Fewer ministries of state

23 ministers and departments of state is not the best way to achieve efficient coordination and delegation of responsibilities. They cannot all contribute usefully in cabinet (let alone the five others who routinely attend cabinet, and the four others who sometimes do). And it is not cheap (as senior ministers are paid more than junior ministers).

This arrangement is a result of Prime Ministers' need for patronage to keep the troops in line. And it is useful if you are the sort of Prime Minister who wants to micro-manage the detail of every activity of government. (We all know about the current Prime Minister's tendencies in this regard, but it perhaps provides a clue to the question of whether David Cameron genuinely believes in devolving power from the center, or whether he is really another centralizer, that he has not proposed any significant simplification.)

It is not a practical management structure. Good management relies on delegation to a close-knit team of highly-skilled and -trusted colleagues, who likewise delegate to their team, and so on. This structure says that the Prime Minister does not trust his senior colleagues to manage their own teams and to bring the essential, condensed information to him, but instead wishes to have as many of the team reporting directly to him as possible.This degree of information overload at the highest level does not produce quality decision-making.

We propose a radical overhaul of the structure of government. We would reduce to six the number of executive departments of state (representatives of certain administrative offices would also continue to be represented in cabinet):

  • Treasury
  • Foreign Office
  • Home Office
  • Education
  • Health
  • National infrastructure and public interest

(As you may have noticed, we have structured our policy pages accordingly.)

The Treasury would add the welfare responsibilities of government (the Department for Work and Pensions), and the limited commercial responsibilities of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that were retained in government, to its existing economic functions. Taxes and benefits are fundamentally linked in their effects on people's economic position, and should be considered as a whole. Our proposed changes to welfare and taxes on earnings make this particularly important and inseparable.

The Foreign Office would absorb responsibilities for Defence and International Development.

The Home Office would re-combine the Justice Department with the rump of the Home Office.

Responsibility for Universities and Skills would be returned to the Department for Education (as the Department for Children, Schools and Families would again be known - any welfare responsibilities of that department having been transferred to the Treasury).

The new Department of National Infrastructure and Public Interest would absorb those parts of the responsibilities of several current departments that were properly the business of government (whilst discarding much of their former activities):

  • Communities & Local Government
  • Culture, Media & Sport
  • Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
  • Energy & Climate Change
  • Transport

The department would, in effect, be dealing with those things that can properly be described as "externalities", to use the economists' name for goods whose value (positive or negative) is not taken properly into account by the market. Many things currently treated by government as externalities ought not to be, and would simply be discarded.

Besides the secretaries of state for these six departments, the Prime Minister, the Leaders of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and the Lord Chancellor (plus the Cabinet Secretary) would attend cabinet, making a much more manageable and affordable total of ten politicians and one civil servant.

Each of the six secretaries of state will have more junior ministers than at present (around six each), to manage the expanded responsibilities of each department. Junior ministers will have more real responsibility and power, as many of the roles will be equivalent to former cabinet-level posts. Each secretary of state may be attended in cabinet by as many of his junior ministers as he thinks helpful to the agenda (and by the department's Permanent Secretary), for that part of the meeting that discusses the department's business. The Chancellor may ask for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to be present at as much of the meeting as he thinks useful.

Departments of state will hold their own cabinet meetings at which the secretary of state can discuss and coordinate activities and be informed about developments. The broader remit of the department, and the expanded but limited number of ministers involved, should make for meetings of substance that promote good decisions and information-sharing at a level one-step devolved from the Prime Minister.

Representatives of the provincial departments (of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) are notable by their absence from this structure. We support as much devolution as the people of those provinces would like to have (whilst believing that a union for at least trading and defence purposes remains desirable), but to the extent that the Westminster government retains responsibilities in the provinces, the rules should apply equally across borders, and the sectoral departments should bear responsibility for policy throughout the areas in which responsibility is not devolved.