With the reduction in number of MPs back in the news, so too is the question of how many ministers there are. As I wrote in October last year:
I agree with Adrian Sanders and 22 Conservative MPs
Yesterday in Parliament Adrian Sanders and 22 Conservative MPs voted to reduce the maximum number of ministers allowed in the Commons in line with the forthcoming reduction in the number of MPs
Without a cut in the number of MPs on the government payrolls, reducing the number of MPs will increase the government’s power over Parliament when the whole thrust of other reforms is, rightly, that it should be reduced.
In late 1914 when Britain ruled much of the world and was fighting a world war, there were a total of 49 ministers. Gordon Brown’s government currently has 119 ministers – an increase of 143%.
Some of the growth is for reasons most people across most parties would support, such as the creation of the National Health Service resulting in the creation of some new roles. But those areas of ‘consensus growth’ are relatively small, and to an extent are offset by the decline in the number of posts required by having an Empire.
At the Cabinet level, those two trends have largely balanced out, with the Cabinet growing by only two. But lower down the ministerial food chain, there has been a massive explosion in the number of posts – frequently driven by the need for posts to use as patronage in internal party control, and by the status symbol that attaches to the number of ministers a department has.
What’s more, people will experience of government agree that the number of ministers could and should be cut, including both former Cabinet minister Shirley Williams and also Deputy Leader of the House of Commons David Heath, who at a fringe meeting at conference last year said counting the number of ministers was a yardstick by which the government’s commitment to decentralisation should be judged a success or failure.
One year on, the government can’t yet claim this as a success. But Adrian Sanders was right, and David Heath and colleagues should make sure they stick to their commitment in the next three and a half.