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

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 firm conclusions.

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. (1)  Improving the management of ministerial careers—greater stability in office; a more formal appraisal system.
  2. (2)  Improving ministerial development via systematic mentoring, coaching and advice at various stages of a ministerial career.
  3. (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 skills.

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 of MPs
(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 of ministers.

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 ministers—rather like the 5% cut in ministerial salaries—would 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.

September 2010

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