How much power do Ministers have?


               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 Once passed these laws cannot be amended or repealed on the wish of a UK Minister, unless a majority of all EU member states and the Commision agree.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.


  1. lifelogic
    March 6, 2011

    You are quite right the Ministers have very little power. They are constrained by the courts, EU laws, the equality agenda, consultation rules and the rest. They are often little more than TV/PR spokes people who are used to justify the, often mad, activities of their departments. They often have no understanding of the harm their departments are actually doing at the coal face.

    If Ministers have little power what power to do voters have virtually none at all. Democracy it certainly is not.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2011

      Today we learn – HSBC has told its biggest shareholders that it is preparing to quit London in a shock move that the bank has revealed to key investors is now “more likely than not”

      Well done the coalition and its policy of over tax and over regulate – many more businesses will be likely to follow. The UK is just not competitive and not even heading the right way under this coalition.

      1. Stuart Fairney
        March 6, 2011

        If this is true, it is absolutely disasterous. One suspects some botch compromise whereby a few typists will be left, but in reality, this is as bad as it gets.

        Nice one George.

      2. Bob
        March 6, 2011

        This is what they want:
        Hong Kong Offers Cash Handouts

    2. lifelogic
      March 6, 2011

      As an example – the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, says ‚Äúonshore wind doesn’t need subsidy any more”.

      There speaks someone who clearly cannot distinguish between a Mega Joule, his elbow, a lot of hot air, a huge state subsidy, and a very cold winter.

      But things are not too bad: I see we can still can afford to tip ¬£4.5B down the green energy dustbin. And we can pay for people to put daft pointless ugly PV’s on their roofs. Do you think the buyers will be angry when the realise these things do not actually work very well or will they just grit their teeth smile with a happy green glow on their faces?

      1. Stuart Fairney
        March 7, 2011

        Hamond maybe distinguishing between capital subsidy and ongoing operational subsidy ~ both are nonsensical, but (if he knows what he is talking about) I suspect this is it.

    3. Mike Stallard
      March 6, 2011

      Out little free school is a case in point here. The Proposal Form has disappeared from the site now for a month for no apparent reason. This means we have lost a whole month. We cannot offer parents a place on the admissions list because the Government is in control of the lists. They decide who goes to our school, not us.
      But hey! – the DfE survives! Intact!

  2. Euan
    March 6, 2011

    There is no cure to the EU wasting disease. We become more and more subservient to bureaucratic whims and less and less competitive. There is less incentive and less ability to run a successful business. Eventually the private sector is only profitable to very big business and the black economy. Then we are in the same situation as Egypt, Tunisia and other regimes where people are told how to live their lives. Given our leaders total lack of leadership or interest in ordinary voters our only hope is that market forces destroy the system and we can recover from the wreckage.

    1. alan jutson
      March 6, 2011


      I certainly think you are correct in so far as the public, not being able to have their wishes fulfilled at the ballot box, will eventually take things into their own hands. Not perhaps in the way of riot and open protest (not really the British way of doing things of late for the majority), but in the way you suggest, an alternative economy as practiced on the continent, where barter, trading and cash deals fuel a growing alternative economy, away from government influence.

      It happened due to rationing in the second world war, it may well happen again, as punative taxation affects a growing percentage of the population.

    2. John Bracewell
      March 6, 2011

      There is a cure to the EU wasting disease but it is one that with Cameron and Clegg or Labour in government, will not be taken. That is to negotiate an exit from Europe’s ever increasing control.

    3. sjb
      March 6, 2011

      France and Germany are subject to the “EU wasting disease”, too. Furthermore, I think the cost of employing someone is significantly higher in those countries than in the UK. Yet 23% of French SMEs and 26% of German SMEs are planning to take on staff compared to just 14% in the UK.

    4. lifelogic
      March 6, 2011

      Pretty accurate summary and now reported today:

      David Cameron to declare war on ‘enemies of enterprise’ at the Tory spring conference. Does he perhaps mean himself and the coalition cabinet that has recently implemented so much anti business legislation. Also perhaps the mad EU who think that women and men have the same life and driving insurance premiums (and they are best placed to judge them) which he seems to have accepted without murmur. And anyone pushing the expensive green energy agenda?

      Reply: He said the bureaucrats making regulations, so I think he does mean government gets in the way.

      1. lifelogic
        March 6, 2011

        Yes but I assume he approved and approves of the “you can not retire anyone rules.”

  3. alan jutson
    March 6, 2011


    In answer to your Question “How much power do Ministers have ?”

    The answer is in their own hands, “As much as they want”

    Can only suggest they dump the EU and get some power back for a good start.

