Written evidence from Peter Riddell, Senior
Fellow, Institute for Government, and chair of the Hansard Society |
1. The Institute for Government is currently
undertaking a major research project into ministerial effectiveness.
This focuses on the following questions: what are the characteristics
of an effective minister? What are the main influences on effectiveness?
Why aren't there more effective ones? And what can be done? We
are nearing the end of our research phase, but have not yet reached
2. Ministers have to set out policy goals on
behalf of the Government; to drive through reform programmes;
to explain and justify their decisions; and to be accountable
for the performance of their departments, specifically to Parliament,
but also, more generally, to the public and the media.
3. Possible conclusions we are considering include:
- (1) Improving the management of ministerial
careersgreater stability in office; a more formal appraisal
- (2) Improving ministerial development via
systematic mentoring, coaching and advice at various stages of
a ministerial career.
- (3) Involving outsiders in government but
being much clearer on their distinctive role, being a super-adviser
and being accountable to, and handling, the Lords.
4. My response to the committee's specific questions
are in my personal capacity (also reflecting my observations from
nearly 30 years as a political journalist), and do not reflect
the Institute's views:
1. What do ministers do and is their work
best done by ministers who are drawn from Parliament?
Ministers have a variety of roles: in leading their
departments: in articulating the Government's wider agenda within
their departments: in fighting the departments' corner in the
rest of the Whitehall, Westminster, Brussels and interested parties;
and in handling the media. Most Secretaries of State and other
ministers should still be drawn from the Commons, but there is
scope, as above in paragraph 3, for more outsiders to be brought
in to provide expertise in more technocratic roles, but, if they
are ministers, rather than advisers, they have to have political
2. Are there too many ministers, not enough,
or is the level about right?
Recent Prime Ministers have abused the system by
exceeding the statutory limit on the number of ministers by making
appointments in both Houses who do not receive an additional salary,
as well as of envoys and representatives, in addition to the proliferation
of parliamentary private secretaries. This has had the effect
of boosting the "payroll" vote. In addition, devolution
has not led to a reduction in the number of ministers, rather
the reverse as a fewer ministers for Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland has been more than offset by increases elsewhere.
3. If proposals to reduce the numbers of MPs
are implemented, should the number of ministers also be reduced?
(a) Proportionately with the reduction in the number
(b) By altering the statutory ceiling when the number
of MPs is reduced
On a) and b) there is no optimal number (see remarks
below on the implications of creating the coalition), but the
current statutory limits should be enforced rigorously. No one
can be called a minister who does not fall within that limit.
4. What implications does coalition government
have for the role of ministers and how they operate, both collectively
and at the level of individual departments?
The existence of the coalition alters the context
considerably, as discussed in the recent Institute for Government
report, "United We Stand". To ensure that both
coalition parties have the chance to put forward their views in
partnership, the two parties have to be represented as widely
as possible. At present, five departments have no Lib Dem minister.
This makes it harder for a Lib Dem voice to be heard and, in many
other departments, the Lib Dem minister is often a junior one.
This requires a change in attitude by both ministers and civil
servants to take account of both parties' views.
5. How is the role and function of ministers
likely to change if plans to decentralise power from central government
to local and community level are introduced?
In theory, there should be scope to reduce the number
of ministers, but, as noted above, this did not happen after devolution.
6. What do developments such as coalition
government and the decentralisation of power away from central
government mean in particular for:
(a) The role and number of junior ministers?
(b) Our understanding of ministerial accountability?
As noted above, there are contrasting pressures.
Coalition government tends to require more junior ministers, and
decentralisation fewer. But it is not just the number of ministers.
Equally important is the number of departments. There is a strong
case for merging several departments, which would reduce the number
On accountability, the key issue is not whether all
ministers are elected but whether they can be questioned about
their policies and performance. Lords ministers already appear
before select committees, there should also be some mechanism
for questioning by MPs generally in, say, Westminster Hall, as
has been proposed by Speaker Bercow.
7. How significant are cost and affordability
issues to decisions about the number of ministerial appointments,
especially given the extent of spending cuts required from government
departments in the foreseeable future?
There would obviously be savings if the number of
ministers is reduced, and, as the 'Too Many Ministers?' report
by the committee noted, this applies to unpaid as well as to paid
ministers since the unpaid still have private offices and associated
costs. A reduction in the number of ministersrather like
the 5% cut in ministerial salarieswould be largely symbolic
(an important factor politically at a time of widespread cuts)
since the financial savings are pretty small.
8. Under what circumstances is it appropriate
to appoint ministers from outside Parliament. Do those circumstances
apply at present?
It is appropriate to bring in ministers from outside
the Commons, mainly at middle ranking and junior levels, to broaden
the range of experience available to a government and to fulfil
specific tasks, provided they accept that being a Lords minister
involves extensive political responsibilities in the Lords. There
needs to be much clearer thought about the distinction between
ministers and advisers.
9. Does the balance between the numbers of
ministers in the Commons and in the Lords need redressing?
The question is less about numbers than ministerial
roles. Probably about the current number of ministers is needed
in the Lords to make statements, answer questions and take through
legislation. The excess is in the Commons.