Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Do Ministers Actually Do?

At a select committe hearing today Bernard Jenkin asked: "What do ministers actually do?" The answer is that while some are hyperactively busy, others do sweet F A.

It is a disgrace that we now have 108 ministers, three more than under Labour. I'm sure I remember David Cameron making a promise to reduce their number. He could start by reducing the number of ministers in each department by one at the next reshuffle. At least it would be a start. I doubt whether anyone would notice any difference.

One other thing to note is that if the number of MPs is reduced by 8 per cent, then surely it follows that their should be a commensurate cut in ministerial numbers anyway. Otherwise the Executive will wield even more power over the legislature.

28 comments:

Thorpe said...

I applaud your sentiment Iain, but your logic is suspect. Any reduction in MPs would not automatically reflect in a reduction in Ministers. The logical link is a reduction in the number of Departments.

And where better to start than DFID? Leaving aside the manifesto clause (after all, much else in the manifesto was), this single department wastes £11Bn a year of taxpayers' money, mostly on nations who have more than enough. It would be more acceptable to make the DFID budget about £100 million, staffed by no more than 500 civil servants, and merge it into a small niche within the Foreign Office.

It could also have the added bonus of depriving Gordon bl**dy Brown of a Shadow position. It seems he is canvassing support for such a role in the Labour Shadow Cabinet elections.

Stuart Bonar said...

I'd also abolish the severance pay to which all outgoing ministers are entitled (Labour ministers turfed out because their party lost the election pocketed over £1 million in May!).

I submitted this idea to the Spending Challenge, and my local MP Mark Field is now writing to Francis Maude to highlight the idea.

Read about it on my blog at http://bit.ly/d2zuS8

Libertarian said...

Blimey David Cameron breaking a promise to the electorate , who'd a thunk it

Sean Haffey said...

Over 100? Why do we need more than two or three dozen?

eb said...

He doesn't keep "cast iron guarantees" so why do you expect him to keep a simple promise?

trevorsden said...

I agree - fewer ministers, but that is one of the problems with coalition govt.

I do despair though with the constant sniping at the DfID. This is just cheap ignorance.

I agree that it may not need a separate dept. - Labour I believe (Brown?) took it away from the Foreign Office.

But this I think highlights one issue - aid should be a political and diplomatic weapon. I believe the coalition (Tories?) are proposing this.

But the other important point is also surely purely selfish. If the rest of the world is poor and under developed - well how can they be expected to buy our goods. I see nothing wrong with aiding their development and encouraging them to buy from us.

We should criticise aid (well most of it) if it is not ultimately likely to help ourselves.

Steve said...

Iain I agree with Thorpe, your logic is suspect. FWIW I think there are probably too many ministers but your metric is not the right one. I would like to see fewer MPs and fewer ministers and 'payroll vote'. I'm a Labout supporter, incidentally, and would make the same argument whatever the political complexion of the government.

steve said...

If 80% of legislation comes from the EU surely we only need 20 or so ministers in the Cabinet?

This would free the other 80 to tend to their non-executive directorships and jollies.

Robert said...

I heard Dave make a lot of promises. Can't think of any he actually kept.

Remind us, how many ministers did we have when we ran half the planet?

When our ministers don't even run the country why do we need so many?

joshuachambers said...

The problem is one of prime ministerial patronage. Would David Cameron really want to get rid on a useful tool for keeping potential rebels on board (e.g. Norman Baker), especially as coalition tensions increase?

Norfolk Blogger said...

I agree Iain. Lib Dems said before the elction that there was not need for a Scottish Office and a minister, so why is a Lib Dem sitting in that seat ?

adamcollyer said...

Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister:

"There are only 630 MPs and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all."

Steven_L said...

LOL, I've seen a Minister's office (the Minister wasn't there) and it was just a goldfish bowl type room with a nice chair, a big desk and a fridge full of wine.

Outside the door you have all the SPAD's and admin folk with desks full of documents.

I reckon if I was a Minister, I'd just get pissed on the free wine and read as many top secret documents as I could before I got re-shuffled.

HarveyR said...

Fewer ministers, eh? Let's see when the next election comes roundwhether that is the case.


Dale, you are so gullible. Elected politicians care nothing for the electorate who put them there. They feather their nests - red, blue, lab, tory or lib-dem, and that means the loyalists expect preferment to salaried positions.

Stephen Wigmore said...