    Successive Governments have chosen to give their power away.

    Not many Managing Directors/Owners/Businessmen would give away their ability to run their Companies by their competitors out of choice would they, but it would seem our politicians think its ok to give away their power to run our Country !

    Enough said.

    1. lifelogic
      March 7, 2011

      Yes and given away for what the odd over paid job in Brussels with a good pension.

  4. Javelin
    March 6, 2011

    John, there is a recurrent theme in this blog of democracy that is cropping up again and again as the cause of major problems.

    I think it would be a good idea to run over every ministry and every area of Government to enumerate every function that is no longer under democratic control. From the BofE MPC to The House of Lords etc.

    When you see so many issues having the same cause you have to start wondering whether the cause (weakened democracy) has deeper reasons. I am asking myself if democracy is the new capitalism? Is democracy the next aspect of our country that needs to be addressed in the same way that Thatcher had to deal with the economy for 10 years. It’s not a permanent goal, in the the same way capitalism was for Thatcher, because it can be over done. But there is definately an undemocratic sickness that is crippling so many aspects of our Country that you could create a political movement that could provide a full manifesto across Government that people would vote for.

    For example, don’t focus on the Eu but focus on it’s undemocratic nature and let people vote against it. Even in the House of Lords, ensure it is democratic, so that only elected mbers can vote, but expert Lords can speak.

    1. Javelin
      March 6, 2011

      John there is a long tradition of manifestos, even, for example by artists. What would be your manifesto to move to a more democratic Government?

  5. Will J
    March 6, 2011

    “We need to value good management of the public sector more, and good tv performances less.”

    Except that’s what Caroline Spelman did, and look where it got her.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2011

      ‚ÄúWe need to value good management of the public sector more, and good tv performances less.‚ÄĚ

      Good management is only of use if what is being done by the state has any real point in the first place. If as so often it is blocking the roads, pouring money down the green dustbin, over regulating business or thinking of new licence or penalty fees to levy then poor management is better than good.

      Since it is less effective at doing harm. No harm at all might be best however.

  6. Martyn
    March 6, 2011

    The areas of governance in which Parliament can act decisively have been reduced to the point where little more can be done other than to bend the Parliamentary knee to a series of EU diktats, many of which have no origin in any identifiable democratic process.
    Then given that Ministerial and Parliamentary powers are being increasingly ceded to the civil service and quangos, how long will it be before our elected politicians are seen to be irrelevant to the process of setting and implementing policy and actually running the country? What price democracy, now or then?

  7. Denis Cooper
    March 6, 2011

    We must first restore and then improve our national democracy, which will only be possible once we are free from the EU.

    The government wishes to cut excessive regulation to stimulate the growth of business, but as pointed out in this article from a few weeks ago:

    “It did not take David Cameron long to realise that there were three parties in his coalition. A few months into government, the Prime Minister worked out that only half of the policies he was enacting came from the shared agenda drawn up when the Tories and LibDems got together. The other half comes from the EU.”

    The only short term solution is for Parliament to allow burdensome EU regulations to be disapplied within the UK, as described by the Tory MP Bill Cash in comments posted on that Spectator article, but clearly there could come a point where so many EU laws were being disapplied in this country that other member state governments would begin to ask whether we really wanted to be in the EU or would prefer some alternative treaty arrangement.

    At present it would be illegal for ministers to disapply EU laws, as they are part of our national law as approved by Parliament and in effect Parliament has told ministers that they must all be implemented.

    Back in 2006 Bill Cash’s proposed New Clause 17 for the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill would have given Parliamentary approval for ministers to disapply EU laws:

    “New Clause 17


    ‚Äė(1) An order made under Part 1 containing provision relating to Community treaties, Community instruments or Community obligations shall, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, be binding in any legal proceedings in the United Kingdom.

    (2) In section 1 and this section‚ÄĒ

    ‚ÄúCommunity instruments‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúCommunity obligations‚ÄĚ have the same meaning as in Part 2 of Schedule 1 to the European Communities Act 1972 (c. 68);

    ‚ÄúCommunity treaties‚ÄĚ has the same meaning as in section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.’.”

    Somehow Bill Cash had secured official Tory party approval for his amendment, and the “Ayes” list for Division No 239 on it, here:

    included not only Letwin, now in charge of attempts at de-regulation, but also Ancram, Davis, Duncan Smith, Fox, Grayling, Green, Hammond, Lidington – who is now the Minister for Europe – Maude, May, Spelman, Willetts and even Dominic Grieve – who is now the Attorney-General.

