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


37. The previous chapter examined some of the reasons why ministerial appointments from outside Parliament may have occurred. This chapter asks whether such appointments can be justified. It looks at three issues: the democratic mandate of the Government, accountability to the House of Commons and the success or failure of such appointments.

Democratic mandate

38. As we discussed in Chapter 2, there has always been a proportion of the Government without a personal electoral mandate. Indeed, Jonathan Powell rejected the idea that election as a Member of Parliament was integral to establishing a minister's legitimacy:

    I do not really recognise this concept of elected ministers because no-one is elected as a minister; they are elected as an MP. It is the Prime Minister of the day who chooses them as a minister, so all ministers should be on the same footing from that point of view.[40]

39. There is some truth in this argument. The Succession to the Crown Act 1707 had required MPs who took up ministerial office to submit themselves for re-election in a by-election. In 1919 the requirement was limited and in 1926 it was abolished completely. Since then, the democratic legitimacy of ministers has primarily been derived from the confidence of the Prime Minister, whose own legitimacy derives from his or her party's performance at the last general election and the confidence of the House of Commons.

40. However, electoral performance cannot be disregarded. We have already discussed the case of Patrick Gordon Walker, who was forced to resign his post as Foreign Secretary following his failure to win a by-election. A Prime Minister would find it politically very difficult to appoint someone as a senior minister via the House of Lords if the person in mind had recently stood for election to the Commons and lost—especially, as in this case, if they stood again and lost again.

41. There are two reasons why the appointment of ministers from outside Parliament to the House of Lords may potentially call into question the democratic legitimacy of the government. The first is that ministers who are not MPs should not be allowed to undermine what Lord Adonis called "the democratic character of the Government". In other words, they should not form too large a proportion of the Government as a whole or of its senior posts.[41]

42. The second is that such appointments can separate the Government from the parliamentary party. If the Prime Minister derives his or her mandate to govern from the performance of party colleagues in the general election, it follows that there is a reasonable expectation that such colleagues will form the basis of a Government that reflects the range of opinions across that party.

43. Lord Turnbull drew a contrast with systems like that in the United States, where governments are predominantly or entirely appointed from outside the legislature. In such cases, checks and balances exist to ensure there is a democratic element to the appointments process, a separation of powers between legislature and executive and the election of a President with a personal mandate to make such appointments. Lord Turnbull did not think that outside appointments to government could be easily separated from a package of measures to introduce such safeguards, ultimately leading to a separation of powers.[42] Sir John Major did not accept this argument but he did acknowledge that outside appointments "should not be overdone".[43]

44. Neither of these arguments suggests that outside appointments should be prevented entirely. However, they should be limited. As we have seen, countries with Westminster systems of government that allow outside appointments limit their numbers. At present no such limits exist in the UK.

45. The use of the House of Lords to appoint ministers from outside Parliament gives Prime Ministers potentially presidential powers of appointment, without the checks and balances that would apply in a presidential system. Such appointments can be justified if they bring clear benefits to government, but they should be exceptional. When making such an appointment a Prime Minister should set out clearly to the House of Commons why the appointment has been made from outside, under what terms and what he or she expects the minister to achieve during their time in government. Moreover, the appointment should be subject to scrutiny by the House of Commons. This could involve a select committee hearing and report. If the Committee was not satisfied with the appointment it could recommend a debate and vote on the floor of the House.

46. As we have seen, the proportion of government posts filled by Members of the House of Lords in early 2010 was at around the average for the post-war period. This suggests that increasing use of outside appointments has not led to a decline in the proportion of government posts held by elected Members of Parliament. However, there has been a perceived increase in the number of senior government posts in the Lords, in particular of two senior Cabinet Ministers—Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, styled as 'First Secretary of State', and Lord Adonis, Secretary of State for Transport. There have also been other ministers who have been entitled to attend Cabinet despite not being members of it. These included Lord Drayson, as Minister for Science and Innovation, and Lord Malloch-Brown, as Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations.

