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:
If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount.
Reducing the number of ministers is something I’ve supported in the past. It’s partly a matter of political power – we get better government and better public services when Parliament can hold the government to account rather than be in thrall to it. Have too high a proportion of MPs as ministers and you have too great a payroll vote propping up whatever the government proposes. That’s the prime reason why a cap was set on the number of ministers in the Commons and it is still a good reason.
It isn’t the only reason though. Not just in government, or even just in the public sector, does work expand to suit the number of people available. More ministers means more people who have an instinctive urge to do something. When did a politician make a name for themselves by doing nothing? At a time when government is committed decentralising power and we have far too many parts of the public sector that are saddled with too much micromanagement from above, too many ministerial hands wanting to make work is just what we don’t need.
As Conservative MP Charles Walker said in his speech yesterday,
Rafts of leading academics and political commentators have recognised for a long time that there are far too many Ministers in this place. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, has argued that we could easily do as well with a reduction of 25 to 30%. Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, told the Select Committee on Public Administration earlier this year that the number of Ministers could be cut by 50%. Professor Anthony King has argued the same, as has Lord Norton of Louth. Of course, those academics and political commentators are in good company. Our own Deputy Prime Minister argued in January that the number of Ministers should be reduced.
Last year I collated some figures which show the long-term trend in ministerial numbers:
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.
Despite the defeat of yesterday’s proposals, the government has been making positive noises about reducing ministerial numbers. At one of the fringe meetings at Liverpool conference where I was on the panel the final question was about how we would be able to judge in a few years time whether or not proposals for decentralising and encouraging civic society had succeeded. My answer was to look at the number of ministers. David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, agreed numbers should be cut as did the one person on the panel with experience of serving in Cabinet, Shirley Williams.
David Heath opposed the proposal yesterday for a variety of reasons of detail and process, by in so doing said,
I repeat that I do not think that there is a simple arithmetical relationship between the number of Ministers in the Government and the number of Members in this House, other than the view, which is my view and that of right hon. and hon. Friends, that we need to reduce the scope of Government patronage. That is something in which we are already engaged … It is likely that at some stage in the future we will reduce the number of Ministers.
So despite the defeat of last night’s proposal, there are good reasons to carry on pushing at what is a partially open door on this issue.