Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament - Public Administration Committee Contents


15. Ministers are drawn from the governing party in Parliament, and sometimes from outside, for a variety of complex reasons.[14] However, we can assume that certain factors will come into play. Merit is one. People with previous ministerial experience - or with shadow cabinet status - may expect to be accommodated. The Prime Minister will probably also want to have gender, ethnic and regional balances in mind when forming his administration.

16. A Prime Minister in a secure position, with a large parliamentary majority, may decide to appoint people who are of a similar political stripe or who are friends and colleagues who share a common history and outlook. As Jonathan Powell put it, "You are going to choose people who will support the Government".[15] The 'proximity factor' may also be a consideration; people who work closely with the leader of a political party and with a Prime Minister may get rapid promotion.

17. On the other hand, a Prime Minister in a weaker position, with a smaller majority, may have to accommodate people with a wider range of view points from his or her political party and appoint people he or she would not otherwise choose. Sir John Major acknowledged that "it was necessary to keep a political balance within the party, so I had to look at a political balance as well as straightforward merit".[16]

18. It follows that the decision to make outside appointments as ministers will, similarly, be for a range of complex reasons.

Fewer options?

19. The principal argument we heard in favour of the appointment of ministers from outside Parliament was that the requirement to recruit from the legislature limits the Prime Minister's choice of prospective ministers. Some of our witnesses compared this system of appointing ministers unfavourably with that used in some, predominantly European, countries where the head of government regularly appoints ministers who are not members of Parliament. Jonathan Powell observed that:

    in Europe, pretty much all of continental Europe, and the US your gene pool from which you can choose is the entire country to be ministers, whereas here we have 300-odd MPs on the government benches…It is a much narrower group from which you can choose.[17]

20. They went on to argue that the number of potential ministers could be further reduced over time. Recent political history has seen two long periods of the same political party being in power—the Conservatives from 1979 until 1997 and Labour from 1997 to date. Sir John Major told us that the length of time his party had spent in office had caused him difficulties when forming a government:

    the longer the government's life exists, the more people have passed through being minister, are no longer a minister, are unlikely to come back and the gene pool correspondingly reduces. [18]

Lord Turnbull agreed. He also drew attention to the possibility that reductions in a Government's majority over the time it had been in power might also reduce the number of people available to serve in office.[19]

21. Jonathan Powell drew attention to another potential aspect of this issue. A party coming into government after a long absence may find itself with a scarcity of people who, in the Prime Minister's view, are ready to take up ministerial office. As he put it, "lots of people do not think it is a very good idea to go and be an MP and sit on opposition benches for 18 years."[20]

22. However, there are three assumptions underpinning these arguments that can be challenged. The first is that former ministers, having 'done their time', would not wish to return to ministerial life. Ministers leave government for a variety of reasons, sometimes by choice, sometimes under duress and sometimes for reasons which are unclear—often for reasons that are related to politics rather than competence. Some former ministers who have left government may be able to return to a different post or even the same post under different circumstances—and some have done so.

23. Secondly, these arguments give the impression of Prime Ministers that have meticulously gone through their parliamentary parties and exhausted every possible minister.[21] The current situation does not bear this out. Immediately following the last three general elections, the Labour Party held 418 (1997), 412 (2001) and 355 (2005) seats in the House of Commons. 164 current Labour MPs, nearly half the total, have never held ministerial office, including a dozen or more who were previously leaders of major local authorities. By no stretch of the imagination had the reservoir of talent on the government benches been exhausted.

24. Thirdly, the size of government is something that, below a statutory upper limit, is within the gift of the Prime Minister. As Professor King pointed out, much of the perceived problem comes about because increasingly large administrations are being appointed from a relatively small number of people.[22] Part of the motivation to appoint a large administration is to secure a significant payroll vote. As Jonathan Powell put it:

    If the Prime Minister had his way, he would appoint every single backbencher in his party to a ministerial job to ensure their vote.[23]

We intend to examine this issue in more depth in a separate report. However, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the size of government has increased through Prime Ministerial choice.

