Black box business

January 24, 2006 ,

GOVERNMENT Ministers traditionally carry “red boxes” within which important papers are kept.

They really are red, unlike “black box” flight recorders on planes which are brightly coloured to be easily found.

In effect the ministerial box is a bomb proof brief case, designed to ensure that whatever disaster may befall the minister, including a plane crash, his or her important ministerial paperwork will survive.

In that sense the red box is a practical symbol of the continuity of the British civil service and the “here today, gone tomorrow” ministers they serve.

It is thought that William Gladstone may have been the first to use a “red box” in 1860 to keep his budget secure.

His budget speeches famously took several hours, so he also kept a “pomatum pot” inside, containing a mixture of whisked egg and sherry to sustain him.

There is however one exception to the “red box” rule. Government Whips are ministers, but usually don’t carry departmental papers around with them. Most Whips’ work is conducted in conversation rather than on paper, in discussions about policy and votes.

But for those occasions when they do have to carry official papers they too are issued with a ministerial box.

As a Whip I have one, but in our case it really is a “black box”. Perhaps the Whips lead lined briefcase is so coloured as a symbol of the alleged “dark acts” of the Whips Office.

Whatever the reason, my “black box” came into use this week as I have been drafted in to speak on the committee stage of the Government of Wales Bill.

I hope that my contribution will help to pass this important bill for Wales. But despite the speaking role I still didn’t get to carry one of the famous red boxes.