The trouble with conviction

Britain's cows get BSE. Hundreds of prisoners get premature release. Why do such great mistakes keep being made? Christopher Foster argues that changes initiated by Margaret Thatcher have undermined effective government
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Is it a figment of the imagination, or are there more government mishaps than there used to be? Why was the BSE crisis so badly handled, at vast expense to the taxpayer and to all those supplying beef? Why are there repeated difficulties in the relationships between the Home Secretary and the Prison Service? Why have the judges so often decided that Mr Howard has exceeded his powers? Even a matter as important as Drumcree is coloured by the suspicion that it was not well handled, and that the fault lay somewhere between ministers and the Northern Ireland police authorities.

One explanation that is often heard for these difficulties is that the Government has been too long in office and that, as a result, some ministers are simply too tired. If that is true, new ministers before or after an election might bring about a solution. Another is that declining government competence reflects Britain's decline in authority and world influence. With the passing of Empire, we have lost our long-standing ability to govern well. If it is true, there would seem to be no cure.

Both factors have had some effect, but less visible and more practical factors have gradually and cumulatively altered the operations of government profoundly. High among them has been the replacement of consensus by conviction politics since 1979.

Margaret Thatcher came to power with firmly held convictions, among them to replace Keynesian with monetarist economic policies and to weaken the power of the unions. Given a widespread belief that Britain was in crisis, she believed that she had a mandate to do whatever was necessary. Although they were not unreasonable at the time, changes that were made then have persisted long past the emergency that justified them, and have had unintended consequences which are responsible for many of the stresses and weaknesses of government today.

The first changes were to the Cabinet and Cabinet committees. Before 1979, the Cabinet decided government policy on the basis of papers put to it by the departmental ministers responsible. Normally, a policy had been discussed and approved previously in a Cabinet committee of those ministers with an interest in it. Moreover, because approval of the whole Cabinet had to be sought, a departmental minister would have been wise to try to persuade any other Cabinet minister who had a personal interest in the policy. While, with such precautions, most policies got through Cabinet after brief discussion, others did not: contentious policies could be altered or even abandoned as a result of open debate.

When Mrs Thatcher found she was facing strong opposition on many of her policies, not only from the parliamentary opposition but from within her own Cabinet, she changed the system. Cabinet papers on policy issues were no longer circulated before its meetings, which, in any case, were fewer and shorter. Those that were still held became mostly business meetings, at which ministers reported verbally on the progress they were, or were not, making. Real discussion was rare, and effective disagreement increasingly became impossible.

Even these profound, but generally unnoticed, changes did not, however, remove all the obstacles to conviction politics. Mrs Thatcher sometimes found her policies opposed by ministers with a right to attend particular Cabinet committees. So Cabinet committees were frequently bypassed and replaced by ad hoc meetings of ministers chosen as the ones most likely to get the outcome she wanted. While excellent for getting otherwise contentious policies through, this procedure had a drawback that became noticeable over time. Government policy became less easily co-ordinated, which was not helped by the dismantling of most Civil Service Cabinet committees underpinning the ministerial ones. While Margaret Thatcher remained Prime Minister, her energy and relentless eye for detail co- ordinated policy, but it was a highly personal achievement.

More serious was a decline in collective Cabinet responsibility, leading to some ministers' feeling less commitment to policies in which they had not had a part. Hence the development of fairly open disagreements, the most public of which was the argument between Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan over Westland Helicopters. Such disagreements still lead to different ministers' being quoted as backing different policies - recently, for example, on education and welfare payments, not to mention Europe. Moreover, policies and laws could sometimes have been improved by the contribution of those excluded ministers and their departments.

Margaret Thatcher also, rightly, believed that there would be opposition from among the Civil Service to some of the measures she proposed. Not unreasonably, this led to a greater readiness to override Civil Service advice, though she respected individual civil servants; but it gradually went much further than this, especially after 1992. Once the immediate needs of conviction politics were served, the change of attitude persisted. Although the old Thatcherite convictions, once on the statute-book, were not replaced by many as firmly held, ministers took more power to themselves. They turned more to political advisers, to lobbies and to outside sympathisers.

