There is a convenient assumption amongst the media and many contributors to political debate that Ministers are all powerful. If a problem needs fixing they can fix it. If they fail to, it is wanton neglect or pig headedness that has meant they have failed complainants.
I am pleased to say there were always substantial limitations on Ministerial power. I am less pleased to report that the last decade has seen the erosion of some powers that Ministers do need to do their jobs. The task of reconstruction requires the careful rebuilding of elected power within the body politic, as well as the strengthening of Parliament to hold that power to account.
Before the EU was given so much power, and before the European Courts became so assertive, Ministers had considerable scope. Rightly, Ministers have always been beneath the law like the rest of us. They have to obey and work within the inherited law codes. If they transgress, individually or collectively, they can be sued, charged or judicially reviewed. Their power compared to the rest of us came from two main sources. The first is they can command the money and the personnel of government to do what the law allows with public sector resources. The second is they can change the law to allow them to do as they wish in the future, or to control the conduct of others in the future. It is true they need to persuade Parliament, but usually a Ministerial decision which automatically commands the majority whips can command a majority in the Commons.
As we have seen in recent weeks, there are more areas now where European Courts tell Ministers they cannot change the law in the direction they wish, or require Ministers to change the law as the Courts dictate. Increasingly Ministers use their law making powers and the command of a majority in the legislature to enact more and more EU laws and regulations into UK law codes. Many of these are one way tickets to surrendering UK democratic power. Once passed these laws cannot be amended or repealed on the wish of a UK Minister, unless a majority of all EU member states and the Commision agree.
There has also been an erosion of power over the Labour years even within areas where UK Ministers remain free to decide. Ministers I am told now sometimes make senior public appointments to positions accepting the single preferred candidate of the civil service instead of going through a proper sifting and interviewing process themselves. Transferring many quangos into civil service departments as they are doing will leave Ministers with less potential influence over the senior people and the corporate plan of the organisation than if they had maintained a segregated identity (that’s where they cannot be abolished). The scrutiny of quango corporate plans, challenging their charge and fine raising, questioning their costs, examining the business cases for spending, considering the impact assessments of regulations – these are all parts of a junior Minister’s job which often went undone in the Labour years. It is important work, and Ministers need to return to it, and explain to their officials they intend to do so vigorously.
The junior Minister, working to the general aim of the Cabinet member or government’s overall strategy, can play a vital role in ensuring effective implementation. He or she should be the taxpayer’s representative, asking if the costs are controlled and if the proposal is necessary. He or she is also the consumer or complainant’s representative, asking if the proposed spending or regulation will do what is needed by the groups affected. Some junior ministers over the last decade concentrated on the media, messages and spin. They revealed their ignorance of the detail of their department’s work and of the policies they were administering. The taxpayer expects Ministers to lift their game and to gain control over how many people they employ, how they are motivated, how they pursue their aims, how well they buy in goods and services, how they raise quality and cut costs. It may not be glamorous work, but it is both interesting and essential. We need to value good management of the puboic sector more, and good tv performances less.