parliament. There’s no sensible debate about the inner workings of the government-civil service relationship – this is a contribution to that.
Let’s start with the problem: there are two inherent tensions in British government as I see it.
The first is that any Minister has to be a Member of Parliament, and this leads to all sorts of contortions. Characters like Ed Balls – skilled policy makers but lousy representative Parliamentarians – get foisted on unimpressed constituencies because these individuals need seats before they can become ministers. The flip-side of this is that capable representatives end up becoming Ministers, and are not able to run departments. Estelle Morris was honest enough to say so. Many more are not that decent. Plus if the House of Lords is reformed then the PM can’t make people peers to then make them ministers – as Brown did with Vadera, Jones and Malloch Brown. Accountability to Parliament is of course vital, but as is good government.
The second problem is the lack of clout of special advisers (SpAds). The most recent list shows that there are 66 of them in total, with most Cabinet Ministers getting 2. Cabinet Ministers spend a bit more than 4 days a week in London (the rest of the time is in their constituency), and when in London the Ministers have to spend a chunk of time in Parliament. This means that SpAds – often young and energetic, but with no experience of civil service administration – end up trying to give some direction to thousands of civil servants.
Furthermore SpAds have been in the firing-line since Gordon Brown came to power – he cut the total numbers, while at the same time bringing a bunch of civil servants he trusted from the Treasury to Number 10, in so doing getting a few positive headlines but blurring the boundaries of where civil service impartiality stops and political appointment begins. It’s easy points-scoring to have a go at SpAds – they can’t fight back, they are not seen in public, and they cost the taxpayer money. Even the politicians that rely on them are not going to give them a good press.
While SpAds are few, Ministers are plentiful – there were 125 at last count, including whips. Each one of them costs the taxpayer more than a SpAd does – each of them even gets a chauffeur driven car. Matthew Taylor – former head of the Number 1o policy unit – rightly argues that the numbers should be reduced. So why not sort the whole thing out in one go?
Get rid of all the Parliamentary Under Secretaries (the lowest level of Minister), and reduce numbers of ministers down to 1 Cabinet Minister and 1 Minister of State per department. Behind them appoint 2 State Secretaries per department, 1 per minister. The two Ministers would be responsible for all Parliamentary business for a Department, and would be accountable for the work of the State Secretaries. If the State Secretary makes a mess, the Minister would fall. State Secretaries would be appointed by the Ministers themselves, and their term of office would end when a Minister left his/her post. It would be somewhere between a super-SpAd and a Minister.
The emphasis for a State Secretary would be on administration, but with a party political viewpoint – someone capable of running a large administration, but also conscious of the political direction of the government in power. State Secretaries should play a public role – they should be able to represent the UK in EU and international negotiations and to speak to the press on behalf of Government ministers. At the moment the SpAds are the shadowy figures in the background – let’s end that and get the political appointees out into the light of media attention.
So what would the result be? A greater ability to set an ideological direction for government. An improved understanding and respect between administration and party political appointees. More parliamentarians actually working to represent their constituents. In short, overall, better government.