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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152 - 159)



  Q152  Chairman: We will make a start and extend a very warm welcome to Sir John Major. It is very kind of you to come and give evidence to us. You have on the two previous occasions we have asked you come and given evidence to us which we appreciate very much indeed. We particularly wanted you to come for this inquiry because we have had no one in front of us who has formed a government, although we have been talking about issues related to that, and I think we would like the perspective that you bring to it. We were particularly taken by an article that you and Douglas Hurd wrote in The Times back in June, where you said some rather exciting things and called for what you described as a "more adventurous experiment", so we want to hear about this. I think you are going to say something by way of introduction?

  Sir John Major: Thank you, Chairman, thank you for inviting me. Very briefly, I would like to say a few words before answering the Committee's questions, simply perhaps to put in context what I may say in answer to your questions later. I spent 22 years in the Commons and latterly another eight years observing it from outside, and if I may say so I am pretty dismayed at the disregard in which politics is held today and the way in which politics often seems to malfunction. I think this can be put right and I think it needs to be put right. Part of the remedy is reforms to make the Commons more efficient and better regarded. I think, for example, it would benefit from a wider and more experienced membership. I think we need to make the Commons more attractive by offering an alternative career structure to simply being a minister. I think for far too many members at the moment, backbench life, particularly in opposition, can be fairly fruitless and hardly uses their talents. Our system also throws up freakish government majorities which bear very little relationship to the voting pattern of the electorate at large. I think to address these over-mighty governments, Parliament needs more weapons to challenge the executive, most obviously I think through the select committee system. I think there are other reforms which are needed. In my view, the Commons has too many members, certainly the Government has too many ministers, the payroll vote is too dominant and Standing Orders are often too restrictive. I think this inquiry is very important. Outside Members are only one part of the kaleidoscope of necessary reform but I think the right new Members can inject experience and wisdom to government; but of course if we can widen the experience, quality and talent of future intakes in the Commons, we of course will need fewer external ministers of any sort. I think with that very broad introduction, Chairman, I am more than happy to turn to the Committee's questions.

  Q153  Chairman: Thank you very much. There is enough there to get our teeth into. When we had Jonathan Powell in front of us the other day, who ran of course Number 10 under Tony Blair, he said, "In Europe, in pretty much all 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 from which you can choose." Everyone who has spoken to us has spoken of this diminishing gene pool as a constraint in government-forming. Did you find that when you were making a government?

  Sir John Major: I did. I think it is not just the gene pool in the Commons, but the longer the government's life exists, the more people have passed through being a minister, are no longer a minister, are unlikely to come back and the gene pool correspondingly reduces. When you have been there for 18 years or perhaps even 13 years, the number of people in the Commons who have passed through ministerial experience is significant, and the number of people available for the Prime Minister to select future ministers is correspondingly reduced. So I think there are the two aspects. Plainly, it would be desirable if we had a wider and more experienced intake into Parliament as a whole and specifically into the Commons, but also there is the secondary problem that with long-lived governments the gene pool automatically shrinks.

  Q154  Chairman: So presumably you feel well disposed towards Gordon Brown's experiment of a government of all the talents?

  Sir John Major: I do, yes, I do. I think the idea of bringing in some people from outside is a very attractive idea. I do not think it should be over-done, and 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. So I have no objection to it, I think it is the right thing to do and I can quite see after many years in government why the Prime Minister is attracted to bringing people in. I think that is the right thing to do although it does raise some obvious questions of accountability and other matters which I have no doubt we will come to.

  Q155  Chairman: As Prime Minister, is not your self-interest to get as many people as possible on the payroll, because that is the basic control mechanism of government, is it not?

