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) manage their departments (the doctrine
of individual ministerial responsibility is of most importance
in this context, establishing a minister's line control of the
- (2) determine the policies of the department;
- (3) answer to Parliament for their actions;
- (4) persuade Parliament to give assent to
- (5) be the public face of their departments;
- (6) join together in Cabinet to agree the
principal policies of the Government and the programme to be laid
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of Queen Anne but was repealed before the end of her reign.
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.
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.
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,
and the occasional Private Member's Bill designed to reduce the
number of ministers.
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.
Senior ministers fulfil those adumbrated in paragraph 1 and junior
ministers carry out those allocated by the minister heading the
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
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.
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
"...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."
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."
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.
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.
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
There is also the argument that some tasks do not need to be carried
out, includingas Chris Mullin has observedof 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
Lord Hurd contended that the number of ministers could be reduced
without undermining the essential tasks of government. He argued
"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."
20. We agreed with Lord Hurd and the other witnesses.
"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."
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 Housein effect, reverting
to the percentage as existed in 1950.
25. I would separate consideration of the formal
payroll votethose in receipt of a ministerial salaryfrom
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.
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 inconsistencywhat some may see as a cynical misuse
of the position of PPSsis enshrined in the Ministerial
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".
(This moves the PPS from a position where voting against the Government
did not necessarily result in being dismissed.)
On the other hand, PPSs are deemed to be private Members for the
purpose of serving on Select Committees.
27. This treatment is wholly inappropriate. The
Ministerial Code should be precisely thata 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;
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 governmentrather the reverseif
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 Billa highly contentious measureis
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 deletioncould 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
1 Instead, ministers upon appointment had to fight
by-elections. This provision was finally repealed in 1926. Back
Philip Norton, "Collective Ministerial Responsibility",
Social Studies Review, Vol. 5(1), 1989, pp. 33-36. Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers?
Ninth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 457. Back
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
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
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
On junior ministers, see Kevin Theakston, Junior Ministers
in British Government (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). Back
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
HL Deb. 27 October 2010, col. 291W. Back
Jonathan Powell, The New Machiavelli (London: The Bodley
Head, 2010),p. 142.g Back
The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, Strengthening Parliament
(London: The Conservative Party, 2000). Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Too Many Ministers?
Ninth Report of Session 2009-10, HC 457. Back
Too Many Ministers? Paragraph 13. Back
Strengthening Parliament, p. 48. See also the evidence
of Jonathan Baume, Too Many Ministers? Paragraph 17. Back
Strengthening Parliament, p. 48. Back
Strengthening Parliament, pp. 48-9. Back
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
Cabinet Office, Ministerial Code, May 2010, paragraph 3.9.
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
Ministerial Code, paragraph 3.10. Back
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