Cabinet sub-committees 'not effective', ex-education secretary claims

Former education secretary Estelle Morris criticises the conventional approach to cross-departmental working
Estelle Morris and John Prescott. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

17 Aug 2023

The traditional way of cross-departmental working, where a cabinet sub-committee brings together different parts of government, is “not effective” according to ex-education secretary Estelle Morris.

Speaking in a new podcast released as part of the Institute for Government’s series on how to be a minister, she described how the secretary of state for the lead department chairs such committees, but “the representative from every other department is a junior minister, and a relatively junior civil servant".

This means there is “no equality around the cabinet sub-committee", Morris said.

In her experience, she “always thought that the department that was the lead department needed you there to get it signed off and either wanted some money for you or wanted to ask you to do something in your area. But it wasn't an effective way of cross departmental working.”

Morris added: “If you look at it, now, you try to find minutes of any cabinet sub-committee, and they're not published for years. You can't find them. It’s not effective." 

She claimed: “Government knows that it needs to work cross-department and doesn't know how to do it.”

Reflecting on her own time in government, she said the only cabinet sub-committee “that was good” was the devolution committee chaired by then deputy prime minister John Prescott. “He really cared about it, and it's a good policy. And he's been proven right because that's where we are 20 years later," she said. 

However, she also recalled how “there was no negotiation”. Prescott would ask what she had brought from her department to devolve to the North East, and if she did not have anything, he would tell her to “go back and find something to bring and devolve”.

Morris stated: “That's what driving policy is like but he could have sent me a letter and I’d have ended up doing exactly the same. So it doesn't work.”

The former cabinet minister cited Sure Start as an area that worked because budgets were pooled. Personal relationships can trump traditional structures, she said.

“I was working with Tessa Jowell when Tessa was in DCMS and I was secretary of state for education and we pooled some money to do creative partnerships in schools.” Morris said it “worked brilliantly” and that: “We could have set up a cabinet sub-committee to make that work, but it actually worked because Tessa and I got on with each other. I'm not a lover of government sub-committees."

The new podcast also revealed tactics that civil servants can deploy to help ministers. IfG research assistant Beatrice Barr saidone minister asked civil servants to “leave 15 minute gaps between meetings to make sure that they weren't constantly racing around.” Others asked officials “to put thinking time” or “reading time” in their diary. “Ministers talk about the importance of setting clear expectations with their civil servants regarding how they like to spend their time and what their day should look like," she said.

Taking control of your own diary is essential, according to ex- business secretary Andrea Leadsom. She suggests that ministers insist on having only one meeting in any given hour and having a few minutes to “debrief and agree action points” with their private secretary afterwards. Otherwise, “You would never collect your thoughts on your conclusions from what you just heard. And nor would you ever have the opportunity to say 'and as a result of this, I would like that to happen.'"

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