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

Written evidence from Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government, University of Hull

This submission addresses what ministers do, the problems associated with their number and activities, and what may be done to create a more efficient government and concomitantly rebalance the relationship between the House of Commons and that part of which forms the Government.


1.  Ministers fulfil a range of functions. The senior ministers heading departments have to:

  1. (1)  manage their departments (the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility is of most importance in this context, establishing a minister's line control of the department);
  2. (2)  determine the policies of the department;
  3. (3)  answer to Parliament for their actions;
  4. (4)  persuade Parliament to give assent to legislation;
  5. (5)  be the public face of their departments; and
  6. (6)  join together in Cabinet to agree the principal policies of the Government and the programme to be laid before Parliament.

2.  The question of whether there are too many ministers cannot be detached wholly from the question of what they do. There are two distinct issues relating to size, one constitutional and one functional.


3.  Ministers by convention are drawn from and remain within Parliament. By convention, most are drawn from the House of Commons. There was an attempt through the Act of Settlement to remove placemen (ministers) from Parliament, but this was never implemented: the legislation was to take effect upon the demise of Queen Anne but was repealed before the end of her reign.[1]

4.  By remaining within Parliament, ministers are able to answer for the actions of their departments and for the legislation they introduce. By being parliamentarians, they are already socialised in the parliamentary process and may therefore be seen to be sensitive to the needs of other members. This dimension may be seen to be to the benefit of Parliament.

5.  Ministers are bound by the convention of collective ministerial responsibility. This convention became established in the nineteenth century. Initially it did not wholly encompass junior ministers but they were soon brought within its scope.[2] More recently, Parliamentary Private Secretaries have been deemed to form part of the "payroll vote", even though they remain private Members. Their inclusion has been part of a creeping process, their inclusion now implicit as a result of the wording of the Ministerial Code.

6.  The "payroll vote" gives the Government a guaranteed vote in any division. As the Committee has already noted in its report Too Many Ministers? the size of the payroll vote has increased over time, principally as a result of an increase in the number of junior ministers and of PPSs.[3] In 1950, the payroll vote (ministers + PPSs) in the House of Commons constituted 15% of the House. It now constitutes 21%. (That proportion will increase slightly as a result of the proposed reduction in the number of seats to 600 under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.) Expressed as a proportion of the number of MPs in the coalition, it is 38%.

7.  From a constitutional perspective, it can be argued that the ministry is entitled to have ministers in Parliament in order to manage the Government's business and to explain and persuade in getting its business. However, ministers are members of a body that is expected to subject the ministry to critical scrutiny and which has the responsibility of determining whether to give assent to the legislation placed before it. The growth of the "payroll vote" has extended the number of votes at the disposal of the whips. The greater the numbers on the payroll vote, the fewer MPs there are to challenge government and if necessary to vote against it and defeat it in the event of unacceptable legislation, or other provisions, being laid before the House.

8.  There therefore has to be some balance between the needs of government in terms of the number of ministers required to fulfil the essential tasks of government and the freedom of the House of Commons to challenge and ultimately, if necessary, to say no to government. There has never been, as far as I am aware, any convention as to where the balance lies, either in absolute terms (the number of ministers) or in relative terms (ministers as a proportion of the number of members), and relatively little discussion of the topic, other than through the occasional report, such as that of the Herbert Committee,[4] and the occasional Private Member's Bill designed to reduce the number of ministers.[5]

9.  The foregoing discussion relates to the House of Commons in that the Government rests on the confidence of the House. The number of ministers drawn from the House of Lords is smaller than the number in the Commons (and has been since the 19th century) and expressed as a proportion of the membership, ministers constitute less than 3%.


10.  Ministers fulfil a range of functions.[6] Senior ministers fulfil those adumbrated in paragraph 1 and junior ministers carry out those allocated by the minister heading the department.[7] However, in fulfilling the functions, there are two problems.

11.  First, there is a premium on parliamentary skills. Members who are good at the Dispatch Box and in committee are more likely to be promoted than those who may have strong managerial skills but who are poor parliamentary performers. Some ministers survive because of their performances in the House even though they may not be good a taking decisions and managing their departments.

12.  Second, in the running of government departments, ministers are generally amateurs. They may have or develop parliamentary and managerial skills, but historically they have lacked any training in the running of a department. Senior ministers have usually been appointed to office with little guidance from the Prime Minister as to what is expected of them and have been left to determine for themselves how they should manage their departments, including their junior ministers.[8] By the time they feel they have a good grasp of the issues and how to run the department, they get appointed to another post or are removed from government. New minister come in and, in essence, are left to re-invent the wheel, relying on their experience and observations as junior ministers, their outside experience, their intuition, or guidance from officials.

