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Parliament (Amendment)

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision to limit the size of the legislature by ensuring that the number of peers entitled to vote in the House of Lords does not exceed the number of parliamentary constituencies; to introduce a statutory limit on the number of Ministers, Whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries in each House of Parliament; and to set a maximum proportion of Ministers, Whips and Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the total membership of each House of Parliament.

The Bill follows on from our debate in the House yesterday evening on the new clause that was so ably proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) during our deliberations on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I do not know whether you were able to follow it, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it was a vintage debate, in which my hon. Friend was supported by the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and many others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made the case for constraining the size of the Executive as a proportion of the membership of the House. For example, he said that if the number of MPs was reduced to 600, the maximum number of Ministers should be reduced from the present maximum of 95 to 87. He also said that that was hardly the most radical proposal. He and I both expected a lot more support from our own side in the Lobby, and I am sure that there would have been, had there been a free vote, or indeed anything other than a strong three-line Whip. I know that one of my hon. Friends who supported the new clause was seen being dragged away to the Whips Office to be dealt with. That is part of the background to this Bill.

In what is generally agreed to have been one of the lamest responses from the Front Bench in years, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), was reduced to expressing sympathy to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, while arguing a case for prematurity. Those of us who have been Members of this House for some time know that when all other arguments have failed, the argument of prematurity is the last desperate throw.

In yesterday’s debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park quoted what the Prime Minister had said in February this year when he was the Leader of the Opposition:

“We’d want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn’t fallen into disrepute.”

My hon. Friend argued that the Government should do what the present Prime Minister promised to do in advance of the general election. He also quoted the Deputy Prime Minister and other leading figures in the Government.

Why, then, is it premature to reduce the power of the Executive? The only reason it is premature is that the Executive say that it is premature. I think that reducing the power of the Executive is long overdue and that the arguments that applied before the general election apply even more strongly now. When presented with their own self-proclaimed path of virtue, however, the coalition Government have not merely said “Not yet”, but made things worse by increasing the size of the Executive.

When I was first elected in 1983, 81 Members of Parliament were Ministers, of whom 13 were Whips. Today, 95 MPs are Ministers, of whom 17 are Whips. Even under the last Labour Government, only 90 MPs were Ministers, of whom 15 were Whips. What has happened in this Parliament is that the new Government have increased the number of Ministers and the number of Whips.

As I understand it, I am not able to give way during a ten-minute rule Bill. I am supposed to have 10 minutes, but I keep looking at the clock wondering how many minutes have expired—[Interruption.] Five minutes—

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that a number of Members will not be able to reach that moment soon enough. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Let us be clear: Ministers come with a high price tag. Lord Turnbull told the Public Administration Select Committee earlier this year that the average cost of a Minister was £500,000 a year. That is not his salary, but the costs of the private secretary, the office and all the rest that goes with it. Despite being committed to making savage cuts in public expenditure, however, the Government are in denial of the increased costs that the Government have incurred by increasing the number of Ministers.

On 18 October, I asked the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he would

“estimate the annual cost to the public purse of the change in the number of Ministers and Whips drawn from the House of Commons since the dissolution of the previous Parliament.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 516W.]

I expected an answer along the lines of, “We reckon there are five extra Ministers, as a result of which, with each costing about £500,000, it works out at about £2.5 million”. In fact—this is on the record—my right hon. Friend did not answer the question at all. He avoided it completely and talked about how Ministers had taken a pay cut. That was not the question I put to him. I use that as evidence that even at the centre of this Government—in the Cabinet Office itself—they do not want to face up to the consequences of their own actions.

Another part of my Bill deals with the number of peers in the House of Lords: currently, there are 777. Since the general election, 56 new appointments have been made, and another 50 are proposed to be recruited imminently, with further additions proposed to comply with the coalition’s commitment to have the same proportion of Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords as the proportion who voted for those parties in the general election. According to the maths that I have done on the back of an envelope, to get a proportion of 59% of the 777, an extra 186 peers would have to be appointed, bringing the total to 963. If there was no reduction in the number of Labour Members, to produce 59% of the higher figure of 963 we would have to produce the best part of another 100 peers. In the short term, therefore, it seems to be coalition Government policy to increase the number of Members of the House of Lords by no fewer than 250, which is absolute lunacy. Meanwhile, contrary to all the representations made by various Committees of the House, the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is 32 and rising. Over the years, many people have suggested that there should be no more than one PPS per Department, but the Government have ignored all that.

The Bill is a framework Bill. Similar Bills have been put before the House previously, and I go forward confident in the knowledge that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) and Mr Speaker himself have argued a similar case to that which I advance today. I have 12 supporters for the Bill, and following last night’s debate I could have accommodated more, but the rules of the House prevent me from having more than 12. I am grateful to all my hon. Friends who have offered to support my Bill but who cannot be included in the 12 —the Bill will have many more supporters in due course.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Christopher Chope, Mr Graham Brady, Mr Richard Shepherd, Mrs Eleanor Laing, Mr Mark Field, Mr Andrew Turner, Mr Robert Syms, Martin Vickers, Mr Philip Hollobone, Graham Stringer, Tristram Hunt and Mr Charles Walker present the Bill.

Mr Christopher Chope accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March and to be printed (Bill 97).