Ministers shouldn’t be able to escape their mistakes

4 May 2019

1:55 AM

4 May 2019

1:55 AM

There is little doubt that Rory Stewart is amply-qualified for his belated promotion to the cabinet. The new International Development Secretary also has a background that means he understands what his brief actually does, and its value. But his move from the Ministry of Justice has also prompted a round of complaining that Stewart will not be held accountable for a pledge that he made.

When he became prisons minister, Stewart set himself a deadline of 12 months in which to reduce levels of drug use and violence in 10 struggling prisons. If he failed, he promised, he would resign.  At the time, it seemed rather obvious that Stewart would most likely not have to face the consequences of this pledge: he would either get promoted or there would be another general election. It’s more remarkable given the instability of British politics that the latter hasn’t yet happened, frankly.

But what is striking about the response to Stewart leaving the prisons brief is that there is a general acknowledgement that he would have been unusual in being held to account for his actions. Ministers don’t normally set out what they want to do in a new job, still less what will happen if they don’t do it. Most do have an urge to produce some kind of legacy policy, whether it is turning around prisons, introducing new legislation on child care, or getting a certain number of homes built. This brings its own problems: not every minister actually understands the sector they are now responsible for, and still fewer have time to work out whether their legacy policies will actually work.

But the saving grace for all of them, including Stewart, is that few stay in the job long enough to get found out. The churn caused by reshuffles held even by the strongest and most stable of governments means that a good length of tenure is around 18 months, which is scarcely enough time to work out what all the acronyms in a sector mean, let alone whether your wizard wheeze that you’re unleashing upon it will work. Few policies are implemented and deliver results within that period. Not many are even clearly working or failing by the time a minister leaves government for good.

It would be very worthy to say that prime ministers should change their teams less often. Most prime ministers-in-waiting claim from the comfort of opposition that they won’t hold regular reshuffles, pontificating that this harms good government. Once in office, though, these promises go the same way as ones about opening up government, decentralising power and having fewer special advisers.

So is there anything that can be done to make it easier to hold ministers to account for what they actually do while in office? I think there is, but it can’t involve us waiting for the government to change. Instead, Parliament needs to become more powerful and thoughtful in the way it looks at policies. In my book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I suggest that ex-ministers should be summoned to select committee hearings where their past policies are picked over, perhaps even appearing in front of members of the public affected by those good or catastrophically bad ideas. Committees should have legal powers to summon said former politicians, so that leaving government or even parliament doesn’t serve as a shield against accountability. Currently, if a minister introduces a dud policy, he or she only needs to move to another department to avoid having to talk about it again (see Chris Grayling, whose name is often cited in discussions about the failings at the Ministry of Justice, but who has never had to answer any formal questions about his decisions in that job). Knowing that you might have to answer for your actions five or even 15 years down the line would concentrate the mind rather. It would also mean that Rory Stewart wouldn’t be a strange anomaly in politics, even if he hasn’t had to answer for his own pledge this time round.

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