13.  Some training is now made available to ministers, but the utilisation of such training has been limited. In October, I asked how many ministers had received training offered by the National School of Government. The answer was that, since the general election:

"...the number of Ministers who have attended induction events organised by the national school, or who have commissioned expert briefings or other forms of leadership development, are as follows: induction workshops: 31 Ministers; induction briefings to individual Ministers or to specific teams of Ministers: 32 Ministers; expert parliamentary briefings: nine Ministers; expert finance and governance briefings: three Ministers; and individual work on leadership development: nine Ministers."[9]

14.  The provision of some training is welcome but it remains somewhat sporadic rather than a comprehensive and sustained feature of government. There remains an emphasis on parliamentary skills and on the amateur minister. Historically, this has created an amateur government, in that ministers are not trained in running a department and they deal with senior officials who are generalists rather than specialists.

15.  The relationship of this point to numbers is that government has tended to be inefficient, relying on quantity rather than quality in the provision of ministers. Senior ministers are not trained in managing a department and do not necessarily know how to get the best out of their junior ministers. They may well be able to do more with less.


16.  Over time, the size of the ministry has grown. Though it can be argued that the increase can be attributable to the increase in the range of government responsibilities, there has been no study that bears out this claim, and it is notable that when some responsibilities of government have been reduced or transferred elsewhere (as with devolution) the decrease (if any) in the number of ministers has not been commensurate with the scale of the transfer.

17.  The rise in the number of ministers may to a larger degree be the response to the Prime Minister's desire to extend the scope of patronage. As Jonathan Powell, the former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, has written in The New Machiavelli:

"If prime ministers had their way, they would appoint all the MPs on their benches to ministerial office. The payroll vote is an essential parliamentary tool, and the bigger it is the better."[10]

18.  The patronage explanation as opposed to the responsibilities of government explanation has found support in the evidence of former ministers and officials. I chaired the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000.[11] Various witnesses made clear that in their view there were too many ministers. This has been reinforced by the evidence given to this Committee in its earlier report.[12] Those believing there are too many ministers include former Prime Minister Sir John Major and former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd of Westwell. As former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull said in evidence to the Committee, some functions could be carried out by officials.[13] There is also the argument that some tasks do not need to be carried out, including—as Chris Mullin has observed—of speaking at conferences and other gatherings where ministerial attendance fulfils no significant benefit for government.

19.  The impression may be given that the needs of government require the current number of ministers, with ministers appearing fully occupied. However, as a former minister, Frank Field, observed in evidence to the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, the amount of work increases to occupy the time made available by ministers.[14] Lord Hurd contended that the number of ministers could be reduced without undermining the essential tasks of government. He argued that:

"a decision by an incoming prime minister to abolish twenty ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload. The whips and those who enjoy exercising or receiving patronage would be dismayed, but the benefits would be great."[15]

20.  We agreed with Lord Hurd and the other witnesses. We concluded:

"The case for reducing the number of ministers is compelling on its merits. It also has a number of beneficial consequences. Limiting the number of ministers increases the number of MPs who are not committed to government by the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. Narrowing the route to ministerial office may serve to make attractive the alternative careers in the House of Commons. We believe that these benefits should not be negated by extending patronage through other routes."[16]

21.  We recommended that the number of ministers in Cabinet should be capped at 20 and the number of other ministers capped at 50. We also took the view that there should only be one PPS per department and answerable to the Cabinet minister.


22.  There is a case for fewer but better trained ministers. The present system is inefficient and gives the Government an unnecessary advantage within the House of Commons in the form of the payroll vote.

23.  The number of paid ministers should be reduced. This can be achieved through amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. A cap on the overall number of ministers can also be achieved through amending the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975. If the size of the House of Commons is reduced to 600, this further reinforces the need for a reduction.

24.  The Herbert Committee recommended that the number of ministers in the House of Commons should be no more than 60. This Committee recommended that the total payroll vote (ministers + PPSs + MPs holding posts such as special envoys) should be limited to 15 % of the House—in effect, reverting to the percentage as existed in 1950.

25.  I would separate consideration of the formal payroll vote—those in receipt of a ministerial salary—from those who are informal members. There is an important constitutional distinction. Ministers are members of Her Majesty's Government and Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not.[17] However, the Government have attempted to have it both ways in the treatment of PPSs, classing them as in effect falling within the ranks of government when it suits their purposes and not as falling within its ranks when it equally suits their purpose. This inconsistency—what some may see as a cynical misuse of the position of PPSs—is enshrined in the Ministerial Code.

26.  On the one hand, the Code now draws PPSs within the ranks of government when it comes to voting in the House: "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".[18] (This moves the PPS from a position where voting against the Government did not necessarily result in being dismissed.)[19] On the other hand, PPSs are deemed to be private Members for the purpose of serving on Select Committees.[20]

27.  This treatment is wholly inappropriate. The Ministerial Code should be precisely that—a Ministerial Code. PPSs are private Members and insofar as they have a vicarious responsibility in relation to government it relates solely to the departments in which they assist their ministers. They should be expected not to speak or vote against the Government in respect of the department in which they serve as PPSs, but otherwise should have discretion to vote against the Government.

