Ministerial directions shot up amid pandemic, analysis finds

Think tank warns threefold increase in decisions to overrule officials' advice on spending must still be properly scrutinised
Former business secretary Alok Sharma issued many of the written directions. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Archive/PA Images

The number of ministerial directions issued to permanent secretaries has skyrocketed in the last year, with ministers overriding officials’ advice four times as often in 2020 as the year before.

Ministers issued 19 written directions last year – up from five in 2019, and seven the previous year.

Most of last year’s directions concerned spending to support businesses during the coronavirus crisis. Most were therefore issued by the business secretary – including six published in June from then-business secretary Alok Sharma overriding civil servants’ concerns that financial support schemes for businesses would be able to deliver value for money.

Others were issued to the the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care enabling them to to breach their spending limits given the "extraordinary circumstances" of Covid-19.

The Institute for Government's latest Whitehall Monitor report noted that the spike follows a rise in ministerial directions in recent years as the civil service has prepared for Brexit. 

But the report said the remarkable increase in 2020 as the coronavirus crisis unfolded “shows the speed at which the government has been reacting and the extraordinary nature of the interventions that would be unthinkable in normal times – both things that are welcome in a crisis like the pandemic”.

It added: “And the numbers do not tell the whole story... some things will have been done that were difficult to justify on strict value for money criteria but which were still the right thing to do at the time.”

While this may be true, the IfG said parliament, especially its Public Accounts Committee, should devote time and attention to scrutinising the directions that had been issued. It noted that unlike in previous years, when a ministerial direction would receive a lot of scrutiny from parliament, the recent increase means each one has attracted less attention.

“While the increase in directions is understandable given the fast-moving nature of the pandemic response, it is also important that they are properly scrutinised so parliament can understand why a minister felt the government should go ahead with the spending despite the concerns of civil servants,” the report said.

A year of directions and U-turns

The increase in ministerial directions coincided with a large number of U-turns last year, the report noted.

Both trends show “that the government has been acting at speed, at times learning from past mistakes while at others failing to anticipate problems”, it said.

“Changing policies as events and information change is, of course, entirely sensible, particularly given the severity of the crisis. But many of these U-turns have happened after ministers have committed, unnecessarily, to one particular course of action that later proved unwise,” the report said.

These about-turns in policy have included rapid changes to the severity of Covid restrictions, such as the last-minute reversal of plans to allow Christmas “bubbles” and the introduction of  tier-4 restrictions shortly before Christmas, and the January lockdown.

There have also been several U-turns related to the provision of free school meals, which have been driven by public campaigning championed by the footballer Marcus Rashford, and the government reversed its approach to the Chinese telecoms company Huawei in May by banning it from providing 5G infrastructure.

While new scientific evidence and public opinion have been major drivers of these “policy swerves”, other U-turns can be attributed to “over-optimism by ministers”, the IfG said. Notable examples include education secretary Gavin Williamson’s plan for primary schools to provide a month of in-person teaching for children between the first lockdown and the summer holiday, which was later abandoned because it was not feasible.

“Sometimes U-turns are sensible decisions, as new evidence emerges or facts change. But when ministers repeatedly go back on statements they have made, the government begins to lose credibility,” the report said.

It added: “These repeated errors also open the government itself up to more potential U-turns as backbenchers and the opposition seek out new weaknesses.”

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