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Lords Diary: Lord Howell

House of Lords, May 2022: The-then Prince Charles stands in to deliver the Queen's Speech | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Lord Howell reflects on the forthcoming King's Speech, the merits of splitting the Treasury and building white elephants

Every now and then the idea comes up of splitting the Treasury. The latest proposals along these lines are said to be in Lord Maude’s eagerly awaited review of the machinery of central government and the civil service. The suggestion is not new. Exactly the same proposition was put to Ted Heath as prime minister in 1970, along with plans for a powerful new “central capability” lodged right inside No 10, to better control the vast and spiralling Whitehall spending machine.

The central thought then, as now, was that the Treasury contained within it at least two separate functions of immense power: control of the entire budget (and therefore the spending allocations to every department for their bids and ambitions), and the management of the economy (with or without the help of the Bank of England) as well as taxation. 

The 1970 aim, copying the model of the United States Office of Management and Budget, was to install a really tough business figure, very close to the PM, conducting intense questioning of every departmental function about its objectives and, indeed, its very existence in the public sector at all. In practice, what emerged was the Central Policy Review Staff, with a far more generalist focus and firmly tucked in the Cabinet Office – not what we wanted at all. 

Back then older leading Tories like Angus Maude, Francis Maude’s father, condemned our plans as too “managerial” for Conservative tastes. The mandarins did not like them either. When the Tories returned in 1970 these ideas were quickly squashed. Will the views of son Francis prevail this time?

Carpets come up and carpets go down. The Lords is sprucing up for this week’s State Opening. Visitors, especially overseas ones, are surprised to learn that the King’s speech from the throne in the Lords is not really his at all, and comes from the circulation of departmental hopes and plans around Whitehall, eventually emerging in emaciated form.

And perhaps it really is a missed opportunity for something better. Could the government’s plans for the new Parliament not be published in a government paper, while the King could share his own thoughts? We talk about the need for longer term strategic thinking and His Majesty has already proved a powerful and prophetic source. Pity we cannot use his deep experience and wisdom better, as well as his assessment of the darkening world scene, with the Israel and Hamas horror at its latest centre. 

Carpets come up and carpets go down. The Lords is sprucing up for the State Opening

Podcasts are all the rage. One reason could be that listeners who want to follow public affairs and politics really prefer the conversational form to the hectoring and interruptive style of over-opinionated interviewers who currently prevail on both TV and radio news, bent on point-scoring and often a bit ill-mannered, especially on the morning radio. From a good podcast you learn a lot more.

There is one item, actually a gigantic commitment involving bottomless expense, which may not feature in the Gracious Speech at all. That is the decision to go ahead with building a second large-scale nuclear power “replica” plant, using the French EPR design being employed at Hinkley Point, at Sizewell in Suffolk. 

This is a thoroughly bad idea, putting the energy transition and our aims for a reliable and all-electric economy by 2050 on the wrong nuclear track, although it may be too late to stop. The cost could be anything between £20bn and £30bn – or more. There is no hope of completion until the late 2030s. Past projects using this design have been billions over budget and years over time.

By contrast a worldwide revolution in nuclear power technology now offers much smaller reactor types, (SMRs and ABMRs), which can be built off-site very much quicker, attract strong private funding and in some cases use up past spent fuel. That should be the priority. 

Instead, another white elephant looms up in the mist ahead! 

Lord Howell is a Conservative peer

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