Monday, January 25, 2010

A New Role for PPSs?

I've written before about my fears relating to the ability of a new Conservative government to drive forward its agenda in the face of opposition from recalcitrant civil servants. These fears are exacerbated by Conservative plans to halve the number of political advisers. Many people think that this is a decision which could come back to haunt David Cameron.

Labour has doubled the number of special advisers since 1997. Clearly this has gone too far, but the Conservatives shouldn't underestimate the role they have been able to play in driving through Labour's agenda. If the Tories haven't got the same resources available to them, they shouldn't be so naive as to think that ministers will be able to do it all by themselves.

So here's an idea. If there is a Conservative government with a reasonable majority, it is important to find things for backbenchers to do, if only to keep them out of mischief. So my suggestion is this. Instead of appointing one PPS to a Cabinet Minister, each one should have two. They would be unpaid (as now), but one of them would effectively fulfil the role of a second special adviser. The advantages to a Cabinet Minister are clear, but it would also be good for more backbenchenchers to gain experience of how government operates. These PPS's should be carefully chosen, rather than the random process which exists currently. Ideally, they should have some knowledge of the subject area of the department they would be working within.

PPSs need to be more than the proverbial bag carrier. They also need to be more than a Minister's eyes and ears in Parliament. A second PPS in a department will need to augment the work of the Minister's SPAD and to take on an light enforcer and progress chasing role.

Thoughts?

UPDATE: Some interesting comments. The way to avoid increasing the payroll vote is to reduce the number of ministers in the first place. Also, Jimmy's point is (as usual) fatuous as nowehere was I advocating that each and every Minister should have their own dual PPSs. PPSs are normally only allocated to Cabinet Ministers and perhaps five or six senior Ministers of State.

36 comments:

Johnny Norfolk said...

Perhaps the MPs should select their own over the first year when they can see whos who.

Childprotector said...

Recalcitrant civil servants = providers of inconvenient truths that do not suit a party political agenda?

James Mackenzie said...

Eminently sensible and practical.

And (if I were a Tory whip worried about legions of climate-change denying sub-Dan Hannanites) a good way of increasing the quasi-payroll vote.

I'd do it if I were them.

Walsingham's Ghost said...

Excellent idea, Iain.

I know from my own experience the extent to which the civil service has been politicised over the last decade or so. I have commented ad nauseum on various blogs as to how the civil service under an incoming Cameron government will 'leak like a sieve' and that there will be no such thing as 'private and confidential'.

In the first 12 months of New Labour coming to power in 1997, virtually all the Directors of Communications across all government departments were replaced by Labour friendly alternatives. These top appointees have had 10 years or more to ensure their entire team now consists of wannabe apparatchiks - all of whom will be vehemently opposed to a Conservative government.

I recall entering a certain Secretary of State’s office in the run-up to the last General Election. The entire open-plan office of around 80 staff was festooned with ‘Vote Labour’ posters. When I asked why this was being allowed, I was told “welcome to the real world...”

Unless Cameron undertakes a root and branch culling of the senior and middle-ranking Labour apparatchiks that now infest the British civil service, his first term is doomed from the start.

WG

Conand said...

I think James Mackenzie has found the sticking point. This will increase a potential Government's powers of patronage. Carswellite-Ultras both in HoC and in the wider party won't like it at all.
Another potential problem is that in an abstract sense it doubles the chances of PPSs resigning. This very rarely produces news stories that the government wants to hear.

Beowulf said...

Yeah, what we really need is a bigger government.

Jimmy said...

There are 127 ministers. 2 pps each means a payroll vote of 381. assuming a landslide (as you clearly are) what would constitute being "carefully chosen"?

Oliver said...

Exactly. It increases the pay roll vote with all the implications that has for public perception of the value of MPs. And this effect will be all the greater if (rightly) the Tories reduce the size of the House of Commons. Here we go again with an over-mighty Executive, when Major, Blair and Brown have demonstrated how incompetent or crooked Executives turn out. Of course, there is a link. The less pressure on the Executive from a strong legislature, the more incompetent or crooked it's likely to be.

Richard Manns said...

@ Childprotector

Or, perhaps, Recalcitrant Civil Servants = foot-dragging, nay-saying, self-protecting public-sector bureaucrats?

