1 Too Many Ministers?
1. This short report examines the number of ministers
in the United Kingdom Government. It arises out of evidence we
have received from a number of witnesses during several of the
Committee's inquiries that the ministerial side of government
has now grown too large. It also builds upon some of the conclusions
of our report on Good Government.
We are grateful to the House of Commons Library for their
assistance in producing this report.
Historical and international trends
2. The graph below shows the growth in Cabinet
and non-Cabinet ministers holding government posts at ten-yearly
intervals during the twentieth century.
In 1900 there were 60 ministers, by 1950 this had increased to
81, and by January 2010 the figure was 119. The Cabinet grew by
four posts, from 19 in 1900 to 23 in 2010. However, the number
of ministers below Cabinet rank increased much more substantially,
from 41 in 1900 to 96 in 2010with the majority of the growth
occurring in the 1930s, 1960s and 2000s.
of Ministers (1900-2000)
Source: 1900-1999 figures: David Butler and Gareth
Butler (2000) Twentieth Century Political Facts p. 71; 2010 figures:
House of Commons Department of Information Services
3. When placed in an international context these
figures are very high. Geoff Mulgan, former Director of the Government's
Strategy Unit and Head of Policy in the Prime Minister's Office,
told us that the UK "is a complete outlier" in terms
of the number of ministers in government.
At time of writing there were 78 Ministers in the national Indian
Government. This follows
an amendment to the Indian Constitution in 2003 that capped the
number of ministers at 15 per cent of the total number of Members
in the House of the People. Among other Westminster systems South
Africa had 66 Ministers,
whilst Canada had 63 Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.
The UK has more ministers per capita than these countries. However,
it has fewer ministers per capita than smaller countries such
as Australia and New Zealand.
4. One reason cited in support of the growth
in the number of ministers is the increasing complexity of government.
Certainly, increases in the size of government following World
War I can be attributed in part to this. Similarly, the growth
in government between 1930 and 1950 can be partly attributed to
the war economy and introduction of the welfare state. Reasons
can be found for the addition of some ministers between 1960 and
1970, for example the introduction of direct rule in Northern
Ireland and the creation of the Ministry for Overseas Development.
However, it is difficult to find a satisfactory explanation for
the total of 20 extra posts created over the period. And whilst
the number of ministers fell between 1979 and 1983, they then
rose again even during the Thatcher Government's privatisation
programme. There is also the paradox whereby the number of UK
ministers has increased despite the devolution of powers to Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord
Turnbull, drew attention to this:
If you add up the number of ministers and deputy
ministers...in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is something
like 75. You would have thought the number of [UK] ministers would
have gone down when we gave power to Scotland but it has actually
gone up. So the ministerial cadre for the United Kingdom is now
around 190 whereas it was about 110.
Nor is it easy to explain on the basis of complexity
why a country of 60 million people should need 40 more ministers
than India, a country of over a billion.
5. The ever-upward trend in
the size of government over the last hundred years or more is
striking and hard to justify objectively in the context of the
end of Empire, privatisation, and, most recently, devolution to
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a strong case for
re-examining the number of government ministers that the country
needs, as well as the statutory limits on these numbers that currently
6. The number of ministers is subject to two
statutory limits. The first is the House of Commons Disqualification
Act 1975, which limits to 95 the number of ministers who can sit
and vote in the House of Commons. The second is the Ministerial
and Other Salaries Act 1975 (MOSA). This sets out detailed
restraints on the number of ministerial salaries that can be paid.
The MOSA limit is 109 and it is broken down by category. For example,
there is a limit of 21 paid Cabinet Ministers excluding the Lord
Chancellor. However, these categories can be worked aroundministers
may be entitled to attend Cabinet without being Cabinet Ministers,
a whip may be given a nominal ministerial post in order to count
against the limit for junior ministers rather than whips, and
7. The evolution of these limits over time has
been complex. The limits were regularly revised between 1940 and
1975, usually upwards, and often to bring them into line with
existing practice (for example where additional ministers had
been working unpaid). MOSA applies to paid ministers in both Houses,
whereas the Disqualification Act applies only to the House of
Commons but to paid and unpaid ministers alike. Neither Act covers
Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) and other informal appointments
that are unpaid and lack executive authority.
8. In practice, the appointment of unpaid ministers
means that the number of ministerial posts has regularly exceeded
that provided for by MOSA. Unpaid ministers are not a new phenomenon;
one of the reasons advanced for increasing the statutory limit
during the 1960s and 1970s was that existing ministers were unpaid.
