Today’s report from the Public Administration Select Committee (see here and Press Release reproduced below) makes complete sense. It argues that as Ministers reduce the size of the House of Commons (from 650 down to 600 MPs) and devolve power (allegedly) away from Whitehall, there should be less need for so many Ministers and their bag-carriers (Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the first rung on the ladder to a red Box).
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the Government to adopt their proposals – the politics of Coalition is against them. Just look at Northern Ireland – everyone there knows that there are too many departments and too many ministers, but the peculiar permanent Coalition that is the Northern Ireland Executive requires that there are enough seats to go around to keep everyone happy they at least some grip of some aspect of power, however small or dysfunctional that may be.
Our Coalition is a rather less extreme example but there are enough backbench Tory MPs who expected to get their seat at the table and haven’t because a Lib Dem got it instead to create similar problems. Reducing the number of Ministers and PPSs would mean even more disgruntled backbenchers in both parties ranks. So the Government may adopt the proposals – after all they do seem to think that the best sort of government is no government (and some Ministers seem to be practicing it already) – but it’s unlikely.
Instead we will see what the Committee warns against – a tipping of the balance between the Executive and Parliament even further towards the former than it is already.
Public Administration Select Committee – House of Commons press release
DEVOLVING POWER SHOULD MEAN FEWER MINISTERS – MPs URGE GOVERNMENT
NEW REPORT: Smaller Government: What Do Ministers Do?
The Government appoints too many ministers and should reduce their number by the middle of the Parliament, as it devolves real power and responsibility to local communities – central to its Big Society agenda – the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) argues in a report out today.
Following the decision to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 the Public Administration Select Committee examined the role and responsibilities of ministers to see if there was scope for reductions there too.
141 MPs are currently on the ‘payroll vote’ as ministers or their Parliamentary aides and are obliged to vote with the Government or resign their position. If this number remains static at the same time as MPs are cut, it will effectively increase the payroll vote – furthering strengthening the Executive at the expense of Parliament.
PASC urges three steps on the Government to reduce this power of patronage:
The current legal cap on the number of paid ministers should set the absolute limit;
The legal limit on the number of ministers in the Commons should be cut by eight, in line with the reduction in the number of MPs just enacted;
The number of PPSs should be limited to one per department—a reduction of 26.
Bernard Jenkin, Chair of PASC said:
“The number of MPs on the payroll in the House of Commons today is as high as ever, undermining the independence of Parliament.
“Things will get worse if the so-called ‘payroll vote’ is not reduced in line with cuts in the size of the Commons.
”The Government should ensure that its constitutional reforms do not advantage the Executive over the legislature and reflect the Government’s commitment to “strengthening Parliament”. Our proposal to lower the legal limit on the number of ministers allowed in the Commons in line with the cut in MPs represents a very modest reduction and is easily achievable”.
In addition to addressing concerns over patronage, its ambition to decentralise power away from Whitehall, should – the MPs believe – give the Government ample scope by the middle of the Parliament to reduce the number of ministers. The Report recommends a review of ministerial numbers to reflect the smaller government which is central to the Prime Minister’s vision of a Big Society.
The Report found that ministers’ time is not always well spent and identifies a number of ways in which the Government could therefore refocus ministers’ work and make them more effective. The Committee believes it should ultimately be possible to cut the number of ministers to a total of 80, shared between the Commons and the Lords, as recommended by PASC in the previous Parliament.
Bernard Jenkin MP added:
“During the Election the Prime Minister promised to ‘cut the cost of politics’. The public sector is being asked to do more with less and Government ministers should not be exempt from having to revaluate how they work and what they do.
“Ministers are kept extremely busy in their jobs, but we found they are not always using their time effectively.
“They should be focusing on key strategic decisions, and delegating more effectively to others.”
“The Government should examine whether it needs so many junior ministers – especially in light of its Localism Bill pushing power and responsibility away from central government to local communities and with new powers being devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.