It's the civil servants' job to advise. It's the politicians' jobs to decide. Because the buck stops at the politician. If things go pear-shaped, the politician takes the chop, not the senior civil servant, who is practically impossible to remove for the minor crime of utter incompetance.

Lobbydog said...

While I appreciate Iain, that you want to see a strong Tory Government – what we should be doing now is focussing on creating a strong system. That means giving the legislature more power to hold Government to account, not robbing it of independence by bringing yet more MPs into the executive's "circle of trust".

Goodwin said...

How about just letting the senior civil servants do their jobs properly, in the best interests of the country, rather than in the best interests of the party who happens to be in power? It did work quite well for quite a long time and we might not be in the mess we're in now.

Little Black Sambo said...

To sum up then, No.

Dave and George Jumblie said...

It loked good, until we thought about it...

The policy role should be handled by more than one PPS [the words Zack and Goldsmith come to mind for a good reason why not an individual].

So then it comes to the 'getting things done' role, or arse-kicker - it could be done by a PPS, but wouldn't a decent select committee do a better job? As a senior civil servant, who would you rather face, a minster's new boy/girl or a Select Committe in public session.

We would cut down the payroll vote [state] and strengthen the legislature [people]. Not perfect, but then we are all seeking the least imperfect, anyway!

Billy said...

Bad idea - PPSs are required to support the government's position i.e. they will be stripped of their ability to perform their primary function which is to scrutinise the government's actions and policies.

Paddy Briggs said...

"I've written before about my fears relating to the ability of a new Conservative government to drive forward its agenda in the face of opposition from recalcitrant civil servants"

What “agenda” is that then? Did you see the Newsnight 30 year retrospective where, I prĂ©cis, Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten both agreed that there isn’t an ideology in sight from Labour or the Conservatives and that as a consequence there isn’t a hair’s width between them? Indeed, as I think it was Patten who said, put a declared party policy on the table without its party label and you wouldn’t have a clue, these days, whether it was a Tory or a Labour policy!

So the Conservative Agenda, such as it is, cannot be controversial – so why should the Civil Service try and block it? Once again Iain I think that you are nostalgic for the days of the Blessed Margaret when it was her constant complaint that the Civil Servants were blockers – no surprise that her favourite TV programme was “Yes Minister”!

I’d love to see ideologically driven policies from the Tories pre Election (even if I disagreed with them) - but I won’t. The centre ground is the only place post-modern politicians want to be seen and that’s why election turnouts are so low and politicians sit even behind Estate Agents and Bloggers in the public esteem.

Scary Biscuits said...

Jimmy and Oliver, as PPSs are unpaid, I don't think they count as part of the payroll vote.

However, the real point Cameron and I think you are making is that government has got over-large. Maintaining PPS numbers to match is hardly helpful. The radical solution, which I am afraid the centre right like Dale are shying away from, is not that SpAD or PPS numbers should be redoubled but that the Civil Service should be cut in half. This has two benefits: 1, it puts Ministers in charge (if Civil Servants know they won't all have jobs it gives power to the Minister to choose between them and therefore to find ones that are willing to go onside); 2, it cuts direct costs proportionately making the tax rising that Ken Clarke et al keep warning about less likely; and 3, the saving to the taxpayer is not only the direct costs of their gold plated packages but also the cost they impose on us all by their activities - fewer civil servants mean less red tape and gold plated regulations - basically there are less of them to get in the way of people trying to earn money and paying the taxman (e.g those traffic Wombles always closing the motorways).

Dramatically reducing the size of the Civil Service is the pre-requisite for everything the Conservatives want to achieve in government. If they don't do this, they'll end up like Boris (putting the cost of public services up) and voters will see little improvement over Labour. Osbourne's failure to promise this (for fear of frightening the horses) is probably one reason only about 27% of the electorate intend to vote Conservative at the next election (based on Conservative support at 40% and turnout at 67%). Cameron, like the rest of the political class, needs to reconnect with the people of this country and stop paying so much attention to 'opinion formers'. Like Sarah Palin, he should be seeking the support of the people not of other politicians and journalists.

Sean Haffey said...

Did Maggie Thatcher's government fail to push through change because of a lack of PPS's or SPADs?

If a minister is not compenent to do the job, an extra flubky won't help. And if a minister is competent, an extra flunky will get in the way.