28.  I would therefore recommend reducing the number of paid ministerial posts, capping it at 70;[21] reducing the number of PPSs, with only one being appointed per department; and amending the ministerial code so that PPSs are not treated on a par with ministers. The first of these requires an amendment to section 2(1) of the House of Commons Disqualification Act. The remaining two are dependent on persuading the Prime Minister to take the action recommended, though it is within the gift of the House to resolve that no PPS may be appointed to serve on a select committee.

29.  Reducing the number of ministers would not undermine the efficiency of government—rather the reverse—if accompanied by comprehensive provision of training for ministers and with whips taking on some of the responsibilities for answering for departments in the House. Whips in the House of Lords combine the normal tasks of whipping with acting as spokespersons for departments. It is not unknown for a Whip to be responsible for taking a major Bill through the House. At the moment, for example, the Public Bodies Bill—a highly contentious measure—is being taken through the Lords by a whip, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.

30.  Given that the increase in the number of ministers in the Commons has extended to the whips, there is scope for such a change in roles. It would also have the benefit for government of extending the capacity to test whether whips are suitable for promotion within government. The Whips' Office has tended to be used, especially by Conservative governments, as a training ground for up-and-coming MPs who are seen as ministerial material. It is a somewhat limited training ground in that the occupants of the office remain silent in the House. The virtues of a Trappist monk are not necessarily those required to be an effective departmental minister.

31.  If necessary, some of the tasks —those not amenable to deletion—could be taken on by additional ministers in the House of Lords. The number of ministers in the Lords is not excessive, either in absolute terms or relative to the size of the House. As already noted, the number of ministers constitutes less than 3 per cent of the membership. There is no tradition and little scope for appointing PPSs in the Lords. The position in the House of Lords is presently the reverse of that of the House of Commons: the membership of the House is increasing while the number of ministers has decreased slightly.

32.  A redistribution of essential tasks, and a jettisoning of non-essential tasks, in the manner recommended obviates the need for ministers to be appointed outside the House. Appointing ministers who do not serve in either House is unnecessary and undesirable. By being drawn from and remaining within Parliament ensures that ministers are aware of the role of Parliament, and of members, and proximity is important also not only for being answerable in formal terms but also in being accessible to members less formally (for example, being button-holed during divisions). The existence of ministers in the Lords maintains the appreciation of Parliament without the need to fulfil constituency responsibilities.

33.  In short, there needs to be a more efficient ministry, delivered through fewer ministers and PPSs, but with ministers trained in the tasks expected of them (especially in relation to management and policy making) and making greater use of whips and, if necessary, ministers in the Lords. A leaner, more accountable Government is good for the health of the political system. The most difficult task may be persuading government of that fact.

November 2010

1   Instead, ministers upon appointment had to fight by-elections. This provision was finally repealed in 1926. Back

2   Philip Norton, "Collective Ministerial Responsibility", Social Studies Review, Vol. 5(1), 1989, pp. 33-36. Back

3   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers? Ninth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 457. Back

4   Select Committee on Offices or Places of Profit under the Crown, Report from the Select Committee on Offices or Places of Profit under the Crown, Session 1940-41, HC 120. Back

5   See House of Commons Library, Limitations on the number of Ministers and the size of the Payroll vote, Standard Note SN/PC/03378, pp. 6-7. Back

6   See Rodney Brazier, Ministers of the Crown (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); also Richard Rose, Ministers and Ministries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), and Diana Woodhouse, Ministers and Parliament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). Back

7   On junior ministers, see Kevin Theakston, Junior Ministers in British Government (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). Back

8   Philip Norton, "Barons in a Shrinking Kingdom: Senior Ministers in British Government", in R A W Rhodes (ed), Transforming British Government, Vol. 2 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), p. 106. Back

9   HL Deb. 27 October 2010, col. 291W. Back

10   Jonathan Powell, The New Machiavelli (London: The Bodley Head, 2010),p. 142.g Back

11   The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament (London: The Conservative Party, 2000). Back

12   Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers? Ninth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 457. Back

13   Too Many Ministers? Paragraph 13. Back

14   Strengthening Parliament, p. 48. See also the evidence of Jonathan Baume, Too Many Ministers? Paragraph 17. Back

15   Strengthening Parliament, p. 48. Back

16   Strengthening Parliament, pp. 48-9. Back

17   See Philip Norton, "The Constitutional Position of Parliamentary Private Secretaries", Public Law, Summer 1989, pp. 232-6. More generally, see House of Commons Library, Parliamentary Private Secretaries, Standard Note SN/PC/04942, 18 January 2008. Back

18   Cabinet Office, Ministerial Code, May 2010, paragraph 3.9.  Back

19   Norton, "The Constitutional Position of Parliamentary Private Secretaries", pp. 234-5. There may still be scope for some latitude, though, in that the wording of the current Code is ambiguous in relation to abstentions.  Back

20   Ministerial Code, paragraph 3.10. Back

21   This figure derives from the existing material, as indicated, and could be adapted following a thorough review of each ministerial post and the needs of Departments. Back

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