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

1  Introduction

1. In a speech during the election campaign David Cameron said that "there's something else the British public wants us to do, and that is to cut the cost of politics. Everyone is having to do more for less." Therefore, was it not time "politicians and ministers did a bit more for a bit less?" [1]

2. Certainly 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 should not be exempt from having to re-evaluate how they work and what they do. This Report attempts to address this issue by examining what the purpose of ministers is, what they do, and how they could be better utilised. Our intention is to see whether it would be possible for government to function properly, or even more efficiently, with fewer ministers.

3. Since the election there have been a number of developments which have impacted on ministers and their relationship with Parliament. The Government's proposals to reduce the number of MPs without a corresponding reduction in ministerial numbers will increase the size of the payroll vote - the number of MPs who hold a government job and are therefore required to vote with the Government or resign - strengthening the Executive at the expense of the legislature. The Government's intention to promote the Big Society and respond to the post-bureaucratic age by devolving responsibility for swathes of public services to the local level and enhancing local accountability, raises questions about the role of a minister in a more decentralised state. There are already more ministers, including those serving in devolved assemblies, than there were before devolution.[2] Finally, the existence of a coalition has implications for the way that ministers conduct their duties. The Government has already recognised some of these developments and has said that it is likely they will reduce ministerial numbers "at some point in the future".[3]

4. This is not the first time the Public Administration Select Committee has examined this issue. In its inquiry Too Many Ministers?[4] our Committee in the previous Parliament found that the UK Government was an international outlier when it came to ministerial numbers; employing more ministers than India, Canada and South Africa. More recent research by the Constitution Unit has shown that the House of Commons has more ministers than many Western European countries, including France, Italy, Spain and Germany. In addition, the ratio of ministers to members of the legislature in the House of Commons is 1:8, compared to 1:14 in Spain and Germany, 1:16 in Italy and 1:29 in France.[5] Our predecessor's Report also found that the total number of government ministers has grown steadily since 1900, with the rate of increase particularly marked for ministers below Cabinet level.[6] This reflects successive prime ministers' understandable desire to exercise patronage over those who determine whether the Government's legislation is approved.

5. The Report concluded that this trend had several detrimental effects; placing a burden on the public purse and harming the interests of good government due to too many ministers clogging up decision making processes and blurring lines of responsibility. Most significantly, it concluded that increasing the number of ministers was corrosive to the independence of the legislature, by increasing the size of the 'payroll vote'.[7] This Report will not rehearse these arguments in favour of fewer ministers. Instead, it attempts to advance the debate by examining whether revising the role of ministers could provide a way to reduce their numbers.

Our inquiry

6. We received evidence from seven organisations and individuals over the course of this inquiry. We also held three evidence sessions with academics, former civil servants, former special advisers and both current and former ministers. We would like to thank all those who contributed to our inquiry, especially our three Specialist Advisers who joined the inquiry at a late stage to support us with their specialist knowledge.[8]

1   David Cameron: Change our political system to put people back in control, 21 April 2010 Back

2   There are currently 18 ministers in the Scottish Executive, 10 in the Welsh Assembly Government and 14 in the Northern Ireland Assembly in addition to the 6 ministers representing the devolved administrations at Westminster. This compared to 11 ministers in total before devolution. Back

3   HC Deb, 25 October 2010, col 132 Back

4   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2009-10, Too Many Ministers?, HC 457 Back

5   Ev 60 Back

6   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers?, para 3 Back

7   Ibid. paras 10-21 Back

8   Professor Lord Norton of Louth, Rt Hon Peter Riddell and Professor Robert Hazell acted as unpaid Specialist Advisers to the Committee during this inquiry. They were appointed to the Committee on 1 February 2011 and their declarations of interests can be found in the formal minutes for that meeting. Back

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