Peter Riddell: While parliament is being refurbished, it’s crucial that ministers stay near Whitehall
If the House of Commons moves too far away from Whitehall departments, it will make life much harder for both ministers and civil servants
Location is everything in politics – whether within 10 Downing Street or, even more, the closeness between Westminster and Whitehall. That reflects not only the core constitutional principle that the executive is part of the legislature but also the practical necessity that ministers and civil servants need to be near to the Houses of Parliament.
This proximity has been taken for granted for centuries but it has now been put in question by the need to undertake a huge programme of repair and conservation at the Palace of Westminster, starting after the 2020 general election. There are various options but something has to be done to avoid major irreversible damage. And that probably means that MPs and peers will have to leave the mid-19th century buildings for some years. But to where?
This is not just a matter of cost – important though that is – but of the functioning of government. If the House of Commons moved too far away from Whitehall departments, then it will make life much harder for both ministers and civil servants. Suggestions that parliament should move to Manchester, Birmingham or York are ludicrous because either officials and others would have to travel up and back to London at enormous cost – imagine the press headlines – or they would not, and the effectiveness of government would suffer. The answer to the centralisation of British politics is more devolution within the UK and decentralisation within England, both of which are occurring, while committees can, and do, take evidence around the country.
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Our parliamentary system has always rested on physical presence with MPs, however eminent, voting in person. A prime minister has to go through the voting lobbies along with the newest backbencher, in the process allowing MPs to speak to ministers. Because ministers are also MPs, and peers, they have parliamentary responsibilities – something which successive foreign secretaries have always found it hard to explain to their overseas counterparts – as well as executive ones.
Moreover, easy and ready access is vital for ministers and civil servants to be held accountable by parliament – via urgent questions arranged at short notice, at oral questions and in appearances before select committees. None could easily be achieved if parliament was some way from departments.
As important as the formal meetings are informal contacts between ministers and all others involved in the political process, from backbench MPs to constituents, interest groups and the media. None of these exchanges could be adequately replicated by video conferencing.
Conversely, the risks of separating ministers from their departments are shown in other Westminster model capitals. In Wellington, all ministers work together in what is known as the “Beehive”, rather than in their departments, but at least in New Zealand everything is on a relatively small scale so that everyone knows everyone else. In Canberra, however, the main offices of Australia’s ministers are in the New Parliament Building where they are surrounded by a larger number of mainly politically appointed advisers. Some ministers virtually never go to their departments, which reinforces a distance in every sense between them and officials. The same phenomenon is partly true in Cardiff where ministers spend most of their time in the Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff Bay, rather than in the government offices in the centre of the city near the castle.
In interviews with the Institute for Government, several former ministers complained about a lack of time in their multiple roles, and, in particular, a number wished that they had spent more time with their backbench colleagues at Westminster. These problems would only be worsened if ministers had to travel considerable distances between their departments and wherever the Commons was temporarily re-sited.
One of the clear themes of the Ministers Reflect programme was that many ex-ministers believed civil servants did not really understand their parliamentary duties.
As Damian Green, the former immigration minister, remarked: parliament is “almost the only medium in which you can lose your job in about half an hour, and a lot of officials don’t get that at all”.
In the IfG’s briefing paper, “Ministers reflect: On Parliament”, Nicola Hughes and Hannah White quote former DfID minister Sir Alan Duncan describing the good working relationship between his parliamentary team and his private office. “If there were votes [in the Commons], the private office would come and sit in my office and get me to sign letters and brief me here,” he said.
That would all become much more difficult, if not impossible, if there was a greater physical separation. Ministers and civil servants work most effectively when they are near parliament, however frustrating they sometimes find the scrutiny and challenge of MPs and peers.
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