47. The presence of Cabinet Ministers in the House of Lords has diminished markedly since the turn of the twentieth century, when there were nine Members of the House of Lords in the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister. Attlee's first Cabinet in 1945 and Macmillan's in 1957 contained five Lords, and Churchill's in 1951 included seven. By the mid-1960s, however, it had become the norm for an incoming Prime Minister to recruit only the Leader of the House of Lords and the Lord Chancellor from the House of Lords into his or her Cabinet.

48. There were, however, exceptions to this rule such as Lord Carrington's appointment as Secretary of State for Defence in 1970. Margaret Thatcher's governments included several Secretaries of State based in the Lords, including Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary from 1979 until 1982, Lord Cockfield as Trade Secretary from 1982 to 1983, and Lord Young as Employment Secretary, from 1985 to 1987, and subsequently Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, from 1987 to 1989. However, it was not until Tony Blair's government briefly included Baroness Amos as Secretary of State for International Development in 2003 that there were two Secretaries of State based in the House of Lords at the same time[44]—the first time this had occurred since Macmillan's Government in the late 1950s.

49. Whilst this might suggest that having two Secretaries of State in the House of Lords has been very rare, Lord Adonis argued:

    It is true in that we do have two secretaries of state in the House of Lords but, of course, the Lord Chancellor, pre the latest reforms, was tantamount to a secretary of state. The Lord Chancellor ran a department, and a very important one. It was quite often the case that you had a secretary of state in the House of Lords and, of course, the Lord Chancellor, so having three Cabinet ministers in the Lords, of whom two headed departments, has been a frequent occurrence in recent decades.[45]

50. So long as there is a predominately appointed House of Lords, there will be members of the Government who are not elected Members of Parliament. Since the 1960s this has tended to be around 20% of the Government including a maximum of three Cabinet Ministers. The inclusion in this group of a small number of ministers appointed from outside Parliament does not threaten the democratic legitimacy of the Government. Any substantial increase in the overall number of ministers in the Lords, and any increase at all in the number of Cabinet ministers, would do so.

Accountability to the House of Commons

51. As discussed above, it is important that ministers, especially senior ministers, are directly accountable to the people's elected representatives. As Jonathan Powell put it:

    If you put these ministers who you bring in from outside in the House of Lords, they are not accountable to the elected representatives of this country and that is wrong.[46]

52. At present, ministers' personal accountability to the House of which they are not a member is restricted to appearances before select committees and grand committees.[47] Although in principle the Commons may request that a Member of the House of Lords attend at the Bar of the House, this has not happened since the nineteenth century.[48]

53. The presence in the House of Lords of two senior Cabinet Ministers holding departmental portfolios has led to a new procedure for questions in that place. It has also led to increasing calls for Cabinet Ministers who sit in the Lords to be more accountable to the Commons. For example, the Speaker of the House of Commons said in a recent speech to the Hansard Society:

    I suspect that both of these individuals [Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis] would concede that they should be responsible to backbench MPs and would be more than willing to participate in an experiment in which they were made available publicly through Westminster Hall, as one option, and I intend to consult on how we might take this forward.[49]

54. Lord Adonis himself said that he had arranged to answer questions from the Transport Select Committee on a regular basis. However, he was willing, even eager, to answer questions in the Commons if requested to do so. In his words:

    I think it is right that ministers in the Lords should be as accountable to the House of Commons as the House of Commons wishes to make them.[50]

55. The Business and Enterprise Committee examined this issue in relation to the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in November 2008. It observed that a new element in the current situation was the relative lack of senior ministers able to speak on behalf of the department based in the House of Commons. It recommended that "a mechanism is needed" for Secretaries of State based in the House of Lords to answer questions in the House of Commons.[51]

