Government and Institutions

I don’t want “smarter” government, I want LESS government

Dominic Cummings is a funny chap. I admire his iconoclasm, if not his dress sense. The ‘Kevin-the sulky-teenager’ schtick – has anyone ever seen him smile? – amuses. But is he going about his attempts at reforming Whitehall in the right way? Indeed is that what the government should be doing just now?

The notorious blogged ‘job advert’, and his arbitrary dismissal of Sajid Javid’s special advisor, suggest a distaste for much of our over-extended employment law which I share. However, the government should reform bad laws: government officials like Cummings should not ignore them (unless he wants to face a series of costly and pointless employment tribunal defeats).

Those of us who have been around the block a few times will recall many attempts to reshape and reform the civil service and the machinery of government. One of the first I remember was in 1964 when Harold Wilson’s government wanted to get Britain moving after what he termed ‘thirteen wasted years’ under the Tories. Wilson brought in two powerful independent advisors – Tommy Balogh and Nicky Kaldor, certainly Cummings-style ‘weirdos’ by the standards of the time. He created a new Department of Economic Affairs to offset the power of the Treasury and shake up the economy. The DEA was placed under the control of the bibulous and erratic George Brown, a man who had never forgiven Wilson for beating him to the party leadership. It was certainly very active, and created the UK’s first and so far (thankfully) only National Plan, which set out targets for whole sectors of the economy and for wage increases for everybody. Within eighteen months it was dead in the water as a result of a sterling crisis.

Many subsequent attempts have been made to reform our system of governance – new recruitment systems to the civil service, new entry points for outside experts, endless chopping of departments, mergers, demergers. Super-ministries such as the DHSS have been created, then broken up into smaller departments. Universities were taken out of Education into Business, then switched back again. Energy has been moved several times… the story is just too tedious to relate.

Even if Cummings’s reforms were to succeed, their purpose seems to be to make the state more powerful, enabling it to pursue new forms of industrial strategy and more transfers of funds to regions, sectors and groups that are considered deserving.

What no-one ever seems to do is to take seriously the idea of reducing the scope of government. Instead it just grows and grows inexorably. Here are three examples in the last week.

The first is perhaps trivial. Today a consultation closes on a government proposal to require all cat-owners to microchip their pets at a cost of roughly £25 a time. Cats could be seized by local authority wardens if not chipped and non-chippers could be fined up to £500 for a criminal offence. Owners would also need to update a register if they changed address.

The proposal is being pushed by the RSPCA, and the argument is made that it will be a useful aid to reuniting lost cats with their owners. It is also pointed out that dogs are already required to be chipped. But these seem poor arguments (particularly the comparison with dogs, which are often dangerous) on which to create more ‘criminals’. These would probably disproportionately be older, poorer and possibly confused people. There would have to be a new bureaucracy and enforcement regime. New laws could also create unintended consequences for animal-lovers. If a poor family’s moggy gives birth to six kittens, you’re not going to be able to shell out £150 quid. The poor creatures will be let loose to make their own way in the world, or tied up in a sack and dumped in a canal.

A more serious issue is shown up by a report on the apprentice levy scheme from the think tank EDSK. As I predicted four years ago, the scheme has failed to meet its target of 3 million high level apprenticeships. Employers and educational institutions have used the levy to rebadge existing courses and training programmes which are not really apprenticeships at all, just as has happened with similar schemes in the past. Some employers have been unable to access funding because of the structure of their business, so it has simply turned into a payroll tax. In the construction sector, sub-contracting businesses have denied access to employees genuinely in need of upskilling. The Director of EDSK says that the scheme is ‘descending into farce’.

A third story is an employment tribunal’s decision to recognise veganism as a protected belief under discrimination law. Although this is not directly the consequence of a government decision, poorly-drafted laws have allowed tribunals and the courts to expand the scope of protected belief beyond what Parliament (and the European Commission) originally envisaged. This protection – originally intended to protect Muslims against discrimination – has now been held to cover belief in climate change, in anti-fox hunting, in public service broadcasting, in public service for the common good, in spiritualism and the ability of mediums to contact the dead, and in Scottish independence.

This latest interpretation may mean that employers cannot require employees to wear certain types of clothing or to handle banknotes. Unlike ascribed characteristics such as age, gender and ethnicity, individuals are, of course, free to acquire beliefs in the course of their employment and demand changes to their working conditions.

Discrimination law, some of which has come from Europe, should be rethought and defined more narrowly after Brexit. We should also abandon the principle of unlimited compensation for discrimination – a European requirement – and put an upper limit on it as we do for vanilla breaches of employment law such as unfair dismissal.

Our newly-refreshed government should be rolling back egregious expansions of state interference rather than spending what could well turn out to be far too much time and political capital trying to make the government apparatus more efficient at expanding its role still further.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

1 thought on “I don’t want “smarter” government, I want LESS government”

  1. Posted 12/01/2020 at 14:24 | Permalink

    I disagree. One of the running themes of Cummings thoughts on how government should operate, are anchored in much smaller teams, more empowered (along with accountable) people, and active internal disruption to ensure validity (red teams). Failure is accepted as par for the course of trying, but must be learned from and that knowledge applied to the next attempt. He believes Departments should be a 7th of the size currently, but that specialists should be allowed to be selected and dismissed by ministers, not by an unaccountable technocracy (civil service management). He believes policy and operational implementation are different skill sets and should be split. He also believes in passing power down. But that doesn’t necessarily mean down to lower level technocrats, but instead devolved down to individuals. In that way he is very libertarian minded. An example would benwhatnsome viewed as the centralised control he and Gove exercised over local councils control of schools. Some could argue that this was an example of centralising power. However, in reality, whatnot did was pass the technocratic local council power down to the parents, so that they could chose to place their child wherever they wanted, and indeed to create a school themselves if they saw fit.
    In addition, the article here seems to suggest that as reforms of government and the civil service have failed in the past, we shouldn’t try again. Perhaps the author is Homer Simpson in disguise? We have the opportunity to reform the civil service so that it wastes less money, encourages a more desirable environment for entrepreneurs, and at the same time passed power down and accountability up.
    What’s not to like.

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