Government Responses to the Committee's Eighth and Ninth Reports of Session 2009-10: Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament and Too Many Ministers? - Public Administration Committee Contents

Appendix 2—Government Response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2009-10

Too Many Ministers?

1.  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 exist. (Paragraph 5)

2.  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. (Paragraph 9)

3.  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. (Paragraph 15)

4.  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. (Paragraph 18)

5.  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. (Paragraph 19)

6.  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, smarter government. (Paragraph 21)

The Government welcomes the Committee's interest in these issues. The Committee will have seen the appointments made by the Coalition Government. The Government agrees that the number of ministers should be dictated by need and on this basis has carefully considered all the appointments that it has made. Because of the nature of Coalition Government and the challenge of delivering the Programme for Government, the Prime Minister did not think that it was possible to reduce significantly the number of ministers at this time.

In addition, this Government has reduced the number of ministers who regularly attend meetings of the Cabinet, as well as putting in place more formal government structures.

7.  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 be abolished. (Paragraph 33)

9. 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.

In line with the Ministerial Code, Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State may appoint Parliamentary Private Secretaries with the prior written approval of the Prime Minister. The role of Parliamentary Assistants to Regional Ministers has been abolished.

8.  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. (Paragraph 34)

This issue is covered in the Government's response to the Committee's report on Goats and Tsars.

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Prepared 21 October 2010