Steve Richards: Reviews, referendums and ministers who are too timid to take tough decisions

Lord Turner should not have the star role in the pensions debate, even if politicians put him there
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This government has an insatiable appetite for independent reviews. During the extravagantly overblown honeymoon with the electorate after the 1997 election, a senior minister put it to me candidly, "We have hit the ground reviewing." The Government has been reviewing ever since. Quite often it commissions reviews of the original reviews. At some point, though, ministers can no longer hide behind the shield. They must expose their nervy heads and dare to respond even if the outcome of a review makes the decisions more complicated.

Contrary to mythology, this is not an arrogant government. In some ways it is a fearfully timid administration. If it is not commissioning reviews on thorny issues, it is offering referendums instead.

Yet reviews and the offer of referendums are the equivalent of femme fatales in dark thrillers. They lure ministers on to seemingly comfortable political terrain only to clobber them around the head at a later date. In order to postpone difficult decisions, the Government has promised referendums on a single currency, the revised EU constitution and electoral reform for the Commons. The promise of a referendum brings peace. Holding the plebiscites is a nightmare. The Government avoided potential crises by never holding them. It took a decision not to make a decision.

In the case of independent reviews, there is no escape. The recommendations are published. There is no place to hide, but the Government is still fearfully timid. It looks up and cries Help!

The commissioning of the latest pensions review got the Government through the election last May. "Wait for Turner" was the voter-friendly message during the campaign. Now the election is out of the way, the Government faces the downside. Lord Turner, who chaired the review, has ranged widely and on some issues has declared decisively. The plethora of leaks suggest that he is against means testing, in favour of compulsion, raising the retirement age to 67 and a generous state pension.

Yet the critical reaction to the cries of ministerial distress explain partly why the Government is so timid in the first place. Across the media there is admonishment: Why is Gordon Brown making his views on pensions known to Lord Turner? Lord Turner should have the stage and ministers play supporting roles.

Ministerial insecurity and the disdain felt towards politicians feed off each other. Compare the way Lord Turner is interrogated by some interviewers this week with the treatment of elected politicians. Will Lord Turner be interrupted persistently? Will he be reduced to playing Jeremy Paxman's straight man in another of Newsnight's political pantomimes? I doubt it. He is unelected and therefore for some reason he will be treated with more respect.

But Lord Turner should not have the star role in the pensions' debate, even if scared politicians put him on the stage in the first place. He will not be facing the consequences of his policies at a general election, nor will he be asked to raise taxes and cut public spending in order to pay for them. Brown is therefore carrying out his responsibilities rather than acting recklessly by highlighting the financial constraints that will shape pension provision. Indeed, ministers are more impressive when they defend their ground openly and with conviction rather than hide behind others, even if they do so belatedly having tamely commissioned yet another review.

Sources close to the Pensions Secretary, John Hutton, tell me that he is also concerned about the spending implications of the Turner report. Ministers will have to redirect the debate towards a more affordable solution, but it is their fault for timidly losing control of the debate in the first place.

Admittedly, there are more productive ways of hiding behind the shield of an independent review. During the second term, Brown knew that the British media would not allow an elected Labour politician to put the case for tax rises, so he appointed a senior banker, Derek Wanless, to put the arguments forward in a review. The historic Commons statement in which Brown outlined the case for tax increases in order to pay for improvements in the NHS is a classic. Brown never attributes the views as his own throughout the statement.

He refers throughout to the independent review: "Wanless says ... Wanless points out ... Wanless argues". An observer from Mars would have assumed that "Wanless" was the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Brown his self-effacing spokesman. But the strategy worked brilliantly. In Britain bankers are respected and politicians are not. The tax increases were popular and the Conservatives have never dared to argue subsequently for a cut in spending on the NHS.

Although I have met him, I wonder sometimes whether Wanless exists. Perhaps he lives only in the imagination as the acceptable alternative to derided politicians. "Wanless" delivered a tax rise. Soon it is possible that the equivalent of "Wanless" will deliver nuclear power stations. Today Tony Blair announces another energy review, even though there are signs that he has decided already to back a new generation of nuclear power stations. Once more a supposedly mighty government turns nervously to "Wanless".

The problem with the Turner review is that the Government's precise strategic objectives were far from clear. It lacked the magic of "Wanless". On one track Turner performed his task. On another entirely separate track ministers negotiated a deal with public sector unions that allowed existing public sector workers to retire at 60.

Tomorrow, Lord Turner will put the case for a retirement age of 67. Inevitably the report will place the separate deal with the public sector unions in a new context. Ministers know something will have to give, but they are unsure what. Either the deal with the public sector unions will be revisited or, more likely, those in the private sector will not be compelled to work until 67. Ministers have lost control because they commissioned a review with a chairman who has a mind of his own. Equally important, at the time they were not entirely sure what was on their minds in relation to pensions.

The promiscuous commissioning of independent reviews is a sign of weak government. But those that agree with me cannot then condemn elected ministers for making their case in relation to controversial policy areas. I have a solution. The Government should commission "Wanless" to carry out a review on the effectiveness of reviews. I have no doubt he would conclude that most of them have been a waste of time. At which point the timid ministers would be able to declare safely: "Wanless argues that it is time for accountable, elected ministers to make decisions rather than hand them over to unelected, unaccountable figures like, um, Wanless."