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

Written evidence submitted by Matthew Flinders, Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance, University of Sheffield and Anika Gauja, Lecturer in Politics, University of Sydney

1.  Although the exact meaning of terms such as the "post-bureaucratic state", "smaller government" and the "smarter state" remain opaque there is little doubt that the global financial crisis and a number of other socio-political challenges will require some reformulation of the manner in which the British Government is composed.

2.  In this regard the global financial crisis presents an opportunity to reflect on the composition of the executive and its relationship with the legislature that should not be wasted. The growth in the number and distribution of ministerial positions (including the appointment of backbenchers as parliamentary private secretaries) reflects a surge in patronage that was concerned more with effective intra-party management than good government.

3.  What do ministers do? Ministers oversee and direct the administration of the state. They are selected to make policy and oversee its successful implication. They are not appointed to play a detailed role in the administration of the state - they are required to steer but not row.

4.  The benefit of having ministers that are not drawn from the House of Commons is that they are free from the obligations of constituency duties and may bring expertise and experience that is not available within the ranks of full-time party political politicians. They may therefore possess a degree of independence that in some circumstances allows them to remain focused on the broader "public interest" and not become entangled in partisan or constituency plea bargaining.

5.  The benefit of having ministers that are drawn from the House of Commons is that they offer a direct relationship and chain of accountability with the public. The constituency link may ensure that they are closely attuned to public opinion. Party political relationships, structures and loyalties also serve to ensure that ministers generally know each other and will meet in a number of formal and informal arenas.

6.  Although it is probably in the interests of democratic legitimacy and clarity to have the greater number of ministers drawn from the House of Commons the burdens of constituency work plus the expertise, experience and independence offered by member of the House of Lords might weigh in favor of having more ministers drawn from the second chamber. This logic may increase if Stage Two reform of the Lords results in a composition that is interpreted as being more legitimate (but not necessarily elected).

7.  There are too many ministers. Around one third of all MPs will hold a ministerial appointment (or will be a PPS) and will therefore follow the departmental line. The scope of Prime Ministerial patronage is therefore very great and the arguments regarding how this undermines the independence of the House of Commons as a whole is voluminous. Chris Mullin's memoirs A View from the Foothills serves to underline why many ministerial posts are unnecessary.

8.  The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010 amends the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to set the size of the House of Commons at 600 Members. If this occurs without a requisite reduction in the payroll vote the relative power of the executive over the legislature will increase rather than decrease. The statutory limits on the number of ministers should be reduced, possibly to no more than 70-80 positions, and only members of the Cabinet should be able to appoint a PPS. This could be achieved through an immediate reduction in some posts, notably those within the territorial departments, and a planned gradual reduction over future parliaments.

9.  There are three broader and inter-related issues that the PASC might reflect upon during this inquiry: it is not about the money; political recruitment; and career structures.

10.  Although the global financial crisis has focused attention on public sector spending and salaries, saving money should be a secondary but not primary priority when it comes to reducing either the number of MPs or ministers. The savings accrued from reducing the number of MPs are negligible when viewed against the broad financial situation and if "good scrutiny makes for good government" then cutting back the number of MPs may actually be economically inefficient in the long-term.

11.  This inquiry must not allow a focus on the number of ministers (i.e. quantity) to distract attention from the more important issue of the caliber of ministers (i.e. quality). This relates back to the issue of fiscal savings, provides a link with the issue of political recruitment and raises the basic issue of MPs' pay. Although it is undoubtedly unfashionable to publicly admit this, the basic pay of an MP is arguably too low. If high-quality individuals from all sections of the community are to be given the opportunity and encouragement to enter political life, and therefore become a candidate for a ministerial position, then it is vital that the thorny issue of MPs' pay is addressed sooner rather than later. Although statutory responsibility for this issue will soon transfer to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority it is vital that the House of Commons is a little more brave on this issue than it has been in the past.

12.  The issue of MPs' pay is inevitably entangled with Prime Ministerial patronage and the fact that being a minister brings with it an additional salary. The lack of an alternative career structure within the House of Commons has for decades explained the executive's de facto control of the legislature (in all but the most extreme circumstances). One way of making the backbenches a more fertile training ground for potential ministers, of off-setting the impact of a reduction in ministerial posts, of encouraging former ministers to accept positions on scrutiny committees and generally establishing a more mature and balanced constitutional relationship between the executive and legislature would be to increase significantly the additional payments that select committee chairmen receive.

August 2010

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