The case for political State Secretaries in the UK

Westminster mapI’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.

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  1. Martin Keegan

    You seem to be proposing enarquie in the UK!

    We don’t need more opportunities for patronage, or this subsidy to political parties. The dynamic effect of this (and SpAds) is to reduce the penalties for being politically unpopular, as politicians on the make can get one of these sinecures on the public purse.

    It’s also very irritating as a member of the public dealing with the civil service to know that you’re dealing with a party politician. When I was dealing with copyright a number of years ago, I had cause to contact Rogier Wezenbeek. I discovered that not only did he have a paid position in the EU Commission, but he was also deputy vorsitter for the Brussels branch of the VVD! Would I be getting the Commission’s line, or the VVD on copyright policy? Why should this particular party get better access to the personnel involved in that policy?

  2. Jo

    Actually this sounds very sensible. But getting it through parliament not to mention the UK media (who would see it as anti-democratic because of the fiction that spads are informal) would be a nightmare.

  3. Jon

    The conclusion is unusual not because it won’t work, or because other countries are not doing it. It’s unusual because I’ve not in recent times read anyone who contemplates the same thing in the UK… Plus also recall that there are still a few readers of this blog that are British! 🙂

  4. Ralf Grahn

    Jon, your ‘unusual conclusion’ looks a lot like the present, newish system in Finland, too, but because coalition governments are the norm, there are differences in practice.

    Political state secretaries probably use more time coordinating policies between coalition partners than would be the case in the UK.

    Anyway, the hinge between political leadership (ministers) and civil service governance is a difficult question to get right anywhere.

    In my opinion, it would not be bad to be able to appoint ministers outside parliament, giving access to a greater pool of talent.

  5. adaniel

    My country just abolished a system you propose, which was based on the German system: a minister (Cabinet Minister), a parliamentary state secretary (Minister of State) and an administrative state secretary (effectively the top civil servant who runs the Department). The minister and the parliamentary state secretary were politicians, both appointed by the prime minister. The administrative state secretary was appointed by the minister, but was forbidden to participate in party politics, and even the appear on political party meetings. Such state secretaries were either top level civil servants or (retired) politicians with bureaucratic management skills.

    The argument for abolishing the system was that it made up to levels of decision making. (The Cabinet decided on issues only that the non-political state secretaries found professionally trustworthy – meaning that it became an alternative quasi-political first tear of the Cabinet). The system went into a direction that you actually would like to see going the other way around: a less ability to set an ideological direction for the Cabinet.

    I think that the German model is rather good, and I even think that Hungary will return to it. Although it made the Cabinet’s work a bit slower and more negotiations were needed, on the other hand it payed off in quality that skilled civil servants participated as a filter in the political decision making process with only the ability to quasi veto proposals.