People who attack the aid budget are ridiculous.

The aid budget is about 1% of government expenditure. It is a tiny amount of money, but that tiny amount of money can do more good than ten times the amount of money spent here. Why should we take money that is genuinely doing good saving lives and bringing basic essentials like clean water or basic medicine to some of the most hardworking people on the planet just so we can waste tens of billions a year across government on unnecessary civil servants, ridiculous public sector non-jobs, AV referendums, fads in public education, homeopathic medicine, scottish devolution and universal benefits for middle class people.

Of course we shouldn't be giving aid to China and India, if they can pay for nukes they can support their own citizens. But there are plenty of people out there in truly poor countries that genuinely need our help, and we can do so much for money that is just peanuts compared to the sums we waste here on rubbish.

pete-s said...

I thought the purpose of the extra ministers was a way to bribe MPs with extra money to keep a sizable portion of them loyal. They use the 'Minister' mechanism as a means of achieving this, obvious really.

Unsworth said...

Alan Clark found time to indulge himself whilst in office - but it's clear from his Diaries that he worked rather longer hours than many of his Civil Servants. Then again, as you say, what do Ministers actually do? Does being a Minister entail endless 'social' events such as dinners, receptions, breakfast meetings etc? In Clark's case it did.

Maybe we should redefine what 'work' means. If we take the narrow Leftist view it seems that huge amounts of 'overtime' are being worked by some Ministers.

Pogo said...

@trevorsden: If the rest of the world is poor and under developed - well how can they be expected to buy our goods. I see nothing wrong with aiding their development and encouraging them to buy from us.

We should criticise aid (well most of it) if it is not ultimately likely to help ourselves.


That seems to be the standard excuse for sending vast wodges of wonga off to foreign parts... "They'll use it to buy British goods". But is that really the case?

Owing to the inevitable, and incredible, inefficiencies of government, there's going to be an overhead on the distribution, so some of the taxpayers money is burnt up before even leaving our shores. Once "abroad" it's subject to the inefficiencies and corruption of the receiving state or NGO, so another slice of it will disappear into various "non-charitable" organisations and Swiss banks. The remaining slice seems frequently to find its way to various arms suppliers dotted all round the world.

Frankly I'd be surprised if more than 20% of our money ever finds its way back to UK companies and equally surprised if more than that percentage actually gets received by the supposed recipients of the aid.

Basically, IMHO, a waste of bloody money.

Erskine May said...

One way to address the issue is to amend the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 and reduce the number of ministerial posts for which salaries may be paid. It is not a foolproof solution, as some MPs and peers accept ministerial office without being paid a ministerial salary, but few like to remain unpaid on a long-term basis.

Roger Thornhill said...

@trevorsden, @Stephen Wigmore

Yes, aid can do wonders indeed. However, when other peoples' money is given to those spending it on people who will spend it on behalf of others, you get inefficiency squared or even cubed.

The money spent is not collected with consent. It is not charity. Better that we donate directly to causes we believe in. It is up to us to decide when they fail to measure up.

However, I do wonder if DfID is there as the public face of, how can I say it? Universal Exports.

RonLiddle said...

Strong ties with developing countries are important for trade. The benefits outweigh the expenditure. Think of how many British products/services we can export due to their emergence.

Regarding the cabinet. The cabinet table already looks more squeezed for space than one at a central london pizza express. As a result of including so many ministers, the real power base has actually shrunk to 4 or 5 colleagues that David Cameron actually trusts - it's a red herring.

A better system would perhaps be to give responsibility of the smaller ministries at the cabinet table to a smaller number of ministers. ie, Justice and Home Office represented by 1 cabinet member - how it used to be. Therefore fewer people need to be at these meetings, and you may actually make progress.

Far too many people at that table to have a meaningful discussion on anything; it's a recipe for a waste of time.

starfish said...

It does amuse me

I have actually worked in around and for minsters' outer offices

Departmental business is a very small proportion of their job

Mostly it consists of being the public face of the department and dealing with the media and people like all of you who are busy complaining that they are not getting on with their jobs!

And this workload is steadily increasing because of the lobbyists, interst groups, quangos, media types and members of the public who feel they must have a say in audit/critique/legal compliance/stat collection - plus the government's apparent need to have its fingers in every pie

So the number of ministers is directly proportional to the amount of interference all these people want to make

PS DfID was created so that Clare Short could have a cabinet post. There is no good reason for a separate department of state

Enlightened Despot said...