56. A survey of eight bicameral legislatures undertaken in 2000 shows that the UK is "unusual" in only permitting ministers to speak in the House of which they are a member. Of the eight countries, the only other one to have such a rule was Australia. Legislatures as diverse as Canada, the Republic of Ireland, Germany, France and Italy all permit ministers to address both chambers—in some cases because ministers do not have to be or are not allowed to be a member of either chamber.[52]

57. Understandably, however, the proposal that ministers should be able to appear in a House other than that to which they belong has raised concerns about giving greater legitimacy to ministers who do not have a personal electoral mandate. It has been argued that this would encourage government to appoint more ministers in the House of Lords. Such views have been expressed by, among others, the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Kenneth Clarke, and the former minister Tony Benn.[53]

58. So long as there is an unelected second chamber, there is a strong argument of principle that senior ministers should be directly accountable to the democratically elected chamber as a whole. However, there is a debate to be had about how this can be achieved. We understand that the Procedure Committee is investigating this issue and look forward to the House being given the opportunity to debate any proposals that may emerge. Such a move should not be used as a justification for appointing more senior ministers via the House of Lords. The purpose of such a change would be to assert the primacy of the Commons, not to undermine it.

59. We also heard two practical arguments for going further and introducing a change that would not simply allow Cabinet Ministers from the Lords to speak in the Commons, but would also allow senior ministers from the Commons to address the Lords. The first argument relates to the size of government. Sir John Major argued that the number of ministers could be reduced simply by changing parliamentary rules

    so that senior ministers may appear in both Houses, but only vote in the House to which they are a member. If you did that you would automatically diminish the number of duplicated ministers which are at present necessary to make sure that both Houses have a proper representation.[54]

60. The second argument concerns the presentation and scrutiny of policy, particularly legislation. Sir John Major and Lord Turnbull both argued that allowing the minister in charge of a particular piece of government business to appear in either House would improve both the presentation of the business and the scrutiny of it.[55] Lord Turnbull said that, under the current arrangements:

    a bill would be taken through by a Secretary of State and then it would be handed over to a Lords minister, who could well have been a hereditary or something, and was not really plugged into the department. Some of those ministers really struggled. In some ways I think it is now the other way round. The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill was taken through the House of Lords by Lord Darzi, and he made a million times better job of it than the person who took it through the House of Commons.[56]

61. Allowing ministers to present their policies and answer questions in both chambers could have benefits for both government and Parliament. It would allow government to ensure that their policies were being presented in the most effective way by the person best placed to debate them. It would ensure that Ministers based in the House of Lords were fully accountable to the primary, elected House and expose Secretaries of State from the Commons to the very different style of scrutiny practised in the House of Lords. It would also remove the need to appoint Members of the Lords as ministers to ensure departmental representation in both Houses.

Successes and failures

62. It has been argued that, whatever their other skills, a lack of political experience means that outside appointees to government have tended to be unsuccessful as ministers. Certainly there have been ministers who have been appointed from outside government and whose careers have been seen as failures. Similarly, there have been ministers who have left government expressing discontent with elements of their time there. Lord Jones of Birmingham, for example, described the experience of being a junior minister as "dehumanising" whilst Lord Malloch-Brown was reported as having seen the running of government as being "chaotic" and "cobbled together".[57]

63. Further evidence in support of this assertion derives from the fact that five of the ten ministers directly appointed via the House of Lords by Gordon Brown since June 2007 have since left the government. Another such minister was moved from the post to which she had been appointed on the basis of her particular experience. These six had an average time in office of 514 days.[58] This apparently short time in office has been taken by some commentators to indicate that they had been failures.[59]

64. Professor King, however, disputed that this was an accurate inference to make. He pointed out that:

    attention is drawn to the ministers who have been brought in from outside who have been failures. They are never matched against the people who have been brought in from outside who are successes, and they are never matched against the people who have been brought in from inside who have been failures. I am not at all clear that the ratio would be…against people brought in from the outside.[60]