However, the number of unpaid appointments has increased in recent
years. There were no unpaid ministers in the Government in July
1996. Between 1 April 1998 and 1 April 2006 the number fluctuated
between 1 and 5. In 2007 the number increased to 11, and then
to 13 by October 2008. Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff to Tony
Blair as Prime Minister, admitted that unpaid ministers were sometimes
appointed without reference to the MOSA limits:
The provisions of the Ministerial Salaries Act and
its various limits are incredibly complicated and need lawyers
to look at them. Sometimes you get to the end of the reshuffle
and discover you have appointed more ministers than there are
salaries. So you are left with a choice of either dismissing that
minister or having them as an unpaid minister.
The larger numbers of unpaid ministers in post now
suggest a more deliberate attempt to increase the size of government
well beyond the MOSA limits.
9. There may be a need for a
new piece of legislation, consolidating the relevant provisions
in the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act and
the House of Commons Disqualification Act and attempting
to close those loopholes which Prime Ministers have exploited
over the years. The limits on ministerial numbers should not be
seen as a target to be met, or even exceeded.
Why is this an issue?
10. We received evidence from a number of people
with experience of central government that an excessive number
of ministers was not only unnecessary, but also positively harmful
to the running of government. The former Director General of the
BBC and Adviser to the Prime Minister, Lord Birt, argued:
Under the present system I think we probably do have
too many ministers and having too many ministers undoubtedly leads
to the 'something must be done' tendency
and it certainly leads to, 'I need to attract attention because
I am keen to have promotion', so a lot of junior ministers are
extremely keen when they get into office to find the six sound
bites that can get them noticed by the higher-ups in their party
over the 12 months that they are likely to be in the position.
11. Professor Anthony King, of the University
of Essex, agreed. He questioned whether many of the jobs being
done by some junior ministers needed to be done at all. Lord Turnbull
said that many junior ministerial taskssuch as receiving
delegationscould often be done just as effectively by officials.
Matthew Taylor, former Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to
the Prime Minister, was not alone in identifying many junior ministerial
jobs as ill-defined, with little responsibility, "a miserable
12. These views are supported by the accounts
of former junior ministers such as Alan Clark and, more recently,
Chris Mullin MP's account of his time as a junior minister in
the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions:
My existence is now [after four months in post] almost
entirely pointless...with hand on heart I can say that I have
less influence now over government policy than at any time in
the last eight years. The only possible excuse for doing this
is the hope that it will lead to something better.
13. The former Prime Minister, Sir John Major,
has also argued there are too many junior ministers. He proposed
allowing ministers to speak in both Houses of Parliamentthereby
removing the need for there to be a minister from every department
in each House. He estimated this and other changes (such as reducing
the number of departments) could reduce the size of government
"by between a quarter and a third".
Lord Turnbull said he believed most government departments could
be run by three ministersthis would, on current figures,
cut the number of ministers by half to around 60.
Several witnesses questioned whether there needed to be as many
government departments as there are; although in practice most
suggestions to reduce the number of departments often implied
redeploying ministerial posts to other, larger, departments.
14. The perceived need for junior ministers to
make themselves visible through announcements and initiatives
was seen by several witnesses as problematic. Matthew Taylor identified
this as a contributing factor behind what he called "decision-making
In a sense, I think of watching my son's football
team on a Sunday. The manager makes two or three big decisions,
who is going to be in the team and what the formation is, and
then at half-time tries to rally the troops, and that is what
they do. The players have to make constant decisions, they are
constantly adjusting because the game itself is unpredictable
and that is how it works. It feels to me sometimes the public
sector is completely the other way round, you have got a football
match in which every three seconds the match is stopped in order
for the manager to make another decision about what they should
do and, of course, immediately it does not go quite the way they
think it is going to go and the players are completely demoralised
because instead of being able to react to the game they are constantly
We were also told that an over-abundance of ministers
can "clog" the decision-making process, blurring lines
of responsibility and diverting resources.
15. Decisions on the number
of ministers should be led by practical need, not political reward.
There is a growing consensus that the ever increasing number of
ministers harms the effectiveness of government.
