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Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment)

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 so as to reduce from 83 to 60 the total number of Ministerial salaries payable by virtue of paragraph 2(c) of Part V of Schedule 1.

I appreciate that some Members may think that the title of the Bill is not as clear as it might be, so let me briefly explain its intention. It would reduce the number of Members serving at Cabinet level, Minister of State level and Parliamentary Under-Secretary level from 83, the current limit, to 60. It would not reduce the number of Whips or Parliamentary Private Secretaries, although if separate legislation were brought forward to that effect I would certainly support it.

My central proposition is that there are too many Government Ministers. It may help the House if I provide some background. In 1900, at the start of the last century, when Britain ran large parts of the world, the total number of paid ministerial posts was 60. By the middle of the century, in 1950, when Britain was starting to extract itself from some, if not all, of those obligations, but large parts of the domestic economy had been brought within public ownership, the number of paid Government posts had risen from 60 to 81. By 1999, when Britain was neither running large parts of the world nor had large parts of the domestic economy within the public sector, the number of Ministers had, funnily enough, risen still further to 106.

The situation with the total payroll vote is even worse. At the time of the April 1992 general election—you may be surprised to learn, Mr. Speaker, that that was the first time I was eligible to vote—the total number of people on the payroll was 125. By December 2004, shortly before I was elected to this House, it had risen to 151, largely because during that period the number of PPSs had risen from 41 to 62—a 50 per cent. increase. It is particularly striking and extraordinary that, despite devolution to Scotland and, to a more limited extent, Wales, there still has not been a reduction in the total number of Ministers.

As an aside, I am in favour of reducing the overall number of Members of Parliament. I am aware that there are exceptional cases involving particularly large or remote communities such as Orkney and Shetland or the Isle of Wight. Nevertheless, if, at the last general election, every constituency had had the same number of voters as Taunton, my constituency, the House would have 518 MPs instead of 646—128 fewer, or a reduction of approximately 20 per cent. Happily, other Members have made the case for reducing the number of MPs, including the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in his publication, “Pruning the Politicians—the case for a smaller House of Commons”, which was published in December 2004 and which I recommend to the House.

However, my Bill is concerned with reducing the number of Ministers. I want to give three reasons for doing so, in ascending order of importance. The first is to save money. It is difficult to predict the exact cost of reducing the number of Ministers, but each Cabinet Minister costs £74,902 extra in salary alone and, of course, there are many associated costs of supporting a Minister in office.

The second reason is to make Parliament more effective, something that has been raised in this House on a number of occasions. In 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said that

“far too many people are on the payroll in the House…There are too many parliamentary private secretaries and too many people are beholden to the Executive interests of the day. Not enough Members feel free to express independent interests from a Back-Bench point of view.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 1106.]

That view is not advanced only by members of my party. In its report “Strengthening Parliament”, the Norton commission—established by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he was Conservative leader— recommended a reduction in the size of the Government and had three specific proposals: that the size of the Cabinet be capped at 20; that the number of junior Ministers be capped at 50; and that there should be only one PPS per Department, responsible to the Cabinet Minister. That is broadly in line with what I am proposing this afternoon.

Another Conservative leader, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), has also proposed a smaller Government Bill, which in addition to reducing the number of MPs would cut the number of Ministers by 20 per cent; again, approximately what I am proposing this afternoon.

The distinguished political commentator Peter Riddell, in his book “Parliament under Blair”, called for

“the magnet of attraction of front bench needs to be reduced”

and went on to argue that this could be done in two ways:

“first by reducing the number of ministers in the Commons; and, secondly, by increasing the attractions of service on select committees.”

A distinguished body of opinion supports my assertion this afternoon that Parliament would be more effective if there were fewer Ministers.

My final and most important point is that I think that reducing the number of Ministers would make the Government more efficient. I will look at a number of Departments and see if I can convince the House. At the moment, the Home Office—a Home Office Minister is here, fortuitously, for the debate—has seven Ministers, a large number. If ministerial numbers were the determining factor for judging the success of the Home Office, it would be widely admired for its competence and efficiency; sadly that is not the case. Were the number of Ministers to increase, I do not believe that the Home Office would become any more effective or efficient. The problem with the Home Office is the decision-making mechanisms, the inadequate structures and the lines of accountability. If anything, more Ministers would make the situation even worse.

The second Department to which I shall draw attention is the Department of Trade and Industry. The House may recall that at the last general election my party argued for the abolition of the DTI . I do not believe that there is a need for an interventionist Department that is directed at political interference in commercial matters and at propping up failing industries against market and consumer demand. The DTI is a throwback to the days of large-scale intervention in the economy. It is no longer appropriate to a modern, liberal market economy based on competition and consumer choice.

If we go back to the 1970s, when steel, coal, water and the national airline were in public ownership, we can see that there was a case for a Department of Trade and Industry. The case is far less compelling now. I would argue that the Department should be abolished and some of its functions transferred. However, we still have six DTI Ministers.

In conclusion, I refer to two other Departments. The first is the Cabinet Office. It is hard to know where the Deputy Prime Minister resides in the current Government structure, but there are three Cabinet Ministers in the Cabinet Office: the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—a new post created as a consolation prize for the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong)—[Interruption.] The specific title of the Chancellor of the Duchy’s responsibilities is new. The third is the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). It escapes me why the chairman of the Labour party’s salary ought to be paid out of public finances. However, all three of them are entitled to attend Cabinet meetings.

Traditionally, the interests of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been represented in Cabinet by the Foreign Secretary. Now, three of the four Ministers in that Department are entitled to attend the Cabinet—the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Europe, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), and the Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).

In conclusion, my point may be best illustrated by drawing the House’s attention to the fact that, for 183 days, nobody occupied the position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I have to tell you, Mr. Speaker, that not a single constituent of mine complained about the Government discharging their duties less effectively during that 183-day period. That illustrates more than anything the need for fewer Ministers.

This is the nub—what is needed is better, more accountable, less remote and value-for-money government. What is not needed is a hugely inflated Executive that acts as a job-creation scheme, costs public money, diminishes the role of Parliament and militates against effective government. I urge the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Browne.

Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment)

Mr. Jeremy Browne accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975 so as to reduce from 83 to 60 the total number of Ministerial salaries payable by virtue of paragraph 2(c) of Part V of Schedule 1: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 203].