65. Our witnesses gave various examples of ministers who came straight from non-parliamentary backgrounds into ministerial posts and whom they believed to be successes. Professor King identified Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps—although it is worth noting that all three were major political figures before they entered Parliament.[61] Sir John Major identified three 'goats' as successes, arguing:

    Plainly some of those brought in are going to be a success, have been a success I think, and others perhaps less so, but that is true of all ministers and all political careers.[62]

66. Professor King's argument is supported by a rough comparison between the average terms of office for ministers appointed from outside Parliament and those for all ministers. The average time in one post for a government minister during the present Parliament was 509 days, very slightly less than that for those outside appointees who have entered government since June 2007.[63] Where there is a difference it is that most ministers will have moved to other jobs in government, rather than out of government entirely. In a sense, however, this does not reflect their relative successes or failures, but rather the difference between a career politician and a non-career politician. Lord Darzi stressed that he saw his job as different to that being undertaken by other ministers. As he put it, when discussing his resignation:

    I felt I had done what I was brought in to do…It is a bit like surgery you know, you need to know when you have done the job and discharge the patient.[64]

67. As with ministers from all backgrounds, there have been both successes and failures among ministers appointed from outside Parliament. There is no evidence to suggest that such ministers are, as a group, less likely to be successful than other ministers.

68. Where ministers with non-parliamentary backgrounds have not been successful, it has tended to be because—in Jonathan Powell's words—"they can't do the politics". [65] There are many reasons why this may be the case. However it does not help that, as Lord Darzi said, no-one tells incoming ministers what "being a minister" or "being a parliamentarian" actually involves, and that these competencies have to be learnt on the job.[66]

69. In our report on Skills for Government we recommended that more could be done to professionalise the ministerial side of government and, in particular, that there should be more professional development opportunities for ministers. We have previously recommended that government should pay more attention to the professional development of ministers. There would be particular advantages to doing so where a minister does not have prior experience of politics or Parliament. We note that the National School of Government has begun to offer professional development programmes for ministers.

40   Q 66 Back

41   Q 149 Back

42   Q 17 Back

43   Q 154 Back

44   The other being Lord Falconer as Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor. The post of Secretary of State was created in June 2003 as part of the reform of the position of Lord Chancellor. Back

45   Q 135 Back

46   Q 27 Back

47   Standing Orders allow a "Minister of the Crown, whether or not a Member of the House, to make a statement" to the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Regional Grand Committees. Back

48   See Ministers in the House of Lords, p. 8 and Business and Enterprise Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2007-08, Departmental Annual Report and Scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, HC 1116, para. 13 Back

49   Rt Hon John Bercow MP, 24 September 2009, Parliamentary Reform: From here to there, A Speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/files/folders/2188/download.aspx accessed 19 January 2010 Back

50   Q 133 Back

51   Departmental Annual Report and Scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform para. 15 Back

52   Ministers in the House of Lords, pp. 13-14; see also, Reforming the Lords: Lessons from Overseas, pp. 199-200 Back

53   "Hung parliament would be a disaster, says Kenneth Clarke", The Guardian, 10 November 2009; "Coming soon, Peter Mandelson's question time for MPs", The Guardian, 15 October 2009 Back

54   Q 155 Back

55   Q 155 [Sir John Major]; also Q 12 [Professor King] Back

56   Q 3  Back

57   Public Administration Select Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, Good Government, HC 97-II, Q 283; The Times, 12 July 2009, "Minister Lord Malloch-Brown tells of 'chaos' under Brown" Back

58   Figures supplied by the House of Commons Library  Back

59   For example, "The Lost Herd", The New Statesman, 23 July 2009 Back

60   Q 35 Back

61   Q 25 Back

62   Q 154, Q 160 Back

63   Figures as of 27 January 2010, supplied by the House of Commons Library  Back

64   Q 139 Back

65   Q 35 Back

66   Q 145 Back

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