Former DWP perm sec Sir Leigh Lewis: Time to put the brakes on the reshuffle rollercoaster
The former DWP perm sec despairs at the speed of ministerial churn, but argues that there is a way to slow Westminster's revolving doors
Outside of the Westminster bubble, ministerial reshuffles tend to leave the great British public deeply disinterested. Who’s in and who’s out? Are the Brexiteers or the Remainers in the ascendancy? Is the PM displaying strength or weakness? Such questions fascinate the political class but almost no one else even knows, or still less cares, that a reshuffle has taken place.
But perhaps people ought to care more about it for a completely different reason. When in the latest reshuffle Esther McVey was appointed to my former department as the secretary of state for work and pensions she became its 13th secretary of state since the department’s creation in 2001. That averages out at one secretary of state every 15 months. If you exclude Iain Duncan Smith who served for an unprecedented six years from 2010 to 2016 the average tenure becomes just 11 months.
At junior minister level, ministerial life expectancy is often even less. In my five years as the Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary, I welcomed no fewer than eight pensions ministers into their posts. There was sometimes scarcely time to tell them who would be making their tea and coffee before they were packing their belongings into cardboard boxes and heading for the exit. Nor is this some special DWP phenomenon. By my calculation there have been eight secretaries of state for justice since 2007 and the same number of secretaries of state for transport.
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Does any of this matter? If it keeps political correspondents and departmental photographers in business so much the better. Someone has to be in charge so why not a bit of variety?
But that’s until you stop to think what these jobs actually involve. DWP spends more than £180bn of public money each year, the vast majority on benefits and pensions for around 18 million people. That is more than any other government department and approaching a quarter of total government expenditure. The Department for Transport is responsible for such trivial issues as Crossrail, High Speed 2, aviation security and the whole of our national road and rail networks; the Ministry of Justice for prisons, probation and our entire justice system.
“All too many key decisions are being taken by ministers who have simply not been in their departments long enough to have any real idea of the issues confronting them or any personal experience of the subjects for which they are responsible”
It is generally accepted in business, the third sector and virtually every other part of the economy, aside from the Premier League, that a year is the very minimum period needed for a new incumbent to a senior level post to get to grips with their responsibilities. Yet in government that is all too often precisely the point at which the next beneficiary of the ministerial merry-go-round is coming through the door as his or her predecessor departs.
There are many reasons why government in the UK is not carried out as well as it might be. Some have nothing to do with ministers. But one that most certainly does is the fact that all too many key decisions are being taken by ministers who have simply not been in their departments long enough to have any real idea of the issues confronting them or any personal experience of the subjects for which they are responsible.
Could it be different? I think that up to a point it could. Suppose, for example, that parliament, in the shape of both the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, were to lay down the principle that, excepting changes caused either by a change of government or by truly exceptional circumstances, the minimum term of office for ministers should be two years. And suppose that one or other committee were to summon the cabinet secretary each year to explain and justify instances of non-compliance with the principle. I am not naïve enough to believe that it would change the world. But it might begin to change the prevailing view that an average length of service in ministerial office of less than a year is perfectly acceptable. And it might just cause the prime minister of the day to hesitate before appointing the 14th new secretary of state at DWP.
Meantime, enjoy the ministerial rollercoaster: All aboard for the extraordinarily short ride to your destination. But please don’t unpack – it probably won’t be worth it!
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