Iain Dale said...

Some interesting comments. The way to avoid increasing the payroll vote is to reduce the number of ministers in the first place. Also, Jimmy's point is (as usual) fatuous as nowehere was I advocating that each and every Minister should have their own dual PPSs. PPSs are normally only allocated to Cabinet Ministers and perhaps five or six senior Ministers of State.

Peter said...

Excellent idea and one that would work much better if the number of not just Ministers but Ministries were cut.
Why for example, do we need a Ministry for Transport could not it be combined with DEFRA.

Anonymous said...

Not a good idea!
It is right to reduce number of Ministers and also if possible number of MPs as has been suggested by David Cameron. But an increase in number of PPS's (so called payroll!!) would not be good for increasing the relevance of Parliament as a check on the Executive (something very much in the news at the moment). Recalcitrant civil servants are only such if they serve inadequate Ministers. So in summary less but better Ministers, many fewer political advisers, and PPS's probably only for Cabinet Ministers.

PT (Ex PPS!)

Jimmy said...

Iain,

I had not noticed your qualification and stand corrected. It's actually rather difficult to put a precise number on your proposal as there is no current official pps list. The last number I found was 47. If one includes such things as assistant whips you still seem to be proposing a payroll vote north of 200.

Incidentally in my searches I noticed the PM has already adopted your proposal, albeit only for himself.

Unsworth said...

@ Richard Manns

"If things go pear-shaped, the politician takes the chop, not the senior civil servant, who is practically impossible to remove for the minor crime of utter incompetance"

Name one Minister in the past decade who has 'taken the chop'. And which Minister of the past decade would you regard as competent, and why?

As to 'if things go pear-shaped', well, I can't think of a single thing which hasn't. Care to list a few?

neil craig said...

I think it is a decent idea - in fact as Parliament has become more of a rubber stamp the idea of a Parliamentary PS is less important & the need for somebody on the Minister's side able to look at the detail of the department becomes more important.

However I doubt if it would have much effect in keeping backbenchers obedient. Traditionally the PPS is getting the hint they will, if they keep their noses clean, become Ministers in time. If there are twice as many as ministers the chances of them doing that are similarly reduced so the attraction of the job becomes merely the long hours & no pay - and whether they actually get to change something in the ministry. This might make them more bolshy rather than less & knowing how things work - which would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Mad idea. My memory of Special Advisers is taht they work 80 hour weeks. Let's assume that 50% of this is wasted time. Try telling an MP that he/she has got an extra 40 hours of unpaid work each week.

Iain Dale said...

I don't know where you get your figures from - presumably you pluck them out of the air. The payroll vote is nowhere near 200, and if I had my way there would be 60 government ministers plus 2 PPSs for each Cabinet Minister.

The PM has always had 2 PPSs. Thatcher and Major had two as well.

Southerner said...

Wise in many ways though you are, your constantly expressed fears about the civil service faithfully implementing a Conservative Government's agenda are completely misplaced. They reflect both lack of experience and understanding. What civil servants want and need is a a Government with a clear set of policies and the courage and ability to see them through. It will then deliver. If we have a Government with no clear idea of what it is there for and changes policy on a daily basis at the whim of the latest tabloid headline then it makes implementation impossible. The politicisation that has occurred in some areas in recent years is not the norm nor is it welcome by most civil servants. The irony is that one of Labour's concerns on entering office was that a civil service that had only know a conservative Government would not delver for them!

OldSlaughter said...

"Clearly this has gone too far, but the Conservatives shouldn't underestimate the role they have been able to play in driving through Labour's agenda. If the Tories haven't got the same resources available to them, they shouldn't be so naive as to think that ministers will be able to do it all by themselves."

Aside from the suggestion. I found the thinking in this quote a little unnerving.

If you think it has gone too far but you think it successful, seek to reform the civil service. If the influx of special advisers is formalised rather than reversed then so will be the diminishment of an independent civil service.

The game is above the team. The Left never accept this, the Tories are supposed to.

javelin said...

Cameron simply needs to cut the budget. QED

As far as I can tell the budget is totally arbitary.

The civil service needs to understand that the budget was, is and will be, a political decision. If you work for the Government you undertake the risk that a new political party may cut your job. It has always been this way and always will.

