Central intelligence - The ministry of silly changes, by Colin Talbot

26 May 05
Britain is the only major democracy whose ministries have no constitutional basis. This allows prime ministers to chop and change them at will, often in response to political power plays. It has to stop

27 May 2005

Britain is the only major democracy whose ministries have no constitutional basis. This allows prime ministers to chop and change them at will, often in response to political power plays. It has to stop

Announced in the post-election Cabinet reshuffle, the Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry — formerly the Department of Trade and Industry — must hold the record for the shortest-lived government department name in British history. The name change was greeted with widespread derision and the DTI title was reinstated within days. The term 'Whitehall farce' springs to mind.

This is not the first time that the DTI has suffered name shame. It used to be, in the grand old days, called the Board of Trade. In the early 1990s, Michael Heseltine produced much mirth when, taking over as DTI secretary, he announced that he wished to retain the title of 'president of the Board of Trade'.

What the DPEI fiasco tells us, however, is something rather more serious about how British government is run. It highlights a fundamental and serious quirk in the way we do things. Perhaps a rather more serious episode helps to bring this out.

John Major made history by standing down as leader of the Conservatives in 1995 and inviting his eurosceptic critics to oppose him in the ensuing internal Tory Party election. Immediately after his re-election, the departments for Education and Employment were suddenly merged under Gillian Shephard. Indeed, it was so sudden that one of the permanent secretaries involved was told about the merger only 15 minutes before the press conference to announce it.

Why this happened was a subject of much speculation, but the main explanation advanced was that Shephard had demanded the merging of the two departments under her control as her price for openly backing Major's re-election. Be that as it may, the real question was not why it happened but how could it?

The UK is unique among advanced democracies (and most others too) in having no formal legal or constitutional basis for our ministries. They can be created, merged or destroyed at the whim of the prime minister of the day, using their 'prerogative' powers. In other countries, primary legislation or even constitutional amendments — at the very least, secondary legislation — are needed before such changes can be implemented.

Defenders of our system would say it is far more flexible and adaptable, making it easy for the executive to get on with the job. Opponents would point out that unchecked executive power has a habit of producing policy and administrative disasters – the poll tax being a good example.

There are plenty of examples of power plays between ministers being the sole basis for ill-thought-out and sometimes simply bonkers changes to the 'machinery of government'. British government is littered — far more than most — with failed experiments in reorganising ministries as the solution to supposed policy problems at best, and to satisfy low political intrigue at worst.

The current situation has been exacerbated by a small and completely unremarked-on change Labour made some time ago — it abolished the 'machinery of government group' in the Cabinet Office. These were the people who kept all the lists of government functions and where they were located and why. When prime ministers wanted to make swift and secret preparations for a big change, this group did all the backroom work.

While this system was still arbitrary, it at least had the merit of being well organised — something that cannot be said of recent attempts at deck-chair rearrangement in Whitehall.

The reason that ministers, and especially the prime minister, treat the organs of state in such a cavalier way is simple — it is because they can. There are no checks and balances, no separation of powers, no authorisation required from the legislature to enable some scrutiny of these decisions. The civil service and its organisations (ministries) have 'no constitutional personality separate and apart from that of the government of the day', in the famous words of Lord Armstrong when he was head of the service. They are the playthings of ministers, full stop.

That might have been acceptable in an era where the civil service was mainly the private offices of ministers, although even that is doubtful. In today's world, where the bulk of it is employed to run big public services, surely the idea that these are only the creatures of the executive is nonsense? Public services are just that — public — and ought surely to be subject to a more balanced set of governance arrangements than just untrammelled executive power?

And the upside for government of a more formalised, balanced and scrutinised procedure for changing the machinery of government? Maybe they would have fewer disasters like the DPEI farce.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy at Nottingham University and director of the Nottingham Policy Centre