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

6   Payroll Vote - Alternative Solutions

104. Our inquiry was motivated by the impact that the number of the ministers has on the independence of Parliament. These concerns have been magnified by the fact that the number of MPs is being cut from 650 to 600 with no corresponding reduction in the number of ministers in the House of Commons. This will result in the Government directly controlling a higher proportion of votes in the House. As we noted in the last chapter, the obvious solution is to reduce the total number of ministers. However, there are other ways of addressing the problem: appointing ministers to the Lords rather than the Commons; reducing the number of—and making greater use of the remaining—non-ministers who make up the payroll vote.

Using the Whips

105. The number of ministers could be reduced by redistributing some ministerial functions to the Whips in the House of Commons.

106. Lord Rooker suggested that greater use be made of Whips to respond to some Westminster Hall debates and some adjournment debates in the Main Chamber. The use of Whips for such functions is already common in the Lords. Whips in the Lords regularly answer Questions at the Despatch Box and also share the task, and on occasion shoulder the primary task, of taking a Bill through the House. In the current session, for example, the lead member of the Government on the Public Bodies Bill, a major Government measure, is Lord Taylor of Holbeach, a Whip. There have also been two recent occasions when Whips have stood in for Ministers in the Commons. On Friday 3 December 2010 James Duddridge MP, a Whip, responded to a debate on the Turks and Caicos Islands because the Minister was unable to attend and during the 2010 Christmas Adjournment Robert Goodwill MP, also a Whip, responded to the Treasury debates.[132]

107. While it might seem less than desirable to have a minister (Whips are ministers) who is not directly responsible for the relevant policy take a debate, this already occurs on occasions. On 12 January 2011 Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, responding to a debate on Government IT procurement, described himself as a "fish out of water."[133] More generally, adjournment debates often raise specific and detailed constituency matters, which it would be unrealistic for a minister to have encyclopaedic knowledge of before the debate. Any minister can quickly learn whether their pre-prepared brief meets the concerns being raised, or if it requires re-evaluation. The purpose of adjournment debates is generally for Members to communicate their concerns to the Government and ask for action to be taken. Whips seem well placed to perform this function as they already have a role to play in keeping Ministers informed on the views and mood of the House, and a Whip is normally present in any case to move the motion for an adjournment.

108. There is scope for greater use to be made of Whips in the performance of some Parliamentary duties, such as responding to adjournment debates. This would be a better use of resources and provide scope for ministers to focus on their other tasks.

Ministers outside the Commons

109. The Executive's power of patronage in the House of Commons could be reduced by appointing more ministers from outside; either by creating more Lords ministers or by appointing ministers who were not Members of either House.


110. In the Lords, the number of ministers tends to be small both relative to ministers in the Commons and to the size of the Upper House. Given the almost complete absence of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the Lords, the size of the so-called payroll vote is not a concern. The Government could either appoint existing peers or, following more recent trends, create a peer in order to allow a person to take up ministerial office. Appointing peers as ministers has its advantages. It widens the pool of talent from which ministerial appointments can be made. Peers are also undistracted by constituency duties.

111. Concerns are often been expressed about how to make these ministers accountable to the elected House of Commons. However, the Ministerial Code states that Secretaries of State are accountable to Parliament, not specifically the House of Commons. Furthermore, new means by which ministers in the Lords can be directly answerable to the House of Commons are already being discussed. In the last Parliament, the Procedure Committee looked at the possibility of having Lords Ministers answer questions in Westminster Hall. They suggested that this be trialled on an experimental basis at the start of this Parliament.[134] If successful, consideration could also be given to having Lords Ministers answer Westminster Hall debates on a more regular basis. This would have the additional benefit of sharing a wider range of parliamentary duties across all government ministers.

112. It is important that ministers who are not Members of the elected House can be answerable to the Commons. This would allay any concerns that Secretaries of State who have been appointed from the House of Lords can avoid legitimate scrutiny by the elected Chamber. We believe that the pilot of having Lords ministers answer questions in Westminster Hall, as previously recommended by the Procedure Committee, should be conducted as soon as possible. While there is no urgency, as no Secretary of State currently sits in the Lords, this provides an opportunity to try out new arrangements in a less politically charged environment.

113. As PASC in the previous Parliament noted an increased use of the ministers in the Lords should not be considered in isolation from wider constitutional developments.[135] So far the Government is yet to come forward with its proposals to reform the House of Lords which may well involve some element of electing its membership. If this is done it is likely to change the status of Lords ministers as, like their Commons counterparts, they will have democratic legitimacy. This may lead to calls to develop a mechanism of accountability that enables elected representatives to hold all Government ministers to account, regardless of what chamber they sit in. We cannot anticipate how elected members of a second Chamber would react to such a proposal, given that ministers in the Second Chamber would enjoy as much electoral legitimacy as their counterparts in the Commons.

114. The issue of Lords ministers cannot be considered without acknowledging the likelihood of future reforms. If the Government proposes, and Parliament agrees, to create a wholly or partially elected Upper House it will have to think both about how it distributes its ministers between its two Chambers, and how democratically elected representatives can hold ministers to account, regardless of which Chamber they were elected to. We encourage the Government to consider all these issues as it develops its policy on Lords reform.