  Sir John Major: Well, it ought not to be. The payroll is too big and ought to be reduced. I think there are some fairly evident reforms which could be made to Standing Orders, should be made to Standing Orders, which will enable the payroll vote to be significantly reduced. Let me offer you several thoughts about that. Firstly, I see no reason whatsoever why we should not change Standing Orders in the Lords and Standing Orders in the Commons so that senior ministers may appear in both Houses, speak in both Houses, answer questions 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. It is fairly insulting in some ways to the House of Lords to have a Cabinet minister, or even a minister of state, in the Commons who actually is responsible for legislation pass on a second-hand brief to a junior minister in the Lords who then has to address the Lords, having mugged it up the night before he makes his speech. I do not think that is good government. If you made that reform you could significantly reduce the number of junior ministers, I am not quite sure how much but I think you could certainly reduce the overall size of government by between a quarter and a third. The second change I think which is necessary to diminish the payroll vote, the size of which is a constitutional outrage, would be to restrict parliamentary private secretaries to senior ministers and not have a parliamentary private secretary to every minister, whatever his responsibilities however senior or however lowly. Personally, I would restrict PPSs to Cabinet ministers. I think if you did that, you could significantly reduce the size of the payroll vote. In terms of democratic accountability in the Commons, I think that would be very attractive. The counterpoint is, if you are doing that, I do think you have to open alternative opportunities for Members and an alternative career path for Members, and I think there are ways in which you can do that.

  Q156  Chairman: Finally on one of those points, if you simply reduce the number of Members of Parliament, which is what the Conservative proposal is at the moment, that would make the problem worse rather than better, would it not, because you would have diminished the gene pool even further and the balance between the payroll and the rest of the numbers would be even worse?

  Sir John Major: That rather depends on how much you reduce the payroll. The overall size of the Commons has drifted upwards over recent years with each successive Boundary Commission—I think it is too high at the moment—and if you did reduce the size of the Commons, maybe you would attract a higher quality of future aspirants to be there. You are quite right, of course, if you diminish the size of the Commons and do not reduce the size of the Government, then you alter that equation. At the moment, in a government party broadly you have a 1:4 chance of being a minister at any time, and that is much too high a proportion, I think, not least because it diminishes the accountability of the Government to the Commons for precisely the reason you raise, the sheer size of the payroll vote.

  Chairman: I am sure we will come back to that.

  Q157  Mr Prentice: My first question I suppose is, did you always appoint ministers on merit or were there other considerations?

  Sir John Major: There were other considerations. Of course merit was the first consideration but there were other considerations as well, and they may vary dependent upon the size of the majority you have. I had, as you will well recall, Gordon, a very tiny majority, at times effectively we were a minority government, and 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. To take matters to absurdity, you might on pure merit have had all the merit on one particular philosophical part of your party but it would have been absurd to appoint every minister from that part; you simply could not have carried on a government that way. So merit is the first point but I think you need a proper balance in Parliament of ministers as well.

  Q158  Mr Prentice: But all this talk about appointing on competence is just moonshine, is it not, because the reality of politics meant that you and your predecessors would very often appoint `one of us', a political soul mate rather than a member of the opposition in the party, one of the "bastards", to quote.

  Sir John Major: Hardly a soul mate.

  Q159  Mr Prentice: I am just wondering if the politics of it all crowds out and makes redundant this noble idea of bringing into government people who stand head and shoulders above their colleagues and are super-competent.

  Sir John Major: I do not think it is quite as clear cut as that. Self-evidently, for the reason you yourself alluded to, I did not appoint solely people who were entirely philosophically congenial; my life might have been a good deal easier had I chosen to do so but I chose to strike a wider balance. I think your point would be absolutely right if you over-did the number of external appointments, but I think it is desirable to bring in people who have a particular talent to government where there is a shortfall in that talent in the Commons. If you compare the House of Commons today with, say, 30, 40 years ago, where are the businessmen, the farmers, the soldiers? There is a different structure. Politics has changed, not just in one party but in all parties, it has changed, and 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. That is why I am keen to see a wider and sometimes more experienced spread of intake. Sometimes it is desirable to bring in people who have a particular gift to government, either in the Commons, which is much more difficult to do, or indeed in the Lords in the way the present Prime Minister has done.

  Mr Prentice: The present Prime Minister brought in Alan Sugar who has huge business experience, and we read in the Telegraph yesterday, that Alan Sugar might quit as Enterprise Tsar. He said, "Too much negative stuff is really unhelpful. I may decide it is simply not worth it when you are giving your time free of charge for no agenda. What am I going to get out of it?"

  Mr Walker: A peerage.

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