As Starfish points out, the number of Ministers has no relationship to the size of the legislature. The complexity of each Department’s portfolio (and this is unlikely to decline significantly even if direct responsibility for some sectors is devolved because decision making will, at least to some extent, be replaced by oversight) and the need to provide reasonable access to Ministers through visits and speeches makes it difficult to reduce the number of Ministers without imposing unsustainable strain on those who remain.

Bernard Jenkin's committee, in its Too Many Ministers? report, concluded that
"The ever-upward trend in the size of government over the last hundred years or more is striking and hard to justify objectively in the context of the end of Empire, privatisation, and, most recently, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

But that overlooks the nature of modern government. “Good government” is about more than just the efficient delivery of fairly made policies and decisions. In a world of “stakeholders” and 24 hour news media, Ministers are expected to be seen, and to account and be a spokesman for the Government to a far greater extent than their predecessors. It would be difficult to envisage that a smaller cadre of those doing the work of Ministers could satisfy the demands of today’s concept of accountability.

But that does not mean that such work should be reserved only for Ministers as we know them now.
Ministers are less the best people for the job than the best people (or just the rewardees) that Prime Ministers have chosen from the small pool – one likely, under proposals to reduce the number of constituencies, to get even smaller - of their own party’s (largely) elected members. And election does not confer on an individual a special skill of competent decision making that is lacking in others. So why not move to departments being headed by an elected Secretary of State, with junior Ministers being appointed on the basis of proven ability in their sector? In the United States and France for example, there are no concerns over the ability of presidents to select the most capable individuals positions without confining themselves to the legislature. Why should a Prime Minister not be given the same freedom provided that appointees are made as accountable (nomination hearings, parliamentary question times etc) as elected Ministers are now? It would also introduce a welcome degree of separation between the Executive and Parliament.

Enlightened Despot said...

As Starfish points out, the number of Ministers has no relationship to the size of the legislature. The complexity of each Department’s portfolio (and this is unlikely to decline significantly even if direct responsibility for some sectors is devolved because decision making will, at least to some extent, be replaced by oversight) and the need to provide reasonable access to Ministers through visits and speeches makes it difficult to reduce the number of Ministers without imposing unsustainable strain on those who remain.

Bernard Jenkin's comment overlooks the nature of modern government. “Good government” is about more than just the efficient delivery of fairly made policies and decisions. In a world of “stakeholders” and 24 hour news media, Ministers are expected to be seen, and to account and be a spokesman for the Government to a far greater extent than their predecessors. It would be difficult to envisage that a smaller cadre of those doing the work of Ministers could satisfy the demands of today’s concept of accountability.

But that does not mean that such work should be reserved only for Ministers as we know them now.
Ministers are less the best people for the job than the best people (or just the rewardees) that Prime Ministers have chosen from the small pool – one likely, under proposals to reduce the number of constituencies, to get even smaller - of their own party’s (largely) elected members. And election does not confer on an individual a special skill of competent decision making that is lacking in others. So why not move to departments being headed by an elected Secretary of State, with junior Ministers being appointed on the basis of proven ability in their sector? In the United States and France for example, there are no concerns over the ability of presidents to select the most capable individuals positions without confining themselves to the legislature. Why should a Prime Minister not be given the same freedom provided that appointees are made as accountable (nomination hearings, parliamentary question times etc) as elected Ministers are now? It would also introduce a welcome degree of separation between the Executive and Parliament.

longrun2 said...

Someone was making a fuss about King Albert representing Belgium at the various Councils of Ministers while Belgium lacked a government during post-election negotiations. Of course having spent all his life until Baudoin died as understudy and the last 17 years as King he has a phenomenal degree of understanding of Belgian politics but for one man to replace the whole Belgian cabinet in EU discussions does raise the question "why do wee need 25 cabinet ministers?"£to

................................. said...

"it follows that their should be"

obviously not enough ministers in the education department then lol

Brian said...

Instead of international aid why not remove EU barriers to trade like tariffs and quotas from developing countries? Wouldn't cheaper imported goods benefit our economy as a whole? NGOs could concentrate on sinking wells and training health visitors and local entrepreneurs could continue to grow telecoms, IT and financial sectors.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"I'm sure I remember David Cameron making a promise to reduce their number."

I'm sure I remember him making a promise to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, but there you are, I guess one's memory goes with age, or something.