Tuesday 17 October 2017

What is it like to be a secretary of state with no specialist knowledge?

Often the politicians tasked with making decisions on health, education and more have no expertise in the area.

(John Stillwell/PA)
(John Stillwell/PA)

By Kameron Virk

With the Queen’s Speech approved by the House of Commons the Conservatives can move forward with their legislative programme, over three weeks since the General Election.

Cabinet members, the most senior of government ministers, form the decision-making body and will be tasked with implementing Tory policy.

They head departments, like those for education and health, despite often having no expertise in the area – and while that can be seen as a negative those with knowledge of the role insist it isn’t. Here’s why.

There are plenty of experts around

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Education Secretary Justine Greening (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Secretaries of state, as Cabinet members are known, have large teams around them tasked with carrying out a directive.

It’s here that knowledge in the relevant fields can be found, according to Peter Hain, the former Labour secretary of state for work and pensions.

He said: “If I wasn’t familiar with the complex details of the tapering of housing benefit, for example, I would get briefed on it. There are plenty of experts.”

“I was more concerned to work as a team with the specialist officials providing me with the details that I needed, rather than to just get bogged down in the technical detail and not see the bigger picture – which it’s easy to do,” he added.

Political experience matters

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Then Welsh Secretary Peter Hain (Barry Batchelor/PA)

Hain, who also served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, as well as Wales, believes political experience counts for a lot more when leading a department than expertise.

He said: “You’ve got to rely on your political values and your political instincts, and your political experience. That is worth more than an anorak’s knowledge of the technical detail.

“When you arrive in your new job you’ve got a briefing usually about a foot high of papers to wade through. Some of those are definitely worth reading and should be read in due course, but you need to come in with a plan so that you’re clear what your political objectives are.

“Obviously you’ve got to get grips with the detail, but more important is the principles by which you govern and the politics which drives it.”

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(John Stillwell/PA)

As far as Hain, who served in cabinets under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is concerned, the “only point” in a secretary of state is to provide political direction. “Otherwise you might as well not be there,” he said.

Experience from work as an MP helped too, he said.

“In all these jobs you know a bit about everything from either your interests or your experience as an MP, doing case work and surgeries.

“I’d had first hand experience of Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) work in my constituency. One of the reasons people from outside politics, business people or specialists, find it so difficult to be a minister is this lack of political experience. In the end that counts for a great deal.”

Former Conservative MP David Wilshire, co-director of The Political Management Programme at Brunel University, would agree.

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Former Conservative MP David Wilshire (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“You start with values and you end up with action,” he said.

“The role of the politician, be he a parish councillor or a secretary of state, is to deal with the values – ‘this is what we’re trying to achieve’.

“In politics it’s about the electoral values that you’re trying to implement. They might be your values, they may the majority population’s, they may be your party’s values, but you’re trying all the time to push that.”

You rely on your principles

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Hain, who’s known for his anti-apartheid campaigning, being moved on from a protest in the 1970s (PA)

Hain, who served as MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 and played a part in brokering a deal between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness during his time as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said he doesn’t talk about politics in tribal or party terms.

He recalled a policy he was asked to implement that he made sure was enacted in line with his views.

“The Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted me to lower the child’s age at which lone parents were obliged to train and seek work. That was a policy I could agree with, but I ensured that it was done in a way where there was childcare support and in a way that gave rise to opportunity as opposed to being oppressive,” he said.

But whether you have the experience or the knowledge or not, the scale of the job can put things into perspective.

“It was a job that is crucial to millions of people and therefore I focused on making sure that the things that really mattered were delivered as effectively as they could be,” said Hain.

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