    The debate was on the previous day, the relevant parts starting at Column 750 here:

    with John Redwood saying:

    “Finally, I turn to the amendments on the European issue tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). Nowadays, so much of our regulation comes from Brussels that we cannot exempt that from scrutiny and from our deregulatory urge. New clause 17 makes a good attempt to draw the House‚Äôs attention to that and to make Ministers understand that they cannot have a deregulation policy worth anything unless they are prepared to tackle quite a number of the regulatory burdens coming from Brussels. That would preferably be through renegotiation of those individual items, but it would be good to have a legislative back-up to make it crystal clear that if this House wishes to deregulate something, that should be law made here in the United Kingdom.”

    Followed by Bill Cash explaining the purpose and legal basis for his proposed New Clause 17, which is just what Letwin now needs.

    1. lifelogic
      March 6, 2011


  8. English Pensioner
    March 6, 2011

    The situation is not helped by the senior civil servants who want to pursue their own agenda, and just like in “Yes Minister”, manage to find reasons for not doing anything that might not suit them. In particular, they will strongly oppose all staff cuts, as in the eyes of their peers, their status depends on the number of staff they control.
    When my daughter’s company was taken over, the new (American) board ordered that no new personnel should be recruited without approval from the board, who would require a detailed job description, not only for the particular post, but for that of the immediate supervisor, together with an explanation as to why the work involved couldn’t be spread amongst other staff in the section. This had to go up through appropriate channels and be approved at all levels. It brought new recruitment to a virtual standstill for nearly two years! Pointless jobs went, mainly because no-one wanted to admit that they had staff “counting the paper clips”.
    If Ministers genuinely want to cut the size of their departments, perhaps a similar approach is required, with someone from outside vetting all recruitment. Until they make sure the Civil Servants know they are in charge, they’ll get nowhere.

  9. Martin
    March 6, 2011

    My impression is that most ministers only care about tomorrows tabloid headlines.

    As the tabloids mostly run crime stories we have ended up with a paranoid database police state. We have jails that are full because of sentence inflation.

    Visit any other EU country – there is less police, surveillance cameras etc. Yet I do not feel less safe!

  10. Alan Wheatley
    March 6, 2011

    We will have the opportunity over the next few weeks to see how ministerial power and parliamentary power play out through the mechanism of the appointment of the next Chairman of the BBC Trust.

    As I understand it, the Minister has decided that Lord Patten is the preferred candidate, and there is shortly to be parliamentary scrutiny of that ministerial preference as the preferred candidate appears before the relevant committee of the House.

    Judged on the basis of Lord Patten’s performance as the last Governor of Hong Kong, licence fee payers could be encouraged that he would stand up for their interests, in keeping with the role of the Trust, and against establishment pressure.

    On the other hand, some may feel that his high level and prominent association with the Catholic Church is far too close an association with a special interest group, especially one where a belief in what is true is based on faith rather than logic and analysis, for him to be able to play a neutral hand.

    Perhaps even more significant is the fact that (and I am open to correction on this point if I have it wrong) Lord Patten as a former European Commissioner is entitled to a large EU Pension for life on condition that he continues to act in support of the European Union.

    It will be interesting to see in which way the committee conduct their business and the outcome of their deliberations. Where does the power lie here?

    1. Denis Cooper
      March 7, 2011

      You have it right.

      I don’t know exactly how much Patten’s EU pension comes to, but Kinnock is getting about ¬£83,089 pa.

  11. Derek Buxton
    March 6, 2011

    A good post which covers most of the problems. We do need the “civil service” to be under far more stringent control then they have been. It seems from the outside that they are fully in control. It is bad enough that our politicians do not listen to the people but these non servants listen to no one, just fill their pockets.

  12. Woodsy42
    March 6, 2011

    The whole tone of this posting underlines the problem. Ministers have no power, governments have no power. Parties are not elected into ‘power’. Power is what corrupts, and by God it has!
    Ministers and Governments are elected representatives. They have responsibilities not powers. When they act in the interest of their voters, and in ways that reflect their voters needs and wishes, then they have permission to order people around and make things happen on the voter’s behalf, the power lies with the people, not the representative. Anything else they do is an illegitimate misuse of their position and holds no moral authority.

  13. stred
    March 6, 2011

    Congratulations. This is an important brief essay from an ex-minister on the erosion of Democracy. The position now is clear. We are governed by civil masters- not civil servants. Included and behind this term is the legal profession. Until some elected political party takes account of the vast legal web that lawyers have created to administer and charge for, we are bound to pay for more and more of it, and no-one will have any say about it. The number of lawyers has doubled in the last 15 years, all encouraging us to sue each other and increasing their charges to staggering levels.