16. In addition, there is the cost that every
extra minister brings. Lord Turnbull pointed out that even an
unpaid minister was not without cost to the taxpayer:
If you give a minister three private secretaries,
a press officer, a driver, a car, there is not much change from
half a million pounds...[as well as] tying down a lot of civil
17. Jonathan Baume, the General Secretary of
the FDA, the union representing senior civil servants, told us
that this was not just a question of a ministerial salary and
car but also the costs involved in creating projects aimed at
boosting ministerial profiles as opposed to the needs of government:
The more junior ministers you haveand we have
more junior ministers than everthe more work you have to
find for them...one of the biggest single frustrations about the
political process within the civil service is just the number
of junior ministers you have and the work projects that have to
be designed and engineered at a political level.
He argued that:
Good government would be smaller government at a
political level... the Scottish Government shrank the size of
the Cabinet...it has led to more streamlined and focused government
because you have far fewer Cabinet ministers in the Scottish Government.
18. Ministers' role is to take
key decisions, account to Parliament for them and conduct discussions
at the highest level. Some junior ministerial roles appear to
fall far short of this. Civil servants should not be put in the
position of 'making work' for ministers. Not only is this costly
and inefficient but it devalues the role of ministers.
19. The appointment of unpaid
ministers is a way in which a Prime Minister can increase the
total number of ministers in his government without exceeding
the statutory limits on the number of paid ministers. However,
unpaid ministers still bring with them a significant cost to the
public purse. Moreover, relying on ministers to take unpaid positions
brings with it an incentive to favour those who are independently
wealthy. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act
1975 should be treated as setting an absolute limit on the number
of government ministers, paid or unpaid.
20. Government administration is expected to
experience severe spending cuts in the near future as a result
of the tightest fiscal environment that government has seen for
many years. While little detail of the proposed cuts has so far
emerged the Treasury has set out some initial plans for government
departments to make savings amounting to £12 billion (over
and above existing commitments to make efficiency savings). Several
of the proposed savings are likely to involve staffing cuts, including
proposals to reduce the cost of the Senior Civil Service by £100
million annually, and abolishing or streamlining arm's-length
bodies (saving £500 million).
Given the climate of fiscal austerity it would seem logical and
consistent for the Government to reduce the cost of the ministerial
pay bill by cutting the number of ministers. This would lead to
further savings by eliminating the additional costs identified
by our witnesses.
21. It would be better for government,
for the public purse and for ministers themselves if the number
of ministers were reduced, possibly by as much as one third. Cutting
the number of ministers would also be consistent with smaller,
The payroll vote
22. Ministerial appointments are about more than
the effectiveness of government. They are also used as rewards
and as a means of exercising political control. Increasing the
number of ministers increases the Prime Minister's powers of patronage
and inflates the Government's payroll vote in the House of Commonsi.e.
the number of Members of Parliament who hold a government job
and are therefore expected to vote for the government or resign.
Jonathan Powell was candid about why Prime Ministers have appointed
increasing numbers of ministers:
[It] is a way of making sure you have that many votes
in the House of Commons...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. The size of the payroll vote effects good
government because it limits the number of Members of Parliament
able to engage in effective scrutiny. As Sir John Major put it:
If you have a big majority, it is very easy to be
strong because your majority and your payroll vote is so large
you can just ignore anything, even if it has total commonsense
behind it; that is the position governments with large majorities
get into. Governments without large majorities have to be more
sensitive to the realities of political life.
24. The tension between the need for ministers
to be accountable to Parliament and the independence of Parliament
has long been recognised. The report of the 1941 Select Committee
on Offices or Places of Profit Under the Crown (the 'Herbert Report')
argued that only those ministers whose presence was "essential"
to the conduct of relations between executive and Parliament should
be permitted to sit in the House of Commons. The Committee concluded:
It would certainly seem desirable that definite steps
should be taken in the direction of checking the tendency to increase
the number of ministers with seats in the House of Commons.
The limit proposed by the Committee was 60:
...under one-tenth, or about 10 per cent of the total
voting strength of the House, a number which could scarcely be
regarded as a dangerous proportion.
25. However, ministers are not the only members
of the payroll vote. Also included are Parliamentary Private Secretaries
(PPSs). Every Cabinet Minister and Minister of State in the Government
is allowed to appoint a PPS, subject to the Prime Minister's approval.
Although PPSs hold no official government position and draw no
salary their role is considered a first stepping stone on the
ministerial ladder and the experience gained can ensure they are
better equipped for promotion if it comes.
The Ministerial Code states categorically:
Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to
support the Government in important divisions in the House. No
Parliamentary Private Secretary who votes against the Government
can retain his or her position.
