Ministers have too little power, not too much

'The most power the likes of Hewitt, Cook and Clarke have is to hand over power to other unelected bodies'
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The Independent Online

Ministers frantically busy. From dawn to dusk, six or seven days a week, they do not have a moment to spare. They appear on the media at breakfast and late at night. They make regional visits, hold meetings in their departments and go to their constituencies. What most of them do not do is make decisions that impact on our lives.

Instead they increasingly seek non- elected bodies to make those decisions on their behalf. They set up a commission here and a quango there. In a 24- hour media environment, ministers are more ubiquitous than ever, but much of the time they are appearing on our screens only to declare that important decisions no longer have very much to do with them. They are only the elected ministers. They are busy doing nothing.

The most disastrous example is the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) with a brief that could easily have been carried out by a powerful secretary of state for transport. Instead of acting urgently to improve the railways in 1997, John Prescott, frightened of getting any blame for the policies himself, spent most of his energies trying to give away his powers to a new unelected body. His fearfulness stands as a warning for ministers who seek to pass the buck.

As the railways rotted, Mr Prescott negotiated with Mr Blair for legislative space in which to establish the Strategic Rail Authority. Knowing that Mr Prescott was a soft touch, an indifferent Mr Blair refused to include a transport Bill early in the last Parliament. Instead of making a fuss, Mr Prescott established a "shadow" SRA and finally established the real SRA shortly before the last election. This month, nearly five years after Labour came to power, the SRA has announced plans for improving the railways. It has taken five years to formulate a 10-year plan.

The delay – longer than the full lifetime of many governments – has had several consequences. Most obviously the railways have deteriorated further as the years have drifted by. Even more unforgivable, the Transport Department has underspent its allocated budget in recent years because no body had been established to spend the money.

Now, if any initiative goes wrong in the latest version of the 10-year plan, the idea is that the Strategic Rail Authority will get the blame. Except that it does not work like that in reality. This afternoon, for example, if Tony Blair is asked during Prime Minister's Questions about the rail strike, he will probably say that it really is nothing to do with him; a solution is a matter for the private company and the employees.

It does not work like that partly because taxpayers are investing large sums of money in the railways, but also because there is a widespread assumption, undiminished by the Thatcher era, that the government must accept responsibility for providing reliable public services. Even The Sun, which normally screams at ministers to keep their hands off privatised industries, has berated them for not doing more to end this industrial action.

Privatisation is another example of the diminishing power of governments. But it is the spread of quangos that takes the breath away. Wherever you turn, ministers put their hands up and say, with some honesty, "that's nothing to do with me", while unavoidably pontificating around the issues over which they have no power. Chris Smith, the former secretary of state for culture, enjoyed nothing more than hinting at his disapproval of the way that Camelot ran the lottery. So what did Mr Smith do about it? Ah, that was not a matter for him. It was a responsibility of the Lottery Commission.

OK, let's move over to the environment ministers to check the progress on one of the Government's most innovative measures, the right to roam. Sorry, you need to speak to the Countryside Commission. What about the minimum wage? That's one for the Low Pay Commission. A manufacturer squeals at the level of interest rates. There is not a lot the mighty Chancellor can do about it. That's a decision for the Bank of England.

Obviously, not all these decisions to give away ministerial power were bad ones. Some of them have been extremely successful – the independence of the Bank of England being the most substantial example. It is the scale of the buck-passing that creates an unsettling perception. While ministers appear to be everywhere, decisions seem to be taken off stage somewhere else.

The contrast contributes to the disillusionment about politics on several different levels. "Look at how weak and hopeless the Cabinet are," the media cries. "Blair and Brown have all the power." There is something in this, but that is because Blair and Brown do wield much of the power. If the likes of Patricia Hewitt, Charles Clarke, Robin Cook and co had the power to take decisions, they would prove to be highly talented. But the most power these people tend to have is to hand over power to other unelected bodies. So a perception grows that politicians are useless, not as talented as they used to be. In some cases they have less scope to exercise their talent.

Graham Mather, a Tory MEP, has written an excellent pamphlet monitoring this change, although he reaches a mischievously partisan conclusion. He echoes his leader in proposing a greater parliamentary scrutiny of the new quangos. As Iain Duncan Smith only makes the proposal to perpetuate the myth about "Tony's cronies", this does not get anyone very far. In fact, Mr Blair has been almost too generous in the range of his patronage, often appointing figures who are wary of the Government's plans. While Mrs Thatcher asked 'Is he one of us?' Mr Blair has nervously tried to build a big tent.

Against such a background, ministers are right to be wary of the proposals for the NHS outlined in last week's King's Fund report. The fund made waves by arguing for a public corporation at arm's length from the government. More broadly, the fund bemoans the "over-politicisation" of the NHS. The problem is the NHS is inevitably political as the government has to raise the cash to pay for it through taxation.

The balance between ministerial responsibility and local control is an extremely delicate one. In the Government's first term there was far too much central control. But for a future secretary of state for health to stand up and declare that, although he is taking quite a lot of money from us in taxes, the actual policies have little to do with him, this would be another reason for voters to turn away.

A simpler measure would address the broader incongruity between the growing number of ministers and their diminishing powers. Mr Blair could drastically reduce the number of ministers and encourage those that are left to act on their own behalf. That way voters might start to make connections again between the elected politicians plastered over our television screens and what actually happens in our daily lives. Voters may even be tempted to behave quite bizarrely and join a political party.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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