    Today, I read that the Sussex Police may close police stations after midnight- as a cost saving measure. Meanwhile, pensions are being paid to policemen retiring at an early age because of the strain of sitting in the police station filling in forms.This accounts for a large share of the Police budget. The chief executive of the Sussex Health Authority has retired a year early on a huge salary, paid for another absent year, and is now a highly paid private consultant to another trust. (see current edition Private Eye)

    Taxpayers can do nothing and neither can Ministers. Unfortunately, however, Ministers will be able to cash in once they leave office, or are already members of the highly paid ‘elite’ of the clerical professions themselves.

    Why should some lawyer, paid to administer law, be able to create it and have more influence than an elected representative?

    We need a new political party which is willing to sling the whole corrupt mess out and reduce these self serving parasites to what they were originally. Lawyers were intended to be clerks, employed do ensure that the electorate’s will was put into law and correctly administered.

  14. Mike Stallard
    March 6, 2011

    “Once passed these laws cannot be amended or reapled on the wish of a UK Minister, unless a majority of all EU member states and the Commision agree.”
    I am deeply shocked by the simplicity of this fact.

    1. Mike Stallard
      March 6, 2011

      Ps what does Reapled mean?


    2. Paul H
      March 7, 2011

      It is shocking and depressing, even more so given the obvious lever of the squillions we pump into the black hole every year.

    3. sm
      March 7, 2011

      The Executive and party structure via the whips can take as much power as they require or as little as they wish for political reasons. Perhaps politicians are astute clever and ambitious people and if a strategic ”executive” preferred policy is popular with the electorate that’s a bonus otherwise divide and conquer. It could just be a Royal Mess of competing power blocs fighting over crumbs.

      The Gordian Knot. The solution a referendum or a sword?

  15. Brian Tomkinson
    March 6, 2011

    Sir Humphrey would disagree with your ideas about Ministerial power. All those years ago he believed that Ministers had three functions:
    “(i) As an Advocate. He makes the Department’s actions seem plausible to Parliament and the public.
    (ii) He is Our Man in Westminster, steering our legislation through parliament. (N.B Ours, not his.)
    (iii) He is our Breadwinner. His duty is to fight in Cabinet for the Money we need to do our Job.
    PLEASE NOTE: It’s not his function to review departmental procedures and practices with Principals and Higher Executive Officers.”

    I should say that Sir Humphrey is in fact still pulling the strings wouldn’t you?

  16. Alte Fritz
    March 6, 2011

    This interesting post is all the more interesting because of its rarity. Why is there so little debate?

  17. Andrew Smith
    March 6, 2011

    Ministers, like Parliament, have as much power as they think is right.

    If it were not so they would arrange to modify or repeal the European Communities Act, 1972 in order to correct the situation.

    Accordingly, all MPs and ministers must be held accountable for their acts of omission or commission without regard to the EU Treaties, Directives, Regulations and Opinions; each and all of these could be amended if there was the will.

  18. Electro-Kevin
    March 6, 2011

    Never mind Libya or Al Qaeda. The greatest threat to our freedom is the EU.

    1. Electro-Kevin
      March 6, 2011

      We have the worst that democracy has to offer

      American no-win-no-fee

      European law

      A British left wing establishment

      Ending no-win-no-fee would be a good start. Closing down half the law schools and turning them into technical colleges would be a good idea too.

  19. Mr Right Wing
    March 8, 2011

    You are absolutely spot on about the erosion of ministerial powers. However, the Tories are just as culpable as Labour about this. Under David Cameron this is not going to change.

  20. Robin Davies
    March 10, 2011

    The key word here is ‘power’. To get one’s policy carried out requires people to do it, people who in the case of government are neither motivated by ideology nor, as in the private sector, obliged to do so for fear of losing their job. Just as Eric Pickles is up against the shroud-waving politically-motivated town hall officials whose priorities are their own survival so is Michael Gove in his academies policy up against the local education authorities and the headteachers. I am a primary school governor in ruralish Wiltshire and there are few takers so far down here. Why should there be? Although there would probably be surplus income after making provision for the services presently provided by the LEA we are to be restricted in the amount of that surplus we can keep against other potential liabilities such as the staff pension plan deficit to be transferred to the school, an amount which is unquantifiable because the LEA will not say how much it is, redundancy payments and claims for compensation. On top of that the head reckons he should have a rise to cover his additional responsibilities! Unless Michael Gove is able to get the saboteurs out of the way this is going to be an embarrasing and humilating failure.

Comments are closed.