Dismantle the power of the permanent bureaucracy

Whitehall sign
Whitehall sign

Back in July I wrote in these pages of a dream, a vision from the future, about how Rishi Sunak could turn things around and win not just a fifth but a sixth term. Looking back on an imagined 2023, I wrote: “Suddenly things began to change … It seems incredible now, but back then the Government was still seriously planning to ban petrol cars and gas boilers. Stopping that showed things were changing.”

My friends in the online comments overwhelmingly said that this could never happen. Yet this week it did – and it is extremely welcome. The Prime Minister deserves huge credit for facing down what will have been huge internal pressure and taking a tough, but necessary, decision.

It could be a crucial turning point, not just because of the cars and boilers measures, not just because of the clear steer against further lifestyle control from bins to beef-eating, but because it has legitimised debate on the whole net zero issue. It was coming, but now it’s here. No longer need the net zero fanatics’ injunctions be taken quite so seriously. Lord Deben isn’t a modern-day Moses handing down holy writ from Mount Sinai – though I’m not sure he knows that. Net zero should be subject to debate. Now it can be.

We’ve seen that its proponents don’t like it. As with so much of the Remain side on Brexit, the fact that they have never had to make their case means their arguments are often feeble and self-contradictory, intellectually risible, and, crucially, disconnected from most voters’ preoccupations. But they are well ensconced in the bureaucracy and the quango state created over the past couple of decades – as Tuesday’s leaks of the Prime Minister’s plans show.

So to implement this week’s announcement – or to do more, or indeed anything else controversial – the political government, the one elected by voters, needs to get a proper grip on the government machine. That requires planning, preparation – and legislative change.

Our current bureaucracy was designed for a different era. When the mid-Victorian Northcote-Trevelyan arrangements were drawn up, the few departments at the time had only a couple of dozen staff. A department like Work and Pensions, with 100,000 staff providing £200 billion in benefits to 20 million people, would have been quite beyond their imagining.

Yet these rules still underpin the way things work now: ministers cannot change the people who deliver their policies, cannot appoint more than a tiny number of advisers (who have very little formal power), and are not ultimately responsible for their budgets (that rests with the Permanent Secretary responsible to Parliament). No surprise it’s hard to deliver results.

Worse, governments have tied their own hands by making specific policies legally binding, like net zero 2050, and then outsourcing enforcement to quangos, people like the OBR and the Climate Change Committee, the overmighty subjects and robber barons of modern government.

So every action can be second-guessed by the courts – as we saw this week over Sizewell C, where a 40,000-page environment impact assessment was still not enough. Ministers increasingly operate in the ever-shrinking margin of discretion left to them by the courts and the quango state, in a “government of the gaps”.

The solution of the modern clerisy, people like the Blairite Institute for Government, is more training and more rules. Some argue that ministers should be required to have management training before starting work. Others favour more of the same – for example, a fiscal equivalent to the OBR that vets spending plans. That way madness lies.

I say no. What we need is more politics in government. The current system needs a major revamp and the vehicle should be a Government Modernisation Bill as a top priority for the next term. It should put the top two or three ranks of the Civil Service on to fixed contracts which end when governments change and it should allow ministers to make appointments to those roles from outside and from within. That gives control over staff and jobs – the crucial incentives for civil servants. 
It should allow ministers to bring in more, and more experienced, advisers who can direct the bureaucracy, as was possible as late as the Blair era. That gives political control. And it should give ministers the final say over budgetary priorities and responsibility to Parliament for them.

Governments also need to stop, and reverse, the trend to making political decisions legal ones. The risk for the Prime Minister is that his net zero announcements will be snarled up in court, just as the Rwanda plans have been, while judges decide whether the Government’s actions are compatible with the Government’s policy – a nonsense that simply should not happen in a parliamentary democracy.

These changes don’t require tearing down the current system and starting again. None of them will help those ministers who have no apparent political convictions in the first place. But they would mean that, when a government has a set of political priorities, it can be confident it will have the powers to deliver them. That is what is in doubt at the moment – and that’s why change has to come.

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