Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? - Public Administration Committee Contents


One of the Coalition Government's main aims has been to combat the UK's deficit by making significant reductions in the cost of government. As a result the public sector is being asked to find new, innovative ways of working to continue to deliver high quality services with fewer resources and fewer people. Government ministers, particularly junior ministers on which this Report focuses, should not be exempt from having to re-evaluate how they work and what they do. In addition doing so would be consistent with the Prime Minister's promise to "cut the cost of politics."

We are in no doubt that ministers are busy. However, activity needs to be distinguished from achievement. Effectiveness also needs to be distinguished from efficiency. The accounts we have received give the impression that ministers are too involved in the day-to-day running of their departments; take too many relatively minor decisions; and engage in numerous activities that could be delegated to others. This draws their focus and energy away from their primary objective, providing leadership and setting the overall policy of their departments. Ministers must focus on the key strategic decisions that need to be made in their departments. Having fewer ministers, who gave priority to their core responsibilities, could help bring about this change in culture.

The Government's intention to create the "Big Society" and respond to the "post-bureaucratic age" also provides an opportunity to re-evaluate how ministers work. As the Government advances reform to devolve more power to local authorities and communities this will shift ministers' focus away from delivering services and towards creating the framework within which these services are delivered. Following the creation of this smaller centre, that is not directly responsible for delivery, the Government should no longer require as many ministers as it currently has.

Having too many ministers is bad not just for the quality of government, but also for the independence of the legislature. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 (MOSA) limits the total number of ministers at 109 but this is regularly exceeded by appointing unpaid ministers. In addition, the existence of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) who, while not ministers, are expected to support the Government in all divisions in the House, further increases the size of the payroll vote. Currently 141 Members—approximately 22% of the House of Commons—hold some position in the Government. This is deeply corrosive to the House of Commons primary role of acting as a check on the Executive, and will be made worse by the Government's plans to reduce the number of MPs. One simple step the Government should take immediately to limit this size of the payroll vote would be to limit the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries to one per Secretary of State. If this was done it would result in 26 fewer Members being on the payroll vote.

In addition the Government should take the following steps to reduce the number of ministers.

i.  Treating the MOSA as setting a strict limit on the number of ministers. The Government should not employ unpaid ministers if doing so would take it over the MOSA limit;

ii.  Reduce the number of ministers in the House of Commons in line with the reduction in MPs. This should be legislated for now and take effect in 2015; and

iii.  Conduct a fundamental review, by midway through this Parliament, of the number of ministers required in the smaller government which the Coalition is seeking to create.

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Prepared 10 March 2011