Tsars! Hunh! yeah, what are they good for?*

*with footnotes!

The Guardian’s most read story yesterday was the decision of Lord Wei, Big Society Tsar, to reduce the time he is working for the Government from three days to two to allow him to see his family and pay the bills. A former intern texted me: “Welcome to my world Lord Wei!!” Cough. Of course, the Constitution Unit maintains a non-partisan stance. So I’ll focus on a small line in the piece which struck me.

[When Lord Wei] was invited to take the role he had expected it to be remunerated but was told only the night before that it was a voluntary post and there would be no salary.

Readers might be sceptical. But this is not the first time that this has happened. While doing interviews for a report on ministers appointed from outside Parliament, [1] one former minister told me how he had faced a similar situation—literally, he was told the position was unpaid the day before. It is a striking fact of British governance that we have a number of ministers and ‘tsars’ who work for ‘free’. Why is this? And what’s the deal with tsars anyway?

The first point to note is that the number of ministers in theory is determined by practical need, but it is often more than not a means of political control. Ministerial office is both a carrot and a stick to keep the parliamentary party in line. The second point to note is that the number of ministers allowed in Parliament is limited by statute. One means by which the number of ministers is limited is by payroll. So one way round this—don’t pay them. The Coalition has about 11 unpaid ministers.[2] ‘Unpaid’ posts keep the troops (and generals) happy.[3]

Tsars are slightly more problematic. First, there is a question of definition. ‘Tsars’ are usually prominent people appointed on an ad hoc basis by government to be its public face on a particular policy area. But it’s difficult to be more specific than that, because no one is exactly sure 1. what counts as a ‘tsar’; 2. what they do; 3. to whom they are accountable. In short, tsars are somewhere between a special adviser and a minister, but have murky areas of responsibility and dubious lines of accountability. On one count Gordon Brown had 25 tsars. It isn’t clear how many David Cameron has, but he has continued the practice with gusto. There are no limits on the number of tsars.

Of course the Coalition Government would probably point to austerity measures and the Big Society as an explanation for tsars and their unpaid status.[4] But tsars now appear to be a permanent fixture of the British political system, and they have emerged over time for more complex (and less austere) reasons than that—including the need for cross-departmental coordination, the desire for expertise and a greater media splash gained by appointing a ‘name’. It may also be that with a coalition government, some policies are better promoted by someone ostensibly standing ‘outside’ the Coalition.

The problem of unpaid positions, and the oddity of tsars were both dealt with by the Public Administration Committee in the previous parliamentary term under the inestimable Tony Wright.[5] There’s an additional, deeper question which the appointment of so many ministers and tsars raises (unpaid or not): what do ministers do? Why do we need tsars when we have so many ministers; and perhaps—vice versa. The current incarnation of PASC has also been looking at what ministers do, with a report to be published sometime in the near future. Questions of good governance are perennial: and they aren’t going to be answered by increasing the number of ministers, or by engaging in the creation of constitutionally murky offices.

[1] Shameless plug for a report that has just been published? Never.

[2] I haven’t included parliamentary private secretaries, which currently number about 45 or so.

[3] Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus explain the complex psychology of some would-be ministers:

If you change your mind,

I’m the first in line

Honey I’m still free

Take a chance on me [6]

[4] *I’m not sure if all tsars are unpaid though. It’s worth noting that just because some ministers and tsars aren’t paid doesn’t mean they don’t cost the taxpayer money. Such positions usually require civil service support and resources, which may be diverted from perhaps more deserving issues.

[5] Plug.

[6] Gratuitous Swedish reference? Yes.

EDIT (4 Feb): couldn’t resist. The FT’s Westminster Blog notes today that Chris Huhne, energy secretary, has been trying to hire Lord Whitty (a Labour peer) to become the fuel poverty tsar. On it goes….

EDIT (6 Feb): alright, really this time—last edit. Promise. The WSJ says it well. In essence, the government ran out of positions by the time they got to appointing to Lord Wei—the intention had been to make Wei a special adviser, but there was a limit on the number of special advisers to appointed (this was political rather than legal, as with ministers, however). The Coalition Government had miscalculated, and so Lord Wei was left with an unpaid job. This is not the first time this has happened. And again, it raises the question of what governments can do, and perhaps shouldn’t do. Big questions….

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