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


5  Ministerial Numbers and the Payroll Vote

91. We believe that the evidence we have received shows that it would be possible to reduce the number of ministers without affecting the core functions of government. This would be done through a combination of: using ministerial time more effectively, focusing on key priorities, changing their role to reflect future reductions in the size of the state, and by merging some departments. The question now is how many ministers should there be?

Ministerial Numbers and Legislation

92. The number of ministers is subject to two statutory limits. The first, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 (HCDA), 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) which constrains 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 around—ministers may be entitled to attend Cabinet without being Cabinet Ministers,[118] or a whip may be given a nominal ministerial post in order to count against the limit for junior ministers rather than whips.[119] The table below shows the composition of the current government.

Table 2: Current Government Composition

Post Paid under MOSA  Unpaid Total Ministers attending Cabinet  
Cabinet Ministers (including Lord Chancellor)  22 23  23 
Of which MPs    21   
Of which Peers    2   
Ministers of State[120]  29 29 
Of which MPs    27   
Of which Peers    2   
Total Cabinet -  - - 28  
Parliamentary Secretaries 33  37 -  
Of which MPs    28   
Of which Peers    9   
Law Officers 0  
Of which MPs    2   
Of which Peers    1   
Whips[121]  22 27 
Of which MPs    17   
Of which Peers    10   
Total  109  10 119 -  
Of which MPs    95   
Of which Peers    24   

93. The evolution of these limits over time is complex. The limits were regularly revised between 1940 and 1975, usually upwards, and often to bring them into line with existing practice. MOSA applies to paid ministers in both Houses, whereas the HCDA 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 (such as tsars and envoys appointed by the previous Administration).

94. In practice, the appointment of unpaid ministers means that the number of ministerial posts exceed that provided for by MOSA and has regularly done so. 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. There are currently 11 unpaid ministers and whips in the Coalition Government.[122] Rt Hon Peter Riddell described the tendency of successive Governments to appoint unremunerated ministers as "a real abuse".[123] Our Committee in the previous Parliament recommended that "the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 should be treated as setting an absolute limit on the number of government ministers, paid or unpaid."[124]


95. The number of ministers in the House of Commons matters. It affects the ability of the House to scrutinise the Government. As PASC in the previous Parliament said:

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 Commons - i.e. the number of Member of Parliament who hold a government job and are therefore expected to vote for the Government or resign.[125]

Jonathan Powell was very open with PASC in the previous Parliament about why successive Prime Ministers had increased the number of ministers. "If the Prime Minister has his way, he would appoint every single backbencher in his party to a ministerial job to ensure their vote."[126]

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act

96. The Government has legislated to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 in the next Parliament. This will compound the problem of the payroll vote. During the Act's second reading debate concerns were expressed that if the number of MPs was reduced but there was no corresponding reduction in the number of ministers, then the Government would directly control a higher proportion of votes in the House.

97. Reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 represents approximately an eight percent decrease in the number of MPs.[127] If the same reduction were applied to the number of ministers in the House of Commons then the Government would have to appoint 8 fewer ministers taking the overall number in the House of Commons to 87. Mr Charles Walker MP (a member of PASC) tabled an amendment to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 requiring the Government to reduce the number of ministers in the Commons in line with the reductions in MPs that it was proposing.[128] His amendment was defeated by 293 votes to 241. A similar amendment was rejected in the House of Lords. We think that the House of Commons will have to revisit this question.

98. It is important to understand not only how the number of ministers in the House of Commons is set but also why they are set at their current level. Prime Ministers and their Chief Whips have every incentive to increase their patronage over those who determine the progress of legislation. The temptation to create more and more 'jobs for the boys' (and girls) is not conducive either to better government or better scrutiny of legislation. A further increase in the proportion of MPs who are ministers does not reflect the Coalition's stated objective of "strengthening Parliament."

99. We agree with our predecessor Committee that the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 should be regarded as setting an absolute limit on the number of ministers. Government should not appoint unpaid ministers if this results in them having more ministers than envisaged by the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act.

100. Furthermore, in line with the Prime Minister's desire to reduce the cost of politics, and following the decision to reduce the number of MPs, the Government needs to legislate for a corresponding reduction in the upper limit for the number of ministers. This should be done by reducing the upper limit for the number of ministers who can sit in the Commons as set out in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. These changes should take effect in 2015, when the reduction in the number of MPs also comes into force.

Further Reductions

101. Witnesses to the inquiry PASC conducted into ministerial numbers in the last Parliament, including Lord Turnbull, Lord Birt, Professor Anthony King, and Rt Hon Sir John Major all argued for a reduction in ministerial numbers. They believe that a reduction of between 25 to 50% would be possible.[129] The Committee recommended a 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. Under this structure a government would have, on average, three ministers in each department although in practice larger departments would have more and smaller departments, or departments where representation in the Lords could be shared, fewer. The table below, initially produced with our predecessor's report on this matter, provides a guide to how ministers could be divided between the two Houses and different ranks.[130]

 Commons  Lords  
Cabinet Ministers  
Ministers of State and Junior Ministers  
Total Payroll Vote  

102. We revisited these conclusions with our witnesses to examine whether the recommendation made during the previous Parliament still stood. The academics who appeared before us agreed with the suggestion made by Lord Hurd that the abolition of "20 Ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload."[131]

103. We believe that adherence to the MOSA and modest reduction in the limit set by HCDA should only be the start of the process. For the reasons we adduce in this Report, we believe there is scope for much greater reductions. Therefore we repeat the recommendation made in our original Report that, over the course of this Parliament, the total number of ministers should be reduced to 80 shared between the Commons and Lords.

118   Currently 5 non-Cabinet Ministers regularly attend Cabinet: Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Sir George Young, and Patrick McLoughlin. Others may attend Cabinet when relevant business is being discussed. Back

119   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers, para 6 Back

120   Includes Chief Whip Back

121   Excludes Chief Whip Back

122   "List of Government Departments and Ministers", Cabinet Office, July 2010, Back

123   Q 103 Back

124   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers, para 19 Back

125   Ibid. para 22 Back

126   Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars, Q 32 Back

127   The precise figure is 7.69% Back

128   HC Deb, 25 October 2010, col 108 Back

129   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers?, para 13 Back

130   Ibid. para 36 Back

131   Q 103 Back


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