Sunday, 2 September 2007

unCollective irResponsibility

Although the Labour-Plaid team have been in place at the Assembly for almost two months now, my understanding is that, between Rhodri Morgan’s illness and the summer recess, the first meeting of the coalition cabinet has yet to be held. That provides an interesting context to Thursday's warning by Rhodri Morgan that Ministers need to be pulling together not disagreeing in public.

Of course, the fact that the Cabinet has not met does not mean that the Ministers have been idle, nor that ‘the Government’ has not been taking decisions. On the contrary, Ministers have been kept extremely busy by their civil servants, taking routine individual decisions of the sort which never reach Cabinet, making ministerial visits, the occasional award ceremony, and so on.

As we learned from Sir Humphrey, it is a central part of the role of the civil service to ensure that Ministers are kept so busy that they do not have time to start doing anything radical. Hence, 'activity', for all ministers, rapidly becomes confused with 'effectiveness'. And they are all given plenty of activity.

The only example of discord to date which I can recall was the little spat over dredging in the Bristol Channel, where Plaid’s Dai Lloyd attacked the government on the grounds that since the decision was one made by a Labour Minister, Plaid could in no way be held accountable. It’s an interesting argument to use – and I suspect that Morgan is more concerned about the use of that argument than he is about anything Dr Lloyd might say.

In highlighting the fact that the decision was made by an individual minister, Lloyd is correct, of course. What the situation underlines however is that, for any government, the vast majority of ‘government’ decisions are actually taken by single Ministers, acting largely alone, within their own sphere of responsibility. Things would otherwise grind to a complete halt. That raises the question of which decisions should be subject to the principle of collective responsibility.

If the principle only applies to cabinet decisions, then the scope for ministers to disagree with each other is enormous. I suspect that, at the very least, Rhodri Morgan would expect it to apply to all cabinet decisions and all decisions related to the implementation of the One Wales agreement. But even that remains a fairly small proportion of the overall business of the government, and I can understand why Morgan might be worried if ministers start to feel that they are free to criticise all other decisions as they wish.

Plaid in particular may be about to learn that being in government is a double-edged sword. Their individual ministers will have a great deal of freedom to take decisions in their own areas of responsibility on a day to day basis - but, by the same token, Labour ministers will have the same freedom in their respective areas of responsibility.

The real test for the coalition is likely to be about the extent to which the ministerial colleagues are prepared to accept and defend each others’ decisions, rather than about the broad principles outlined in One Wales. Morgan is probably right to be worried.

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