Reducing the Powers of the Chief Minister. A Petition to Tynwald, July 2023

I handed a petition for redress to the Clark of Tynwald at the foot of Tynwald Hill on Tynwald Day 2023. The relevant Tynwald committee has now declared this petition ‘in order’, meaning it is available for any member of Tynwald to pick up for action / debate. The first oppertunity for this to happen is October’s Tynwald sitting, 2023.

The Committee’s report and my petition may be found in here.

Broadly, the petition calls for the stripping of powers from the Chief Minister to make the role closer to the principle of first among equals. Of relevance to very recent events since I handed in the petition, I called for the removal of the powers to hire and fire ministers from the Chief Minister. This week, Mr Thomas MHK has been sacked as Infrastructure Minister. Mr Cannan confirmed to Tynwald that the decision to sack Mr Thomas was not discussed by the Council of Ministers, but was a late Sunday night unilateral decision by Mr Cannan, Chief Minister (as confirmed by Mr Cannan in Tynwald, Tuesday 18th July).

The full petition is reproduced below.

To the Honourable Members of Tynwald Court

Movement of the Island’s Government from Boards of Tynwald and the Executive Council to the Council of Ministers (between 1981 and 1990) concentrated power into a small executive consisting of the Chief Minister and their Ministers. The provisions under which the transfer occurred have almost-certainly become a root cause of recently widespread governance failures of the Island and contributed to political malaise. Reform of the executive’s structure is urgently required to improve the state of governance of the Island. Concerns raised by Tynwald members on the introduction of the Council of Ministers during the 1980s – such as too greater concentration of power in the executive and development of a ‘one party state’ – have not been formally assessed against the evidence now accumulated over 30 years. It is now time for such an assessment.

Consensus-building is essential in a parliament where most members at any time are not party-affiliated. However, three key interlinked consequences of the creation of the Council of Ministers have weakened the tradition of consensus decision-making in Tynwald: (1) the powers and patronage of the Chief Minister; (2) the ability of Government to secure majorities in exchange for the perception of consensus decision- making; and (3) under-resourcing of Tynwald and its offices.

First, the position of Chief Minister carries patronage and power that is incompatible with our non-party politics. The cultural tradition of Tynwald and circumstances of the Island make the development of substantial party politics unlikely, as demonstrated by the fact that most members have been independent since the introduction of the Council of Ministers over 30 years ago. As it stands, the Chief Minister exerts four key distorting effects (to greater and lesser extent):

  • The Chief Minister’s ability to hire and fire enables their political views and ideas to carry more weight than other members of the Council of Ministers, despite them having no more public mandate than others.
  • The Chief Minister’s patronage does not ensure that the best Tynwald members are selected for Ministerial posts, but rather those most likely to support the Chief Minister.
  • The Chief Minister can mobilise the substantial resources associated with their office to support their policy positions, giving them undue power over both other Ministers, Departmental Members, and other members of Tynwald, who are not afforded as much support.
  • A no confidence vote in a Chief Minister’s administration is unlikely, as over three-quarters of the House of Keys are subject to the patronage of the Chief Minister because: (a) they hold Government roles that they may only retain with Government’s support; and (b) the opposition is largely unorganised with no real possibility of an ‘official opposition’ emerging due to lack of parties.

Solutions exist to minimise these concerns. Other consensus-based parliaments, such as Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada, maintain that parliament selects Ministers rather than the head of the executive. Similarly, many coalition-based parliaments do not grant powers for the head of the executive to fire ministers outside of their party (e.g., Denmark). Tynwald had such a system to appoint members of the Executive Council and Chairs of Boards of Tynwald in the 1980s; this could be revitalised. Such an approach could work to widen the representation of views within the Council of Ministers.

Going further, making the Chief Minister first among equals – where the Council of Ministers collectively form the Government with the Chief Minister acting as Chair with limited specific powers – would maintain a figurehead and point of contact for external affairs, while addressing concerns that the Chief Minister is not popularly elected and has too considerable powers of patronage and institutional power when compared to their mandate as an independent individual in a single constituency. Such an appointment could be made automatically (e.g., based on seniority) and annually rotated, similarly to the President of the Swiss Confederation.

Second, the change from Boards – in which most Tynwald members were involved in Government policymaking – to the Council of Ministers has effectively reduced the number of members involved in initiating and considering policy choices. Departmental Members were created to address this shortcoming; however, their existence enables the Council of Ministers to secure block voting through collective responsibility – for some Departments creating automatic majorities in the House of Keys – in exchange for limited control of a relatively small policy area compared to older Board membership. Voting data from 2016-21 indicates that Department Members nearly always voted with their Department on Government- backed motions, negating the argument that the role of Departmental Members in block votes is insignificant. Previously, Board members voted as a collective on all matters before the Board, whereas Departmental Members are constrained to their policy area and under the control and patronage of the Minister.

