Government is responsible for the provision and delivery of a range of services, directly or indirectly, on a scale no business or charity has to deal with. It is the provider and guardian of our safety and health of last resort. We rely, often unthinkingly, on government to do its job every day of our lives. We may grumble about it, it might irritate us, but we take it for granted that traffic lights will work, that buses run, our hospitals work, our food is safe to eat and our water to safe to drink. We know if we are arrested the police cannot just lock us up and throw away the key. We probably do not give much thought to those on duty this Christmas keeping us safe from attack or who wait to be called to put out a fire or treat us if we fall ill – but they’re there, provided by government, our government, to help keep us safe.
Ministers may be the people we see on our social media feeds and television, and that we hear on the radio, but behind the scenes a vast and never ending amount of work goes on to provide all those services we have become used to and grumble about instantly if they do not immediately work perfectly for us the moment we need them. This work is done by officials, civil servants – Whitehall. Whoever is in government, officials deliver what the government of the day wants. It is an administrative machine. When a government is strong and knows what it wants to do the machine often works well. When a government is weak it does not. The same is true for individual ministers and departments. You never hear a strong and capable minister complain about their officials. Weak ministers tend to be consumed by their departments. One of the best ways to ensure Whitehall delivers what the government wants is for the Prime Minister to be clear about his objective and then appoint strong capable ministers to deliver it.
Constant innovation and change are necessary to keep the government machine sharp and working well. Arguably the single biggest Whitehall innovation in the last one hundred years was the establishment of the Cabinet Office in 1916 by Lloyd George. Becoming Prime Minister in the middle of the First World War he found the government machine to be hopelessly disorganised and so established a central organising secretariat. Today, the Cabinet Office is the least well known and most powerful department in Whitehall. Reports that the Prime Minister is planning a significant overhaul of the Whitehall machine are good news. Changes are needed – and so is investment.
Procurement is, rightly, a current particular focus of attention. Much work has been done to improve government procurement but the pace needs to be picked up. More work can be done on improving processes and tenders, but the government needs to invest in more skilled and trained officials to oversee tendering and contract management. To do one without the other is government continuing to tie one hand behind its own back.
Since 2010 cost cutting across Whitehall has seen the number of civil servants fall but the number of ministers increase. The number of ministers attending Cabinet is now so many the table they sit around has to be extended. There is a need for a radical pruning of the number of government departments and the number of Ministers that go with them.
The Home Office and the Justice Department should be re-united. The Business and Trade Departments merged. Put DIFID back into the FCO, from whence it came, and create a new border and immigration department if you want to. More than that needs to be done, however.
Britain needs a new Defence and Security Ministry, pulling together all those organisations, institutions and agencies responsible for our security in one department.
More power and responsibility needs to be devolved to the regions. Where a region doesn’t have a mayor it needs to be provided with one. The Prime Minister, knowing personally how important a good mayor is to a region, should institute regular meetings with the mayors – creating a Cabinet of the Regions.
Local government, often a policy and political blackhole, needs a fundamental review with a view to slimming down the many tiers that exist, thereby making it more efficient and accountable as well as less expensive for the tax payer.
Police and Crime Commissioners, a US import, have never settled comfortably into the British system. An expensive innovation that would be best swept away with the responsibility returned to a reformed local government structure.
Reform of Whitehall alone is not enough. Government itself needs to demonstrate physically it is moving back closer to people. Number 10 should establish a permanent northern presence in Manchester or Newcastle. The Prime Minister should base himself and the government for significant amounts of time in the north of England. The Cabinet already meets outside of London, but it should do so much more often, with cabinet ministers being made to live and work regularly in the north.
Parliament too should meet regularly outside of Westminster. Already select committees meet in different parts of the country. Imagine if Parliament met in Edinburgh for extended periods. The naysayers will moan its all too difficult, but if the Brexit referendum has taught us anything its that people want change, want things to be different. It happened in mediaeval times surely we can manage it in the 21st century.
Government has to drag attention and focus, investment and innovation to those areas of the country that have been deprived of them for too long. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried showering the north with public money. On its own it does not work. Scotland receives a huge subsidy from the Exchequer but that has done nothing to arrest the march of the SNP. Spraying tax payers money around, redistributing it from the south to the north of Britain, is not enough to deliver what is needed.
Business, in all its shapes and sizes, needs to be encouraged to invest and to keep on investing. Confidence can be created and sustained if government commits to an area and a region, driving policy innovation to support enterprise and investment.
Symbolism in politics matters almost as much as good policy. There could be no better symbol and policy to sit alongside Whitehall reform than to move the Prime Minister and Parliament north on a regular basis.