25. The reasons why a Prime Minister chooses particular individuals to be ministers are complex. Over time the number of prospective new ministers within a governing party is likely to diminish. However, where a Prime Minister considers himself short of prospective ministers in the House of Commons, this is often because candidates are being sifted out because of politics or personality rather than competence. It is likely that some outside appointments are similarly driven by political and personality considerations rather than a lack of options on the government benches.

Career politicians

26. Similar arguments apply when looking at the range of experience that is brought into government. The upper reaches of politics have, in common with many disciplines, become a specialist career dominated by people who have pursued it—or closely related fields—for the majority of their working lives. Sir John Major argued there was a "shortfall" in certain areas of expertise and experience:

    If you compare the House of Commons today with, say, 30, 40 years ago, where are the businessmen, the farmers, the soldiers? … Politics has changed, I do not disparage the role of someone who is a professional politician at all, it is the question of whether you have the right mixture in the House of Commons.[24]

27. Lord Turnbull spoke of a "growing gulf" between the requirements of managing a government department, particularly where technological and scientific issues were concerned, and the experience of ministers:

    There is a growing trend for people to come into politics more or less straight from university. They lick envelopes in Central Office, become a Special Adviser, on and on it goes, and by the time they are in their mid-thirties they are Cabinet Ministers, barely touching the sides of real life.[25]

He went on to argue that it was increasingly difficult to have a successful career in another field and then enter politics at a senior level:

    You have no chance if you come in at 50 [years old] of getting anywhere in politics now, so how can you develop in a senior position in local government or in trade unions or in business? You are so far behind in the climb up the greasy pole that you never catch up.[26]

28. There are two separate issues here. One is the range of experience within the House of Commons; the other is the experience of people who have been brought into government. Career politicians have increasingly dominated the top positions of government. As Professor King wrote as long ago as 1981:

    Most of the top posts in British politics and government have been occupied for many years by such career politicians. Until quite recently, however, a significant number of these posts were occupied by people who were not career politicians. Now these non-career politicians have largely disappeared from the scene; with a few exceptions only career politicians remain. [27]

29. It does not follow that Prime Ministers have chosen largely career politicians to make up their governments because they have been limited by the makeup of the House of Commons. The proportion of MPs whose previous occupation was "politician or political organiser" has been increasing across the House as a whole since 1987.[28] Nonetheless, this group still comprised only 14.1% of Members of Parliament in 2005, fewer than the 19.2% with a business background and 39.3% from the professions.[29] In short, career politicians fill many of the top posts of government because Prime Ministers have chosen them for those posts.

30. Career politicians undoubtedly have advantages when competing for ministerial jobs. They will have a long record of party work and, presumably, extensive contacts. Traditionally, UK ministers have not been expected to have technical knowledge or experience of their areas of responsibility—political skills are seen as more important. Giving evidence to our previous inquiry into Skills for Government the former Minister, Nick Raynsford, told us:

    I was very struck in international meetings how many ministers from other countries are appointed on the basis of their technical expertise in the area in which they have responsibility rather than simply because of political background. We have a culture which rightly emphasises the importance of political accountability to Parliament, and that means the overwhelming majority of ministers come into the job without any technical expertise in the area that they are responsible for.[30]

31. Moreover, as Sir John Major argued, someone who has served in the House of Commons will tend to have a much better grasp of the political skills necessary to running a government department and presenting government policy than an outsider.[31] Lord Adonis, perhaps unsurprisingly, agreed—arguing that his employment as a special adviser had served as "an absolutely invaluable apprenticeship for being a minister".[32] Lord Darzi and Lord West stressed that their experience outside politics was not sufficient for them to become successful ministers. They needed to acquire political skills and generalist knowledge through their ministerial work.[33]

32. Set against this background, the appointment of a significant number of 'outsiders' is a notable counter trend. It would have been unthinkable in 1981. Indeed, Professor King wrote that:

    The rise of the career politician...and the increasing burdens of political life in general, make it unlikely that many such outside appointments will be made in future.[34]

The same could have been said prior to the 1997 election - in the previous sixteen years there had been only one such outside appointment. Even following Tony Blair's first such appointments in 1997-8 the resulting controversy indicated that parliamentary experience would remain a key criterion for selection as a minister.[35] To some, therefore, the recent spate of outside appointments may represent a change in government towards valuing technical expertise.