While the relationships often remain close, they are still different. The Civil Service in some departments used to work in partnership with ministers, privy to all the decisions taken by them - except for the most political, such as choosing the date of the next general election. Instead, civil servants have sometimes found themselves in the position of implementing policies and other decisions that ministers had worked out for themselves with their external advisers. Because of the new relationship they have with ministers, civil servants frequently find it harder to challenge what ministers put to them and to argue for what they feel are practical improvements or more realistic alternatives - nor are they able to spend enough time early on going through the evidence to avert a calamity such as BSE. Given ministerial preoccupation with the media, civil servants, too, have been drawn more into issues of presentation, rather that weighing evidence and analysing the consequences of possible courses of action. As ministers have frequently failed to work out their policies in enough detail to be easily capable of practical implementation, one consequence has been poorer-quality White Papers and Bills, with many amendments, often late, and frequently needing subsequent modification.

Legislation has also been affected by another consequence of conviction politics. Before 1979, the usual practice had been to seek consensus and practical help for proposed legislation by consulting widely with interested parties. Often the first stage would be a short White or Green Paper in which a minister would set out a problem he or she thought needed solving, followed by preferred (and possibly other) solutions with their various pros and cons. While rarely consulting widely enough, and generally giving more weight to producers than consumers, ministers and civil servants would set out to canvass the views of all concerned. Of course, ministers would not accept all views put to them, but wise ones tried to get as much consensus as was consistent with their fundamental beliefs. They tried particularly to confront the practical difficulties raised, so improving the quality and public acceptability of legislation.

Another advantage of a rigorous process of consultation was that ministers had to try to persuade those who disagreed with them, face to face, and answer objections raised. Conviction politics often seem to make such consultation unnecessary. While understandable, when the Government was sure of exactly what it wanted to do, it lasted into a time when there was no such sureness of purpose. Can one be surprised that some laws have not lasted, and have had to be replaced - that, for example, we have had so many Criminal Justice Acts? Or that so many White and Green Papers have been for media consumption rather than reasoned debate?

Another consequence of the decline of consultation has been its replacement by an American-style lobby system that scarcely existed before 1979. Working on ministers through MPs, rather than through civil servants, this has meant ministers have been subject to most pressure and influence from lobbies that have had the resources and political connections to be effective, rather than being guided by an old-style, perhaps limited, but more even-handed consultation process. A further consequence has been the growth of the complex relations between MPs and lobbies that led to the Nolan Commission.

A particular problem in relations between ministers and the Civil Service has developed through the setting up of executive agencies. In some cases, their heads have reported directly at first to ministers, unsupported by Civil Service advice. That was generally found to be undesirable. Various models have been tried since, but it is not clear how successful they have been. The recent events in the Prison Service show how difficult it is to get ministers, their civil servants and their agencies working well together with a clear division of responsibilities. Moreover, at the start, insufficient thought was given to how to make these agencies accountable to ministers and Parliament, especially when, as with the Prison Service, their business is of great public and political interest. One interim arrangement after another has been attempted, but to judge by recent events, none has succeeded. While executive agencies dealing with more routine matters have usually done well, the right place for the Prison Service may well be back in the Home Office under traditional Civil Service supervision, firmly within the Whitehall system.

Nor are these the only significant changes. If there were to be a change of government, those very few in it who remember government as it once was will find much else changed. Individual ministers vary greatly in their work habits, but, if new ministers follow the current norm, they will spend more time meeting lobby-inspired deputations, making speeches to all kinds of bodies, and on relations with the media generally. This will mean less time in their departments occupied in the traditional ministerial tasks of reviewing evidence before taking decisions, scrutinising drafts of White Papers and Bills, and consulting with others in a systematic way. They will find a Civil Service that is unaccustomed to giving them the assistance that they once received in order to find their ideas and make them practical, but one that is willing to return to past practice. While some ministers remain able to work well in such circumstances, elsewhere the stresses and strains show.

Many of these changes, which have taken place in the past 17 years, should not be reversed. Most executive agencies - as is also the case for internal markets, privatisation and independent regulation - are here to stay. But the Cabinet system, the co-ordinating machinery below it, and working relations between ministers can - and should be - brought back to what they once were.

Sir Christopher Foster's book 'The State under Stress' (Open University Press, pounds 16.99) written with FJ Plowden, is published today. In it, the authors suggest various remedies for the problems raised above.