Inside Whitehall: Government tsars - what are they good for?

A report shows just how out of control the ministerial use of tsars has become

Share
Related Topics

Quiz time. What do Lord Sugar, Mary Portas and James Caan have in common? Yes, they’re all successful entrepreneurs who are now TV celebrities, but that’s not the answer. Now let’s add Lord Coe, Dame Kelly Holmes and the journalists Will Hutton, Camilla Cavendish and Ian Hargreaves. They also have the same thing in common.

Or perhaps, the businessmen Sir Philip Green, Sir Howard Davies and Sam Laidlaw. And finally a few random names: David Boyle, Sally Coates, Darren Henley, Sebastian James and Cathy Nutbrown.

Give up? The answer is they have all being appointed unelected, unaccountable Government “tsars”: men and women brought in to advise ministers, to devise policy and sometimes to bring a little glamour to the corridors of Whitehall. But a report published today shows just how out of control the ministerial use of tsars has become.

The Coalition has appointed 118 individuals to look at subjects as diverse as police pay, the film industry, palliative care and pensions.

Since 1997, the figure is closer to 300. All these individuals have direct access to ministers and use of Government resources, and are sometimes paid significant sums. They also often have an appreciable influence on future policy.

Why does this matter? Surely it is good for ministers to get expert advice from outside the confines of the civil service. Well, yes, but a quick look at the history of recent tsar appointments shows that they can be problematic.

Take Emma Harrison. She was the founder of the controversial welfare-to-work company A4e. But despite her firm having £200m of contracts to get long-term benefit claimants back into work, David Cameron thought it was a good idea to appoint her “Troubled Families Champion” as well.

A key part of that role – helping to turn round the lives of 5,000 households – was to get parents back into work. And in February 2012 the two roles collided spectacularly. Police announced they were investigating alleged fraud by A4e employees and it emerged that Harrison herself had been paid dividends of £8.6m from the firm.

Over the next few days she was forced to resign from her tsarship, leaving Nick Raynsford to table a pertinent parliamentary question asking what independent checks had been carried out before she was appointed. There has yet to be a substantive response.

Then there is Mary Portas. In May 2011, the retail expert was appointed by the Government to review what could be done to turn round Britain’s declining high streets. A few months later, she published her blueprint and ministers selected 12 so-called Portas Pilots to receive up to £100,000 to finance improvements to their town centres.

But what was less clear was that Portas had been paid £500,000 by Channel 4 for three programmes on the pilots, and Portas’s consultancy had made suggestions to the Department for Communities about which would make good TV.

After sustained criticism of her potential conflict of interest, she told MPs her tsarship should have carried a “health warning” and that “sometimes she wished she had not put her name to it”.

Then there are the accusations that some “tsarships” have been used as a form of political patronage. The former Tory donor Lord Ashcroft was asked to review the MoD’s use of military bases in Cyprus and be the Government’s special representative for veterans. And businessman and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft conducted a highly controversial review of employment law, which some people suggested that, with his private-equity background, he had an interest in watering down.

None of this is an argument for abolishing tsars, but the way the system has developed is a cause for concern. Tsars tend to be recruited from people ministers already know or know of. The majority are male, white and over 50, and many are titled. About half receive fees and/or expenses but the rationale for payment is not clear. 

Today a group of academics from King’s College London publishes a three-page code of conduct for tsars. It is not an onerous document but it suggests simple things that would improve transparency and accountability: departments should have an official responsible for drawing up terms of reference for each appointment, including remit, duration, reporting lines and cost. And tsars would have to declare actual or perceived conflicts of interest before they start. There would be a timescale for the work, a general presumption towards publication, and a degree of parliamentary oversight.

None of this is particularly controversial but so far it has received a frosty response from the Cabinet Office. That is misguided. Surely, as David Cameron once famously suggested, it is stupid to wait for the next big scandal when we could prevent it now.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The woman featured in the Better Together campaign's latest video  

Tea and no sympathy: The 'Better Together' campaign's mistake is to assume it knows how women think

Jane Merrick
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution