Liam Byrne, the regional minister of the West Midlands, described it as “banging heads together” – encouraging and exhorting the various agencies operating across the region to turn their words into action and work in partnership.
It’s an approach his successor, Ian Austin, appears to be following. But without any formal powers, there’s a limit to how effective they can really be.
As the region’s Select Committee points out, there is also some ambiguity about who they actually work for.
Both West Midlands ministers so far have promised to be our voice in the Government, rather than the Government’s voice in the region.
But they are, of course, ministers. And that means they are bound by collective responsibility, just like any other minister.
If Gordon Brown or Peter Mandelson make a decision which is seen to put the West Midlands at a disadvantage, the regional minister can hardly lead a public campaign against it. They are obliged to back government policy.
There’s nothing wrong with this, as it’s simply the way our political system works. But it can lead to expectations which are hard to fulfil.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the regional minister has no voice of his or her own. They can always lobby government colleagues privately, or promise to take the views of local figures such as business leaders back to London.
But their role really is to help shape government policy, by ensuring the needs of regions such as the West Midlands are taken into account, and then to help the region make the most of whatever decision is taken.
The Select Committee suggests that a more independent role should be considered, so that regional ministers are free to be champions for the area they represent without appearing to be disloyal.
This is a good idea in some respects but it is unclear whether it is practical. The difficulty is that if a minister is to be the region’s voice in government then they do need to be part of that government.
Giving them greater independence would inevitably mean excluding them from the government benches.
They would have more freedom but less influence.
The select committee, by contrast, is able to speak up on behalf of the region without fear or favour.
Perhaps a more useful debate would be to consider how MPs outside the government can have a louder voice than they do at present.