Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former Policy Adviser, has set the cat amongst the pigeons by saying that only 30% of the Coalition government’s time and effort goes into doing what the Coalition and Ministers want. He tells us 40% is taken up implementing EU government directives, and 30% absorbed with what officials think they need to do. We are told by Mr Hilton that there is simply too much of this official government material for Ministers to control or direct it all. Steve Hilton’s comments about how government works need to be taken seriously. It implies that Ministers are not sufficiently in charge. Parliament in consequence becomes a rubber stamp for Brussels and the civil service. He tells us that Number 10 often wakes up in the morning to hear on the radio or tv what the government is doing. Quite often what the government is doing is not to the liking of the Prime Minister.
When I was Chief Policy Adviser to Margaret Thatcher at Number 10 we knew what each department was doing. All major items of policy and new law had to be cleared through the Cabinet and its committees. Matters within the control of individual Secretaries of State were reviewed by the Prime Minister in a series of bilateral meetings that I recommended, so that colleagues could be assured of Prime Ministerial support for what they were doing. Number 10 did not like surprises and made sure it was well briefed on all the main things, and the contentious things, that were going on. Prime Ministerial speeches were cleared with all departments, giving them a chance to warn us of any difficult developments. The twice weekly Prime Minister’s Questions briefings were detailed so the PM knew all the issues from each department likely to come up in the House.
In the 1980s there was some of the same tension between the official government and the political government that Mr Hilton describes. The main disagreements were hammered out at the time of the compilation of the annual legislative programme. The official machine would trot out dozens of bills they wanted for the sake of “good government”. They always wanted a new Criminal Justice Bill, a new Companies Bill, a new Finance Bill to update and improve the law as they saw it. The political government would want various Bills to pursue its agenda – maybe a privatisation Bill or a Deregulation Bill. Some Cabinet members mainly supported the development of the political government’s agenda, others assumed the views of their departments and argued the case for the official government’s legislation. All accepted we could not do all that the original list set out, as Parliamentary time and the country’s capacity to absorb ever more laws and ever changing legislation is limited.
Those who favoured the civil service bills would argue that they were not “contentious” and were necessary for good government. Sometimes friendly Ministers argued through for such a bill, only to find it turned out to be very contentious with Parliament for some reason that no-one had bothered to study. The danger with the civil service bills was that they did upset some people, but had no great political advocates if they started to go wrong. They often appeared in Cabinet and even in Parliament with insufficient political analysis and discussion. When they received their second reading in Parliament they did not have marked on them “uncontentious civil service bill” and the opposition did not necessarily let them through easily. All Ministers did accept that the Bills became theirs, and there was a political process to adopt or reject them. Ministers were regarded as responsible for the policy and the bill, and expected to master it before appearing in the Commons with it. The Policy Unit at Number 10 was especially keen to read and draw out the consequences of the official bills, as they were political orphan bills if they started to go wrong.
Brussels legislation did not figure nearly so prominently then as now. The Margaret Thatcher government did end the veto for so called single market measures, the first crack in the dam of UK Parliamentary sovereignty over new laws. They turned down my advice to revert to the veto on all matters after an agreed group of single market directives had been approved under qualified majority voting. The Coalition government has arrived in office after the dozens more vetoes have been surrendered in the Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon treaties signed by Labour. As a result it is very difficult now for UK energy,financial regulation, agriculture, fishing, transport, trade and industry, and environmental Ministers to pursue a UK domestic policy, given the large amounts of law that come from Brussels. Mr Hilton is quite right to recognise that Ministers simply have to put through large amounts of new law at the request of Brussels, where they may have lost the vote or failed to amend it in the way they wished when it came up for decision in the EU.
Parliament enacts large quantities of legislation by Statutory instrument. These devices usually pass after 90 minutes of debate on a take it or leave it motion. The House cannot amend them. Statutory Instruments are now widely used to implement Brussels law. This short process avoids too much public gaze of just how much of our law is EU derived, and prevents most of it ever becoming a matter of political or Parliamentary dispute. Labour is especially reluctant to oppose measures which emanate from Brussels. None of the three main parties in opposition have wished to highlight the vast array of new law that is EU based. Coalition Ministers have continued with Labour’s practice of putting this all through in Statutory Instruments, and playing it down as much as possible. The press have gone along with this, rarely bothering to report the new laws coming out from this process.
The EU has become an important impediment to Mr Hilton and his like minded Ministers because it now regularly stops Ministers doing what they wish in big areas of domestic policy. Let us take an apparently UK based area, that of welfare benefits. This was meant to be a national issue to be paid for by national taxpayers. Now today welfare Ministers find that the EU has considerable influence over benefit eligibility, ensuring that recently arrived migrants from the rest of the EU do receive the same benefits as people long settled here who have been paying Income Tax and National Insurance over many years. The UK government is now engaged in expensive and complex court cases to try to establish what discretion it has left over who to pay benefits to.
So what can Number 10 do to deal with the problems of policy development and enforcement which Mr Hilton describes? Some of the problems are easily fixed. The Prime Minister does need to have carefully prepared bilateral with his leading Cabinet members to ensure there will be no surprises from their departments in future. Senior Cabinet members can in turn do the same with junior Cabinet members and Ministers of State in their departments. Number 10 can use the weekly Questions briefing to ensure they know all the politically sensitive things that are going on. The Prime Minister and Cabinet need to use their ability to settle the legislative programme and their ability to determine which Statutory Instruments should be taken to Parliament to get a better balance between what they want to do and what has to be done.
Tackling the problem of too much government from the EU is altogether more difficult. Mr Cameron’s forthcoming speech is a big opportunity to explain to the country just how much of our government now comes from Brussels. He needs to set out how he would like in future to regain more control over how we do govern our own country. If he wants a UK energy policy, a UK criminal justice policy, a UK regulatory policy, even a UK welfare policy, there does need to be a change in our relationship with the EU legislative machine. If there is not, there will be ever more frustrated Ministers having to do things they do not wish to do, and ever less consent from Parliament and the UK voters to how they are being governed.
(This article was commissioned yesterday by the Daily Telegraph who then decided not to run it.)