Politics: Mandelson argues for strong centre

Co-ordinated policy is essential to successful government, Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, argued yesterday. Christian Wolmar, Westminster Correspondent, says his speech may become a benchmark for how the Blair administration uses Whitehall.
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The Independent Online
At the heart of Peter Mandelson's approach is the notion of a strong central structure to ensure that the both the Government's policy and its presentation are coherent and co-ordinated.

Speaking to an audience of senior public-sector executives at a Birmingham University seminar in central London, Mr Mandelson, minister without portfolio, said: "The job of the centre of government is to make sure departments work together: failure of government machinery means failing the people who elected us."

He stressed that there should also be strong ministerial departments and saw no contradiction between "having a strong centre and devolved responsibility". Mr Mandelson's very role has been criticised by some ministers because of the control which he is thought to exert over departmental initiatives. Indeed, there was a strong warning to departments that they would not be allowed to launch initiatives which "affect other departments' resources without ensuring the policy is well-thought out and properly co-ordinated".

Mr Mandelson said: "Departments must also pull together more to deliver the quality of government this country needs." All too often", he warned, "the results have been ineffectual - because rooted in the lowest common policy denominator - or incomplete, because bogged down in bureaucratic turf wars. We are not going to let that happen."

In what will be seen as a defence of his role in co-ordinating presentation of the Government's policy , he argued that while "there are some who still denigrate the presentation of policy as a diversion from its substance", he took the opposite view. "It is a question of accountability - we have a duty to explain." If a policy cannot be explained in a simple way, "it is more likely than not to contain fundamental flaws".

While under the Conservatives, Michael Heseltine, the deputy prime minister, had created a mechanism to co-ordinate the presentation of policy, it did not work because the policies themselves were wrong.

Mr Mandelson spoke of increased accountability. At least seven of the Bills in the current legislative programme would be published in draft form, to allow for comments which would improve them. There would, too, be an annual report outlining the Government's achievements and setting new targets. The forthcoming spending review would force departments to outline what they intend to spend their money on.