Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Outside expertise

Over the last week or so, Brown and Cameron have both suggested changes in relation to ministers who are in the House of Lords rather than the Commons. They've both recognised an issue; but neither seems keen to follow the point to its logical conclusion.

Brown has suggested that cabinet ministers (such as Mandelson) who sit in the second chamber should be required to be accountable to MPs, and answer questions in the Commons in same way as any other ministers. Cameron on the other hand has suggested that people might be appointed to the Lords on a 'temporary' basis whilst they serve as ministers, leaving the chamber again once they resign or get fired. The suggestions are not, actually, mutually exclusive.

But why should government ministers be sitting in an unelected chamber in the first place?

At one level, it seems fundamentally undemocratic for people who have never fought an election in their lives (let alone those who have fought and lost, or simply resigned from elected office at some point in the past) to end up running significant ministries of state. But in other countries, where the distinction between the administration and the legislature is much more formal, it's often the norm. And congressional pre-appointment hearings, for example, mean that those appointed as members of the US government are subjected to far more scrutiny of their background, experience, and expertise than is the case for ministers in the UK.

Part of the underlying problem faced by any Prime Minister is ensuring that (s)he has the right talents and abilities in the right jobs. A PM with an overall majority has perhaps 350 MPs to choose from, as well as a number of sitting peers; but still most PMs feel the need to bring in outside talent or expertise on occasion, and they currently do so by simply creating new lords.

On reflection, it should probably be no great surprise that a talent pool of 350 may not be enough to fill all the relevant ministerial posts – the selection process for MPs (both within parties, and through the electoral process) owes little to any assessment of administrative or management ability. And the increasing trend for MPs to be from a 'political' background, rather than having experience of life in the 'real world' outside politics before being elected makes it less likely that the pool will contain the mix of experience and expertise needed for government.

So, to be a little more radical, why do ministers have to sit in parliament at all? Some countries - the US and France, to name but two comparable democracies, elect the legislature and their government entirely separately.

Until fairly recently, I would have argued for the principle that all government ministers should themselves be elected members, but the establishment of the National Assembly has led me to wonder whether an alternative approach needs more consideration. There are two factors in particular which have led me to be more open to alternatives – and both relate to the small number of members of the assembly.

By the time an administration is formed – Ministers, deputy ministers, and whips etc -- the number of backbenchers seems to me (and of course to the Richard commission) to be too small to provide adequate scrutiny of both the government and of legislation.

The second manifestation of the same issue is that the pool of members from which an administration can be drawn is small. Typically, even under a coalition arrangement, the government majority in the assembly is likely to comprise between 30 and 40 members. Around one in three of those are likely to find themselves as ministers or deputy ministers, purely in numerical terms, and the first minister has no "second house" on which to draw – in fact, no means at all of bringing in additional expertise and experience in the way that UK PMs can.

I make no comment on the competence of all of those who are or have been members of the Welsh government since 1999, but it has struck me several times when ministers have come under criticism that even if the First Minister did want to replace them, he may have felt that his choice of alternatives was so limited that he was better off sticking with what he had.

As long as those appointed are subject to proper scrutiny, why not allow the First Minister (or the senior minister of any coalition partner) a way of bringing in outside expertise to run ministries, if that's what (s)he feels is needed?


Bwganbrain said...

This is a sound idea, talent is what is required, not time served representatives.

Unknown said...

Perhaps they need a Third Chamber, a chamber of all the talents, elected by the first two chambers upon government recommendation?

Spirit of BME said...

Just a few small observations.
1. Ministers of the Crown are resonsible to the Crown and the Crown can dismiss them wherever they sit (not done of late).There is no formal mechanism for members of the Commons to fire a minister.
2.The democratic deficit start with the Head of State . I just loved the BBC news who reported without a smile on their face that "Our Great Leader" rang the Afgan President to complain and advise him that democracy had to prevail in his election.I think my answer would have been " Listen Big Boy one honest vote cast for me as Head of State in my country is 100 times better than what you have , so, go away " - or words to that effect