Civil service jobs are political appointments dependent on political agendas and political priorities.

Norfolk Blogger said...

it says little for MPs that they ahve to be "kept out of trouble". Here's an idea, why not make them do more constituency casework and prove themselves to be champions for their constituencies ?

tomandclaire said...

rather than the random process which exists currently. Ideally, they should have some knowledge of the subject area of the department they would be working within.

Does no one else find that comment really depressing? That it is a good idea to have some knowledge of what they are working with.

Jimmy said...

Iain. It's simple. I took 127 ministers, 47 pps (most recent figure I could find), 9 asst whips and added in your additional pps (22). I make that 205. I hadn't realised you planned on culling the ministers.

Thatsnews said...

This sounds like a good idea, Iain.

John said...

Don't forget that the former British (Home)civil service is semi- formally split into four. eg the civil service in Scotland is effectively the Scottish civil service and the senior civil servant in Scotland has specifically said this is the case.
Really, you are talking about the English civil service only and should be better understood than it is at present.

The politicisation of CS is another problem and one which needs dealing with. Gus O'Donell the head of CS has always been close to Brown and has never taken care to keep sufficient distance from Labour. He is very close to them. his role in facilitating the transition of Balls from supposedly an impartial civil servant to highly divisive MP all within a month ot two has never been put under the spotlight.
I bet he tries to head this off.

Francis Turner said...

I suggest a slight modification

PPS1 is responsible for new stuff
PPS2 is responsible for cutting old stuff.

And PPS2 will get paid a bonus based on the budget reduction of the ministry/department

TinPot said...

['These PPS's should be carefully chosen, rather than the random process which exists currently. Ideally, they should have some knowledge of the subject area of the department they would be working within.']

They 'should have knowledge of [etc]'. Snort! What other jobs, careers could you land a fat job in, whilst having no knowledge of it? Such is the state of British politics. And this is why most people despise politicians and their gravy train...

I would suggest as a better starting point, sacking half of all MPs. After all with 85% of UK law comes from Brussels, they are ALL pretty pointless these days aren't they? Then take it from there and slash it more....

Anonymous said...

Sorry Iain, you've got this totally wrong.

Special advisers are civil servants, all are subject to vetting (unlike MPs), most to a fairly high level, and some are subject to the very highest level, even higher than DV.

They are governed by strict rules on what they can or cannot do. SPADs are the most regulated part of the civil service. As such, they are 'trusted' by the system (perhaps tolerated would be a better word).

You can't have MPs doing the same job for the same reason you can't just scrap all SPADs and leave the job to party officials. By doing that, you broaden the circulation list of sensitive papers beyond the civil service and make the job of governing harder. The job that you say could be done by a PPS needs to be done by a creature which is in part a civil servant.

No, if an incoming Tory govt has any sense it would maintain the number of SPADs and even increase them. I don't believe that the number of SPADs would actually fall under current proposals.

I have read several articles suggesting that the Tories will appoint one SPAD per Cabinet Minister and also appoint one to shadow each department in Number Ten. Again this is a real mistake.

You need political direction in departments, that's where things go wrong - not in Number Ten, where the personal prestige and mandate of the PM is sufficient. SPADs are effectively Ministerial force multipliers, they are visible and human reminders to the civil service that Ministers's policy wishes are to be implemented - and they are useful players who can make Ministers consider other policy options, and reconsider others which the civil service might prefer for their own reasons.

Remove those and the civil service will smile, and go back to pursuing its own agenda for even more of the time than it does now. That's fine if you want to live in a country which is run by a permanent government machine, but if you actually want a government which is driven by political aims (which is essential to democracy), then you need special advisers.

SPADs can also take pressure off over-worked Ministers (and the civil service overworks all of them, packing their diaries, and making them as dependent as possible on the machine's advice) by sifting, by advising the civil service what a Minister might want or prefer, and by just acting as sounding boards in what can be a lonely and difficult job.

Remember, so-called impartial civil servants are really servants of the permanent secretaries. they have their own agendas - not necessarily an agenda which is aligned with any political parties, it's more subtle than that - and could be based on issues like maintaining departmental prestige, personal preferences and the inevitable bureaucratic political agendas which arise in large organisations and which often relate to resource allocation in one way or another.