Recent voting records suggest that, apart from all but the most contentious policies, the Council of Minister’s core block vote of nine may be combined with Departmental Members’ support (usually 0 – 3 members) to ensure that the Council of Ministers’ collective position on a matter is very difficult – or even impossible – to challenge. Given a block vote of between nine and twelve votes, motions are highly likely to succeed in Keys with 23 members (i.e., minus the speaker), or in Keys votes in Tynwald Court with 24 members. Application of a dynamical mathematical model of opinion formation (based on a small-world network) to Tynwald’s structure suggests that the closeness of the block votes to a majority in the Keys ensures that the Council of Ministers’ position on motions in Tynwald can generally succeed in more than 90% of cases, as the Council of Minister’s initial view exerts substantial influence over other members’ opinions. This may occur despite potential disagreement between branches (succeeding on a combined vote) and despite the initial opinions of Keys members outside of the block vote. During the Quayle administration, the Department of Health had a block vote of 12 in the House of Keys (consisting of Mr Ashford as Minister, and Mrs Corlett, Mr Moorhouse, and Mrs Barber as Members), ensuring Government- backed health matters were highly unlikely to fail (unless there was breakdown of the block vote or Departmental Members’ support). Similarly, planning policy and implementation were split across the Cabinet Office and Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture; for planning policy matters, both departments generally voted together. The problem is compounded when one or more non-block MHKs are absent: block voting becomes more significant as the number of members required for a majority falls. Further, increasing use of secondary legislation by Government combined with block voting has arguably led to ill-thought-out legislation to enter force with unforeseen consequences, as exemplified by policies and debates stemming from the Action Plan to Improve the Planning System. Some of the policies that arose from the Plan are now recommended for reversal by the Built Heritage Select Committee only a few years later. Tynwald is not directly involved in the drafting of secondary legislation and has no powers of amendment when voting on regulations in Tynwald Court, leaving the totality of sometimes substantial documents only able to be voted down in their entirety rather than allowing small mistakes or issues to be caught and amended.

Removal of Departmental Membership would inhibit the ability of the executive to push through potentially minority positions by astute application of Department Members. This could be compensated for by strengthening Tynwald’s role in policy development, such as by creating Boards (or Committees) to intercept incoming secondary legislation and other policy from Government. Such Boards could contribute to policy before it comes into force through these new mechanisms rather than Departmental Membership, potentially enabling more considered and widely supported policy to progress.

Third, the current budget process is constraining the ability of Tynwald and its offices to operate effectively or at all. The Tynwald Commissioner for Administration requested a budget for this financial year of £50,000, recognising that she would be unable to fulfil her statutory duties effectively with the existing budget of £32,000; in other words, she would be unable to investigate legitimate complaints from the public about Government, leading to a possible loss of public confidence in the process. Only minimal budget uplift of £2,000 was granted rather than £18,000, thus – according to her recent report – leaving new complaints now not investigated. Such budgetary control is further concentrating power into the Government and away from Tynwald and the public. The role of Treasury and the Council of Ministers in setting Tynwald’s budgets must be addressed.

Wherefore your petitioner seeks that:

Tynwald appoints a Select Committee of five members (with representation from both the House of Keys and Legislative Council) to:

  1. Consider, make recommendations and – if applicable – an implementation strategy to reduce the powers of the Chief Minister to:
  • a. Remove powers to appoint and fire Ministers and return this ability to Tynwald.
  • b. Re-establish a Selection Committee of Tynwald for the purpose of recommending appointments to the executive based on merit, broad representation, and experience.
  • c. Remove the present role of the Chief Minister and replace with a new role that is allocated to a Minister on the principle of first among equals. Specific consideration should be given to applying a method of automatic allocation that operates on a rotating basis.
  1. Consider, make recommendations and – if applicable – an implementation strategy to strengthen Tynwald oversight of policy development by one or more of the following:
  • a. Introducing Tynwald policy board(s) to widen political involvement with proposed secondary legislation (and other policy) before consideration in Tynwald Court, with specific aims of improving quality and political consensus.
  • b. Ensuring the executive cannot gain automatic majorities in House of Keys votes while maximising Tynwald members’ involvement in policymaking by: i. Abolishing Departmental Membership; and ii. Replacing with an equal number of positions in boards proposed in (a).
  • c. Any other mechanism identified that may achieve the same aim.
  1. Investigate if appropriate measures are in place to ensure Tynwald and its associated functions (e.g., Tynwald Commissioner for Administration) are adequately funded within the current budget process.

The Select Committee should bring recommendations for reform to Tynwald no later than one year after their appointment.

– end