Devolving power should mean fewer Ministers - MPs urge Government

10 March 2011

The Government appoints too many ministers and should reduce their number by the middle of the Parliament, as it devolves real power and responsibility to local communities, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) argues in a report out today

Following the decision to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 the Public Administration Select Committee examined the role and responsibilities of ministers to see if there was scope for reductions there too.

141 MPs are currently on the ‘payroll vote’ as ministers or their Parliamentary aides and are obliged to vote with the Government or resign their position. If this number remains static at the same time as MPs are cut, it will effectively increase the payroll vote – furthering strengthening the Executive at the expense of Parliament.

PASC urges three steps on the Government to reduce this power of patronage:

  • The current legal cap on the number of paid ministers should set the absolute limit
  • The legal limit on the number of ministers in the Commons should be cut by eight, in line with the reduction in the number of MPs just enacted
  • The number of PPSs should be limited to one per department - a reduction of 26

Bernard Jenkin, Chair of PASC said:

"The number of MPs on the payroll in the House of Commons today is as high as ever, undermining the independence of Parliament.

Things will get worse if the so-called 'payroll vote' is not reduced in line with cuts in the size of the Commons.

The Government should ensure that its constitutional reforms do not advantage the Executive over the legislature and reflect the Government’s commitment to "strengthening Parliament".  Our proposal to lower the legal limit on the number of ministers allowed in the Commons in line with the cut in MPs represents a very modest reduction and is easily achievable". 

In addition to addressing concerns over patronage, its ambition to decentralise power away from Whitehall, should - the MPs believe - give the Government ample scope by the middle of the Parliament to reduce the number of ministers. The Report recommends a review of ministerial numbers to reflect the smaller government which is central to the Prime Minister’s vision of a Big Society.

The Report found that minister'’ time is not always well spent and identifies a number of ways in which the Government could therefore refocus ministers' work and make them more effective. The Committee believes it should ultimately be possible to cut the number of ministers to a total of 80, shared between the Commons and the Lords, as recommended by PASC in the previous Parliament.

Bernard Jenkin MP added:

"During the Election the Prime Minister promised to ‘cut the cost of politics’. The public sector is being asked to do more with less and Government ministers should not be exempt from having to revaluate how they work and what they do.

Ministers are kept extremely busy in their jobs, but we found they are not always using their time effectively.

They should be focusing on key strategic decisions, and delegating more effectively to others.

The Government should examine whether it needs so many junior ministers – especially in light of its Localism Bill pushing power and responsibility away from central government to local communities and with new powers being devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments." 

Background Information

The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 sets the legal limit on the number of paid ministers in government at 109.

The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 sets the legal limit on the number of ministers in the House of Commons (paid or unpaid) at 95.

The Ministerial Code provides for every Cabinet Minister and Minister of State to have a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). There are currently 46 PPSs.

A reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600, required by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, without a consequential reduction in the number of ministers in the House of Commons would lead to an increase in the payroll vote from 22% of all MPs at present to 23.5% in a new Parliament.

The Committee’s proposals are to:

  • Reduce the number of ministers in the Commons by 8 after the next election. This would maintain the current ratio of payroll vote to MPs at 22%
  • Limit the number of PPSs to 1 per Secretary of State. This would see a cut in payroll numbers of 26 and a reduction in the ratio now to 18% rising to 19% after the next election
  • If the numbers of both PPSs and ministers are reduced as proposed this would reduce the payroll by 34 and result in a reduction in the ratio to 18% after the next election

Further Information

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