115. PASC in the previous Parliament looked at the issue of appointing people as ministers who were not Members of either of the Houses of Parliament in its Report "Goats and Tsars". It found that this solution is not without precedent: the posts of Lord Advocate and Solicitor General for Scotland have, at times, been held by non-parliamentarians. Similarly, in times of war people from outside Parliament have been appointed to ministerial posts.[136]

116. A number of witnesses to that inquiry supported the idea of appointing a small number of junior ministers who were members of neither House. They saw the key issue as being how they were made accountable to the House of Commons. This was a point made by the Regulatory Policy Institute:

Citizens do not vote for Ministers. While electors can collectively dismiss a constituency MP because of poor performance as a Minister, they are formally asked to vote only for a representative for that constituency. They have no say in the appointment or removal of Ministers (whether drawn from the Commons or Lords) once a government is formed.[137]

While currently the majority of Ministers are elected, the primary mechanism for holding ministers to account stems not from the fact that they themselves are elected; but that they are accountable to a House that consists of elected Members. Therefore, in principle, ensuring proper accountability of unelected Ministers does not pose a greater challenge than the accountability of current Lords ministers, who are also not elected or accountable to an elected Chamber. Our predecessor Committee recommended that this was an idea "worthy of further consideration", but that it should be considered as part of the wider discussion about House of Lords reform.[138]

Parliamentary Private Secretaries

117. Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) are unpaid assistants to ministers. Over time, they have increased in number and they have also become embedded as part of the payroll vote:[139] though not receiving a salary as PPSs, they are expected to support the Government during votes or resign their position. Every Cabinet Minister and Minister of State in the Government is allowed to have a PPS, subject to the Prime Minister's approval. There are currently 46 PPSs.[140] 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.[141]

As Lord Norton said PPSs are "treated as part of the so-called payroll vote, even though they are not paid. The jobsworth vote might be a better characterisation of it."[142]

118. The functions of this unofficial role are not clearly defined. However, it is not evident to us what value so many PPS posts adds to the business of government. One visible task is passing notes to ministers from their civil servants in debates; a job that could be done either by any available Member in the Chamber or by doorkeepers, as is done in Lords.

119. We asked current ministers how useful they found their PPSs. While neither of the ministers that appeared before us are eligible for a PPS, Norman Baker commented on how useful he had found the two PPSs that were assigned to the Department for Transport.

We have two PPSs now, but the lead has been with us for some time, and his role is brilliantly important because he comes to us with the backbenchers' views.[143]

Nevertheless, he agreed that there was an issue "as to whether we [the Government] need as many PPSs as we have."[144]

120. As Professor Hazell observed many of the functions performed by PPSs could be done by Whips:

One of the main functions of a PPS is to pass on intelligence to his Minister about the mood in this place. That is also a function of the Whips.[145]

121. Another argument that is often given for the existence of PPSs is that they act as the "first rung on the ministerial ladder" and provide a form of political apprenticeship. Lord Norton was not convinced by this argument:

I am not sure what you are training: how do you know they are going to be very good Ministers just because they are very good at carrying your bags or something? A far more productive route, which is where you want to be channelling them, is the sort of job you're doing, because service on a Select Committee is much more visible and more productive, and I think from a parliamentary perspective it is much more worthwhile.[146]

122. When he gave evidence to PASC in the last Parliament Sir John Major described the size of the payroll vote as a "constitutional outrage".[147] His view was that only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs. This was also the suggestion made by Lord Norton and others who suggested setting a limit of "one PPS per Department under the control of the Secretary of State." He argued that doing so would make the post more meaningful than the current arrangement.[148]

123. Reducing the number of PPSs has a notable benefit in terms not only of the relationship between the House of Commons and that part of it which forms the Government— strengthening the House in being able to call government to account—but also in terms of the efficiency of government. The growth in the number of PPSs has diluted the impact and status of the individual PPSs and is a further antithesis of "strengthening Parliament" which is the Governments stated objective. When there were relatively few PPSs, with each serving as an assistant (sometimes a recognised close confidant) of a Cabinet minister, they had much higher profile than they presently enjoy. They could be invited in place of their minister to deliver a speech or attend a particular ceremony. Reducing the number of PPSs may have the effect of enhancing their status, enabling them to shoulder some of the burdens presently carried out by junior ministers.

124. Reducing the number of ministers will in itself have a consequence for the number of PPSs, since it will be reducing the number of people eligible to have PPSs. However, we believe it is important to go further and limit the number of PPSs, thus reverting to the status previously held by the occupants of such posts and also again making it more of a recognisable route to ministerial office.

125. We do not believe that the Government needs as many PPSs as it currently has. They perform few functions of real value; the few they do could easily be performed by others, notably the Whips. We recommend that only Secretaries of State should be allowed to appoint Parliamentary Private Secretaries and that the Ministerial Code be amended to limit PPSs to one for each department.

132   HC Deb, 3 December 2010, cols 1167-1171 and 21 December 2010, cols 1167-1378. Back

133   "Government IT debate run by 'fish out of water'", PC Pro, 14 January 2011,  Back

134   Procedure Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10 Accountability to the House of Commons of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords, HC 496 Back

135   Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars, Summary Back

136   Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars, paras 87-88 Back

137   Ev w1 [Note; references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website] Back

138   Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars, paras 90-91 Back

139   See Philip Norton, 'The Constitutional Position of Parliamentary Private Secretaries', Public Law, Summer 1989, pp 232-6. Back

140   "Government publishes list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries", The official site of the Prime Minister's Office, 17 November 2010, Back

141   Ministerial Code, para 3.9 Back

142   Q 116 Back

143   Q 246 Back

144   Q 244 Back

145   Q 156 [Professor Hazell] Back

146   Q 158 [Lord Norton] Back

147   Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars, Q 155 Back

148   Q 114, Qq 32 & 40 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 10 March 2011