26. The role of the PPS in enlarging the payroll
vote has long been an issue of controversy. The Herbert Committee
Your Committee cannot disregard the fact that the
existence of parliamentary private secretaries is, not without
reason, regarded as increasing the voting strength and influence
of the Government in the House of Commons; it might (however improbably)
be improperly used for this purpose.
The Committee identified the function of a PPS as
a useful one, providing a link between ministers and members of
the House. However, it concluded that would usually be "unnecessary"
to have more than one PPS for each government department.
In evidence to us, Sir John Major described the size of the payroll
vote as a "constitutional outrage". His view was that
only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs.
Chris Mullin has described the appointment of PPSs as "neutralising
intelligent individuals who might otherwise make a rather more
useful contribution to the proper functioning of Parliament."
27. The number of PPSs, and the size of the payroll
vote, has grown dramatically since World War II, although some
governments have tried to reduce their numbers. The number of
PPSs at any one time is difficult to establish accurately. No
official record is kept and posts can often go unfilled for monthsa
fact that reinforces scepticism about the need for so many. Butler
and Butler identified 25 PPSs in 1940, the year before the Herbert
Report. The number of PPSs peaked at 58 in 2001. In recent years
there have tended to be around 45 PPSs appointed, although there
are currently only 36 in post.
28. The role of the PPS means that increases
in the numbers of ministers have bigger knock-on effects on the
payroll votea new minister often means a new PPS. The graph
below shows the number of ministers and PPSs since 1900 in 10-yearly
periods up to 1979 and by general election thereafter. It shows
how the proportion of MPs who are on the payroll vote has doubled
since the 1920s and now comprises a fifth (20 per cent) of the
voting strength of the whole House. Today, the payroll vote comprises
well over a third (39 per cent) of the members of the governing
29. In October 2008 the Government appointed
a Parliamentary Assistant to each of the nine Regional Ministers
(PARMs). These positions are very like those of PPSs: they are
unpaid and not formally government appointments. Appointees receive
civil service support only where they are deputising for their
Minister under exceptional circumstances.
It is not clear whether PARMs are required to support the Government;
however because of the similarly of their role to that of PPSs,
we have included them in the graph below:
Source: Butler and Butler p 71 ; House of Commons
Library Standard Note, Limitions on the number of Ministers and
the Payroll Vote p 6 (1979 onwards); www.dodonline.co.uk (2010)
30. Similarly a number of Members have been appointed
to representative or other unpaid roles, such as Malcolm Wicks
(Special Representative of the Prime Minister on International
Energy Issues), Mark Lazarowicz (Special Representative of the
Prime Minister on Carbon Trading), Anne McGuire (Cabinet Office
Advisor on Third Sector Innovation) and Des Browne (the Prime
Minister's Special Envoy to Sri Lanka).
The purpose of these appointments is unclear, as is whether the
benefit of these roles to the public outweighs their benefit to
the Prime Minister in terms of patronage or compensation for loss
of ministerial office.
31. Unlike PPSs the Members holding these representative
positions are not automatically expected to resign their posts
if they vote against the Government. However there has been at
least one case of a special representative being "relieved
of their duties" for perceived disloyalty to the Prime Minister.
The words of the Herbert Committee when discussing PPSs also seem
He [the PPS] must necessarily be to some extent imbued
with the 'team spirit' which is part of the life blood of the
ministry; thus too, his independence as a member of the House
must be liable to be impaired to a somewhat greater degree than
that of an ordinary member of the party supporting the Government
32. The size of the payroll vote does not simply
diminish Parliament's independence through numbers. So long as
around a third of the governing party are ministers there is a
natural tendency among members of that party to aspire to ministerial
office, rather than to a career in Parliament, on the back benches
in the Chamber, as a select committee member or chair, or chairing
proceedings in general committees and in the House.
33. The ever increasing size
of the payroll vote should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
We recommend that the Ministerial Code be amended to limit Parliamentary
Private Secretaries to one for each department or Cabinet Minister.
The posts of Parliamentary Assistants to Regional Ministers should
34. There is a significant lack
of clarity around the status of Members of Parliament acting as
special envoys or representatives for the Prime Minister or in
other government advisory roles. The suspicion is that these are
a way of extending patronage to people who have not been chosen
for ministerial office. There should be more transparency about
their role, their cost, and the civil service support they receive,
if any. It should be clear that no person would lose such a position
for voting against the Government.
