Too many ministers, says Public Administration Committee

16 March 2010

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) today publishes a report calling for substantial reductions in the number of government ministers and in the wider payroll vote in the House of Commons

The report notes that there are currently 119 ministers in the United Kingdom Government, in addition to those in the devolved institutions.

The Committee is sceptical about claims that this reflects the growing complexity of government, noting that in the years around 1950 the government created the welfare state, undertook major nationalisations and administered the British Empire with only 81 ministers. Indeed, the Indian national government runs a country of over a billion people with only 78 ministers.

Drawing on evidence from a wide range of people who have held high-level positions in central government PASC concludes that some junior ministerial posts are unnecessary. Moreover, the Committee concludes that an excessive number of posts is harmful to good government, costly and inefficient—even where ministers are unpaid.

The Committee also expresses concern about the size of the ‘payroll vote’ in the House of Commons, which now comprises nearly 40 per cent of the governing Parliamentary Party.

The Committee’s key recommendations are:

  • a reduction in the number of ministers of around one third
  • steps to close the loop-hole whereby unpaid ministers do not count against some statutory limits on the numbers of ministers
  • halving the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries by restricting them to one for each Department or Cabinet Ministers and abolishing Parliamentary Assistants to Regional Ministers
  • a limit on the total size of the payroll vote in the House of Commons of 15 per cent of its total membership

The Chair of the Committee, Dr Tony Wright MP, said:

"The number of ministers has been growing ever since the 1950s, driven in part by the desire of Prime Ministers to hand out patronage positions and secure votes in the House of Commons. Some junior ministers do important and difficult jobs.

"However, there are too many and it is absurd that civil servants should be having to make work for those who are underemployed. The size of the payroll vote is excessive and reduces effective scrutiny of government decisions.

"It cannot be the case that the United Kingdom needs more ministers at a national level than India, a country twenty times its size, or right that the number of ministers should have continued to increase despite the end of Empire, large-scale privatisation and devolution."

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