Why we need a secretary of state for England

It’s time to create an England Office to join up the nation’s fragmented domestic policy, argue a former cabinet minister and a former permanent secretary

September 18, 2023
Image: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News
Image: Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

Across a summer of international cricket, rugby and football, and across both men’s and women’s games, there has been one constant. England’s national anthem has been “God Save the King”: the one that also does duty for the whole of the United Kingdom. In this instance, England’s inability to tell the difference between nation and union largely serves to irritate the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish. But when it comes to England’s governance, it is England that loses out. 

Most people in England never stop to consider that we have no government of our own. Search Whitehall and it is impossible to find any civil service structure or ministerial committee that coordinates England’s domestic policy. (That covers all those issues like childcare, education; health and social care; housing; levelling up; and most of transport, agriculture and environment; issues that have been devolved to other nations for decades). There is no national budget for England, nor any debate about how the totality might best be spent. Instead, England is governed by a mishmash of uncoordinated UK departments, some with responsibilities UK-wide, some England and Wales and some for England only. Each is funded separately by the UK Treasury.

The costs of this fragmented, incoherent structure are high. Complex problems that run across departmental boundaries, like criminal justice, obesity or children’s wellbeing are not met by coherent, joined-up policy. Departmental silos mean ringfenced budgets can never be varied to meet challenges as they arise at local level. Accountability to Whitehall departments, supposedly designed to safeguard public money, merely ensures duplication and gaps in provision at local level. There is a cross-party consensus on the need for more devolution within England, but without a coherent centre to devolve power from it will never happen on the scale that is needed. The confusion between English and UK governance continually exacerbates tensions across the Union.

Gordon Brown’s report for the Labour Party on the future of the UK identified the confusion between UK and English government as doing “a disservice both to the devolved nations and to England itself”. Sorting out England’s governance should be high on Keir Starmer’s priority list. Neither his “five missions for a better Britain”, nor his commitment to devolution nor the imperative to make the best use of scarce national resources can be achieved with England’s current governance. Should Rishi Sunak pull off the political recovery he insists is possible, his government too must reform England if the varied aspirations of a new blue/red wall coalition are to be met.

This is the time for both parties to be preparing Whitehall for the change ahead. In a blog for the Bennett Review of the UK Constitution, we have drafted the memo that needs to be sent by a future prime minister to the Cabinet Secretary the senior civil servant responsible for the machinery of government. A new England Office, headed by a Secretary of State for England, would coordinate English domestic policy. Major departments focussed on England would be rebranded, and the English responsibilities of other departments clearly delineated. The England Office would provide civil service support and advice to an English Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Secretary of State, to ensure high level political commitment to English priorities. At the same time, the relationship between HM Treasury and individual departments would change, creating a national budget whose deployment reflects agreed national priorities.

These changes would facilitate devolution across England that would be backed up by a focus on local accountability, rather than national, (the failed audit system that has allowed the scandals of Thurrock and Woking councils would also be replaced). As part of this, the transfer of skills and resources to England’s localities would slim down Whitehall.

It is true that Whitehall has sometimes dipped its toe in “joined up government”. As far back as 2015, the Institute for Government had identified nearly 60 such initiatives in the previous 20 years. However, most have come and gone as departments learned to wait until the enthusiasm of passing ministers had faded and the Treasury used its iron grip to stymie the radical reform that England needs. Without political leadership nothing will change.