35. The House of Commons Disqualification
Act was intended to prevent government from stacking the legislature
with its own office holders. The existence of large numbers of
Parliamentary Private Secretaries and other unofficial office
holders undermines this principle. The existing limit on the number
of ministers sitting and voting in the Commons needs to be widened
to encompass all of those Members of Parliament who hold office
connected to the Government, whether formally or informally. A
logical basis on which to establish this limit would be as a proportion
of the total membership of the Commons. A limit of around 15 per
cent, mid-way between that recommended by the Herbert Committee
and the present position, would result in a reduction in the current
payroll vote of around 40 posts. There may also be a case for
establishing a limit, at a much lower level, for the House of
A smaller government
36. This report has set out a number of proposals
for reducing the size of governmenta reduction of around
a third in the number of ministers, a limit on the payroll vote
of 15% of the membership of the House of Commons and a limit on
PPSs of one per department or Cabinet Minister. The table below
shows how such a government might be formed in practice. Such
a government would have, on average, the three ministers in each
department that Lord Turnbull believed were neededalthough
in practice larger departments have more and smaller departments,
or departments where representation in the Lords could be shared,
|Ministers of State and Junior Ministers
|Total Payroll Vote
1 We use the term 'ministers' in a broad sense to include
law officers and whips, except where indicated otherwise. Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Eighth Report of Session
2008-09, Good Government HC 97 Back
1999 is given in place of 2000 following the source data. Back
Good Government, Q 103 Back
http://india.gov.in/govt/cabinet.php Accessed 25 February 2010
http://www.info.gov.za/leaders/index.htm, Accessed 25 February
http://www.parl.gc.ca/common/index.asp?Language=E, Accessed 25
February 2010; this figure includes 12 Parliamentary Secretaries
who are not considered ministers but some of whom may undertake
some duties that would be considered ministerial in the UK. Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Eighth Report of Session
2009-10, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments
from outside Parliament, HC 330, Q 34 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 46 Back
Good Government, Q 341 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 48 Back
Good Government, Q 101, see also Q 101 [Geoff Mulgan]
and Goats and Tsars Q 48 [Lord Turnbull] Back
Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris
Mullin, (London, 2009), pp. 43-44 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 155 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 47 Back
See for example, Goats and Tsars, Q 47, [Lord Turnbull],
Sir John Major and Lord Hurd of Westwell, The Times,'Bring
Outside Talent to the Dispatch Box', June 2009 Back
Good Government, Q 99 Back
Good Government, Q 101 [Geoff Mulgan] Back
Goats and Tsars, Qq 44-45 Back
Jonathan Baume, Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration
Select Committee on 12 March 2009, Session 2008-09, HC 352-i,
Q 61 Back
Jonathan Baume, oral evidence, Q 61 Back
HM Treasury, 2010, Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government,
Cm 7753, p 6 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 32 Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 200 Back
Select Committee on Offices or Places of Profit under the Crown,
1941, Report from the Select Committee on Offices or Places
of Profit under the Crown (henceforth 'Herbert Report') p.
Herbert Report, p xv Back
The leaders of the two largest opposition parties also have PPSs,
however although these are not relevant to the subject of this
For a detailed history of the PPS up to 1996 see R.A. Alderman
and J.A. Cross, 'The Parliamentary Private Secretary-A Danger
to the Free Functioning of Parliament?', Political Studies, Vol
14 (1996), pp 199-208 Back
Cabinet Office, 2007, Ministerial Code, p 7 Back
Herbert Report, p xvi Back
Herbert Report, p xvi Back
Goats and Tsars, Q 155 Back
Chris Mullin, 'Now Prise off the Tentacles of Patronage', The
Times, 26 May 2009 Back
Limitations on the number of Ministers, Standard Note SN/PC/03378,
House of Commons Library, November 2008, p. 6; current
number of PPSs taken from www.dodonline.co.uk accessed 3 March
2010; see Financial Times, 'Ministerial 'bag-carrier' posts
go unfilled', 10 August 2009, for a discussion of possible reasons
for the drop in PPS posts that have been filled. Back
Letter from the Cabinet Secretary to the Permanent Secretary of
the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform,
Accessed 1 March 2010 Back
For a list of such appointments see Goats and Tsars,
Ev 41-42 Back
'Labour MP sacked after open revolt against Gordon Brown', Daily
Telegraph, 13 September 2008 Back
Herbert Report, p xvi Back
See Goats and Tsars, Q 18 [Professor Anthony King]
and Q 163 [Sir John Major] Back