33. Career politicians have an important place in government. Despite this, government will be more effective if people in ministerial roles come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience. Appointment of people from outside parliament is one route to achieve this. A greater willingness on the part of Prime Ministers to appoint from a broader cross section of their own parliamentary party would be another.

Gaps in skills and experience

34. In part, this counter trend may have occurred because some outside appointees can bring in experience that is rarely to be found within Parliament. As Professor King argued, a largely decentralised system of candidate selection means that many MPs will be selected largely on the basis of their potential performance as a constituency MP, rather than how they fit into the broader picture of a prospective government.[36] This may mean that a governing party has few people with experience in a particular field. For example, following the 2005 General Election, the Parliamentary Labour Party contained only one doctor, whilst the Conservative Party had no-one who had been a lecturer in Further or Higher Education.[37]

35. Some of the ministers who were appointed from outside by the present Prime Minister some have brought skills from long and successful careers in other fields, which it would be highly unlikely to find in Parliament. For example, Lord Darzi and Lord West outlined the skills that they brought to the job—in Lord Darzi's case credibility within the NHS and a first-hand understanding of the needs of patients and staff, in Lord West's case a long career of senior work in intelligence and counter-terrorism.[38] Others have had more conventional political backgrounds—such as Lord Mandelson or Baroness Kinnock. Then there is an intermediate category, where an individual has extensive experience of a particular field, but it is not clear that similar experience could not have been found in the House of Commons.

36. Sir John Major was in favour of making a small number of outside appointments to fill particular roles where gaps might arise. However, he also suggested that membership of the House of Commons was not an attractive prospect for older people who had had successful careers in other fields or indeed for people on average incomes with a family. He argued that reforms to ensure greater independence for the House of Commons could also benefit government by ensuring a greater diversity of people standing for Parliament leading in turn to a more diverse talent pool for ministerial office.[39] There are circumstances in which an outside appointee may have particular experience, skills or expertise which are not readily available within the House of Commons. However, outside appointments should not be a substitute for efforts to make the House of Commons more diverse and representative, or for using untapped talent that already exists. Some ministers are clearly less competent than some of those in the House who are not ministers.

14   For one of many discussions of this issue, see Rodney Brazier, Constitutional Practice: The Foundations of British Government Third Edition (Oxford, 1999), pp. 63-67 Back

15   Q 9 Back

16   Q 157 Back

17   Q 4 Back

18   Q 153 Back

19   Q 1  Back

20   Q 4 Back

21   Q 7 Back

22   Q 1 Back

23   Q 32 Back

24   Q 159 Back

25   Q 1 Back

26   Q 19 Back

27   The Rise of the Career Politician, p. 277 Back

28   Social Background of MPs Standard Note 1528, House of Commons Library, November 2005, Table 4, p. 4 Back

29   Social Background of MPs Table 5, p. 4; note that around 40 MPs are not accounted for in this survey. Back

30   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth report of Session 2006-07, Skills for Government, HC 93, para. 148 Back

31   Q 162 Back

32   Q 69, also Q 95 [Lord Adonis] Back

33   Q 95 [Lord West and Lord Darzi]; Q 145 [Lord Darzi]  Back

34   Anthony King, "The Rise of the Career Politician in Britain-and its consequences," British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 11( 1981), No. 3, p. 277 Back

35   See for example the discussion in Meg Russell, Reforming the House of Lords: Lessons from Overseas, (Oxford, 2000) p. 196 Back

36   Q 17 Back

37   Social Background of MPs, Table 5, p. 4 Back

38   Q 74, Q 81, Q 123, Q 138 Back

39   Q 152, Q 155, Q 163 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 11 March 2010