A former junior minister with experience across four departments has called for greater movement of staff between the centre of government and smaller ministries to energise the quieter corners of Whitehall.
Former Northern Ireland Office minister of state Andrew Murrison described the department, where he served from 2014-2015, as “delightful” in a just released interview that forms part of the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series.
But he went on to suggest the NIO, which had an average of just 149 permanent staff in the core department in 2020-21 according to its most recent annual report, would have benefitted from a bigger throughflow of officials to support ministers.
“It’s a small department so you’re choosing from a much smaller pool of people,” he said. “It doesn’t have the feeling of being a fast-moving Rolls Royce operation in the way that some other departments of state have.”
Murrison is a former medical officer who served in the Royal Navy for 18 years before entering politics. In his interview, which took place in January but was published last week, Murrison said he did not feel that he had been badly served in any way by staff at the NIO. But he noted the posting – which he had sought – stood in contrast with his first ministerial job, which was at the Ministry of Defence.
“Very often, one didn’t necessarily get the sense of being in a really, really happening department full of the brightest and the best, in the way that one would have done in a large department,” Murrison said of the NIO.
He told his IfG interviewers that one way of increasing the flow of talent through the department would be allowing a “larger level of crossover” between central government ministries.
Murrison also acknowledged that the NIO is a very specialist area, making staff moves – other than those between the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the NIO – “much more complicated”.
He admitted his views on the NIO’s way of working “might have evolved” if he had served there longer. However, he lost his ministerial brief and returned to the back benches after the 2015 general election, before going on to chair the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.
FCDO merger ‘came together quicker than expected’
In addition to his stints at the MoD and NIO, Murrison served as a joint Foreign Office and Department for International Development minister between 2019 and 2020.
He said that although the two departments, which were formally merged into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office last September, had been “very, very separate” from a cultural and historical perspective, they had also been coming closer together for several years.
“I was quite surprised actually at how fast this amalgamation happened,” he said.
“But when it did happen, it seemed to go off fairly smoothly and indeed without too much in the way of criticism – public criticism.
“I think it’s gone very well and it’s very positive. As with all these things, the difficulty is very often the nuts and bolts, so things like terms and conditions of service in DfID were much better than in the FCO. I’m not quite sure – because I’ve now left – how those things have been finessed and resolved.”
Murrison is currently a prime ministerial trade envoy with responsibility for Morocco.