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

Conclusions and recommendations

What should Ministers do?

1.  The Government's drive to reduce public expenditure is forcing all public servants to re-evaluate the way they work; ministers should be no exception. Like the rest of the public service ministers will have to find ways to do more with less. Currently ministers engage in unnecessary activities and take too many low level decisions. Some activities ministers engage in gain little from having a minister conduct them and they could cease. This would provide ministers with more capacity to focus on the important tasks and provide them with the time necessary to give them proper detailed consideration. ministers must focus on the key strategic decisions that need to be made in their department. Having fewer ministers, so that they have to prioritise on their core responsibilities, could help bring about this change in culture. (Paragraph 31)


2.  This inquiry has not identified a perfect solution to these questions around ministerial accountability but one possibility would be for the Ministerial Code to make explicit reference to "redirectory responsibility" as a legitimate aspect of ministerial accountability in the context of a more decentralised state. This would militate against the contemporary practice in governments from all parties to remain answerable for many functions for which departments no longer exercise direct control. (Paragraph 42)

Parliamentary Scrutiny

3.  Following the implementation of the Government's proposals to devolve responsibility for public service delivery to local communities we would invite the Procedure Committee to re-examine the rules surrounding the content of Parliamentary Questions to ensure that they reflect new realities about responsibility and accountability for service delivery. (Paragraph 48)

Ministers in a 'Post-Bureaucratic Age'

4.  The Government has set out a radical agenda for the reform of public services which focuses on decentralisation and moving responsibility for service delivery to a local level. While ministers will be required to implement these changes, a smaller centre that is not directly responsible for delivery will require fewer ministers. (Paragraph 55)

5.  To realise the Government's aspiration to reduce the number of ministers we recommend that, following the introduction of these reforms, the Government conduct a fresh review of ministerial numbers by midway though this Parliament. We expect this review to identify scope for significant reductions. If this does not happen we will interpret this as a sign that the Government has failed in its ambition to devolve real power and responsibility to local communities; a central tenet of its Big Society agenda. (Paragraph 56)

Ministers and departmental structures

6.  We recommend that as departments adapt to meet the requirement for a reduction of a third in their administration budgets, the continuing existence of ministerial posts as well as those of officials should be within scope of the restructuring plans. This should include examining which departments could be merged together to reflect their decreased responsibilities. Similarly, the Government's review of ministerial numbers should focus on functions rather than posts. It is essential to identify those tasks of Government which need to be fulfilled and then allocate ministerial posts as appropriate to carry them out. What must be avoided is the patronage-driven route of creating posts and then allocating tasks to keep the office-holder occupied. (Paragraph 64)

7.  We also recommend a serious look at the Whitehall Departments of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (subject to the special circumstances of the security consideration in Northern Ireland) in particular to ensure that political structures in Whitehall reflect and reinforce Parliament's clear intentions, expressed in legislation, to devolve power and responsibility. (Paragraph 65)

Ministerial effectiveness

8.  The UK Government is thus distinctive not only for having a relatively large number of ministers, but also ministers who are unspecialised in the areas for which they are responsible and for which they may have responsibility for only a short space of time. This lack of continuity in government departments can only serve to undermine ministerial effectiveness. Prime Ministers should resist the temptation to hold regular, extensive reshuffles. (Paragraph 70)

Training and Guidance

9.  We endorse the recommendation of PASC in the last Parliament that there should be more systematic training, mentoring, coaching and assessment of ministers. While we concur with the scepticism expressed that it is impossible for any training or induction to prepare a minister for all the challenges that he will facing during his time in office, this does not mean that such training is useless, merely that its limitations should be understood. The purpose should be to help them identify areas of their performance where they can improve. This should not be seen as criticism of current ministers' performance, merely an acknowledgement that everyone, including ministers, can always find ways to be better at their job. (Paragraph 79)

Ministers in a coalition

10.   We are not persuaded by the argument that coalition government requires additional members. All parties are coalitions of different viewpoints so there will always be a need to reconcile different positions within Government when formulating policy. The normal mechanisms for cabinet government should be sufficient to deal with these challenges. The existence of the Coalition should therefore not provide any justification to increase ministerial numbers on the grounds of increased workload. (Paragraph 87)

11.  Even if the Coalition does create additional work, this is not work that would justify the appointment of additional ministers. As studies of other countries with experience of coalitions has shown, Special Advisers and senior civil servants can perfectly adequately perform the consultation and co-ordination tasks created by a coalition. (Paragraph 90)

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act

12.  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." (Paragraph 98)

13.  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. (Paragraph 99)

14.  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. (Paragraph 100)

Further Reductions

15.  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. (Paragraph 103)

Using the Whips

16.  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. (Paragraph 108)

Ministers outside the Commons

17.  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 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. (Paragraph 112)

18.  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. (Paragraph 114)

Parliamentary Private Secretaries

19.  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. (Paragraph 125)

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