Constitutional theory has changed a lot about the role and responsibilities of Ministers in recent years. The old idea that the Secretary of State was responsible for every decision of his or her department, whoever had taken it, has long been modified. No-one today thinks the DWP Secretary is personally responsible for a staff member miscalculating a person’s entitlement to benefit, or the Health Secretary is personally responsible for a cancelled appointment by a doctor. The doctrine of implied proportionality has emerged, where the decision has to be large enough to warrant personal intervention by the politician prior to it being taken.
All three parties in power have also developed the doctrine of the accountable quango. Secretaries of State do not accept responsibility for the decisions of the Bank of England or the Environment Agency. These bodies are appointed by Parliament, have budgets and founding Statutes from Parliament, and do things which the government used to do for itself before they were established or had their functions widened, but they are largely independent.
All three parties also accept the Michael Howard amendment to the doctrine of Ministerial accountability. Ministers can now delegate management functions to senior officials, and make them responsible for managing to an agreed policy. If they make a mistake in carrying out the required policy, the fault is their’s and not the Minister’s.
I have sympathy with these evolutionary changes. I do not think, however, they should become a reason to excuse Ministers from responsibility for the things that matter. Whatever the politicians may wish the doctrine to be, the voters regard the government as to blame for the big things that happen in government in its widest sense. It is time to ask what is a Minister’s job? What should we expect of them? Do we perhaps expect too much, when they in turn are very constrained by international law, domestic law, and the complexity and range of tasks of modern government? Or should Ministers take more of a grip over the army of quangos, the EU and international bodies that affect them?
A Ministerial job is a part time job. Ministers are also MPs, and have to do their main day job as well as being Ministers. They are more than Non executive Chairmen, but less than full time Chief Executive Officers in their departments. Unlike the Chairman, they do have to take or approve the CEO type decisions. Unlike the CEO, they are not full time. They do not appoint, promote and reward the staff they rely on. They may well be appointed with little knowledge or technical background in the area of their command. Their tenure may be short. This limits their ability to challenge or to decide on many technical matters.
The Minister is clearly responsible for setting the main policies of the department, on advice from officials and the wider public the department serves. The Minister is solely responsible for repesenting the department in the Commons and satisfying the Commons concerning its budgets and actions. Senior officials can be asked to appear before Committees. The Minister is primarily responsible for representing the department to the wider world through the media, conferences and the like. Senior officials play a supporting role. The Minister is the complaints department, the person who asks the difficult questions if things are going wrong. He will chair the relevant meetings to put mistakes right or change systems to prevent future error.
The Secretary of State is as far as the public is concerned responsible for all the main decisions the department takes. He or she can demand papers and people to cross examine. He or she can speed decisions up or slow them down. They can overturn official advice or ask for a second opinion. Ministers need to show they are prepared to do this when it matters.
Sometimes Ministers are appointed to jobs they know well. Occasionally a Minister is appointed with relevant knowledge and qualifications. That enables the Minister to do more and to make a better contribution to the work of the department.
As we have often said on this site, Ministers collectively need to wrestle power back from the EU, the ECHR and from some quangos. The public wants Ministers who do respond to public concerns and needs, and who have the power to do so effectively. We also need to consider what qualifications and training would Ministers ideally have?