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Publication Administration Committee Report (Smaller Government)

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

Before I call Mr Bernard Jenkin to move the motion on his Committee’s report, I should remind the House that the Backbench Business Committee has recommended that this item take no longer than 15 minutes. We will then move on to the next debate, on UN Women.

I beg to move,

That this House notes the publication of the Seventh Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration on Smaller Government: What do Ministers do?, HC530.

This procedure, involving a motion, is in place of what we hope one day will be an arrangement to make a statement. I will make some remarks and then invite right hon. and hon. Friends to intervene.

Our Committee decided to inquire into the role of Ministers following the Government’s decision to reduce the number of right hon. and hon. Members by 50 without a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. The Prime Minister made it clear before the election that the public wanted us to

“cut the cost of politics. Everyone is having to do more for less”.

He therefore asked if it was not time that

“politicians and ministers did a bit more for a bit less”.

He was absolutely clear that he intended that statement to apply to Ministers as well as to MPs.

The UK is notable among similar western nations. We have more Ministers than France, Italy, Spain and Germany.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we could make do with fewer Ministers in the UK if we did not receive as many edicts and directives from the European Union?

I am most interested that my hon. Friend should ask that question, because my Committee is considering the possibility of an inquiry into the impact on Departments of our relationship with the EU and looking for an academic who might support us in that work and help us to construct a cartography of the relationship between EU institutions and Whitehall Departments.

The total number of Ministers has grown steadily since 1900. Our report examines whether revising the role of Ministers could provide a way of reducing their numbers. We took evidence from current and former Ministers, as well as from academics and senior civil servants, and we were left in no doubt that Ministers have a very heavy work load. Lord Smith of Finsbury, a former Culture Secretary, said that the amount of paperwork he had to contend with was “plainly ludicrous” and

“no way to run a life let alone a country”.

It is less clear whether all that Ministers do has to be done by a Minister of the Crown. Chris Mullin, in his autobiography, noted his role as “a glorified correspondence clerk” and lamented:

“So much ministerial activity is entirely contrived and pointless.”

My hon. Friend is making a wonderful statement, and I agree entirely with his comments. Is this not just “Yes Minister” reinventing itself, like in that wonderful episode, where it is explained: “When you get a new Minister, what you do is fill his diary and give him plenty of paperwork so he never makes a decision on anything”?

We asked Sir David Normington, who was still permanent secretary at the Home Office when he gave evidence, whether he had ever had to create work to keep a Minister busy, and he diplomatically answered, “Not in recent times”.

One suggestion to my hon. Friend’s Committee was that Ministers should do less media work, and that the role should be taken over by paid civil servants. Does he agree that such a suggestion should be roundly dismissed? If Ministers are democratically accountable, which they are, they should also be seen to be democratically accountable.

There is no question but that Ministers should be accountable for decisions that they take. However, can my right hon. Friend put his hand on his heart and say that on no occasion has he seen a Minister promoting a political or personal agenda on a television screen, as opposed to something that is absolutely in the public interest for a Minister to do? In this world of 24/7 media, the amount of media that a Minister could do is almost limitless, and we have to keep a check on the priorities that take up his time.

Lord Rooker thought that many Ministers were under the misapprehension that they were there to manage their Departments. Lord Norton told us that Ministers should

“focus on what is strategically important, rather that just getting through the paperwork”.

So, to echo the title of our report, what should Ministers do? The consensus is that they should set policy priorities, provide leadership to their Departments, represent their Departments across Government and outside, and answer to Parliament. They should focus on their core job and less on what one might call “announceables”. Lord Rooker pointed out how they had to operate in this way in the old Northern Ireland Office before devolution, where there were only four Ministers covering a broad range of portfolios. He added that officials were forced to

“fillet out the key strategic decisions that as a minister you really had to do. So you didn’t get all the minutiae that you get in Westminster Red Boxes.”

This strongly suggests that having fewer Ministers would itself bring about new ways of working. It is also obvious that if Ministers were reshuffled less often and specialists were more encouraged, they would be more effective as Ministers.

I am pleased to have signed this report as a member of the hon. Gentleman’s Committee. Does he agree that reducing the number of Ministers and reducing the payroll vote would also improve the operation of our democracy by making Back-Bench Members concentrate more on holding the Government to account and less on lusting after office?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to remember that right hon. and hon. Members are paid, first and foremost, to be Members of Parliament. I will come to the whole role of the payroll vote in a moment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, having served on his Committee on this report. Does he agree that the big society is all about transferring state power to people power—power to the people—and that we can therefore reduce the number of Ministers because the state will be smaller?

I certainly think that that is an opportunity, and I will come to it later in my remarks.

We must acknowledge that Ministers are busier than ever in Parliament, with more Select Committees, Westminster Hall and other new procedures that bring them before us. However, we believe that Parliament must stop holding Ministers accountable for matters which no longer fall within the remit of Whitehall Departments or, indeed, have never fallen within their remit. The habit of grilling Ministers on every local detail militates against devolution, decentralisation and localism. On the big society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentioned, we ask what the post-bureaucratic age will mean for Whitehall Departments and ministerial responsibilities. Presumably, Ministers will become less directly responsible and have fewer decisions to make about things that happen in this country.

By how much could the number of Ministers be cut? Numbers are currently limited by two statutes: the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which limits to 95 the number of Ministers who can sit and vote in the House of Commons; and the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, which constrains to 109 the number of ministerial salaries that can be paid.

It is a privilege to be a member of my hon. Friend’s Committee. Does he agree that there is a case to consider for combining the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland Offices into a Department of the nations?

One of our recommendations is that that should be given serious consideration. I have to say that it is a relatively minor part of the report, and I would not want those particular proposals to overshadow the important points that we make elsewhere.

It was irresistible to conclude in this document that there should be a serious look at the position of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, if this recommendation were to be accepted, there would be the possible consequence of having no representative of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland in the Cabinet, so should we not then look at their changed situation?

Obviously any change in this regard would have to be ameliorated by other arrangements—perhaps a more open and direct negotiation between First Ministers and the Whitehall Government and other means of representation of these interests within Government. As well as the ministerial cadre, the Cabinet is attended by 28 people and it, too, is clearly too large.

Currently, a total of 141 MPs are on the payroll vote as Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If this number remains static at the same time as the number of MPs is cut by 8%, the payroll vote as a proportion of MPs will increase from an already staggering 22% to 23.5%.

It seems to me, and I think there is common consensus, that the country is over-governed. Surely reducing the level of over-government means increasing the proportion of representatives in the House of Commons relative to those numbers. I therefore welcome this report, which makes that point absolutely clear.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s endorsement.

The Government say that they want to see Parliament strengthened, but this increase in the percentage of the payroll vote as a proportion of the House of Commons would further strengthen the Executive at the expense of Parliament; that seems to be unanswerable. PASC urges three steps on the Government to reduce this power of patronage. First, the current legal cap on the number of paid Ministers should be the absolute limit on the number of Ministers. The increasing number of unpaid Ministers has been described as an abuse by one of our witnesses, the right hon. Peter Riddell. Secondly, the legal limit on the number of Ministers in the Commons should be cut by eight, at the very least, in line with the reduction in the number of MPs just enacted. This is, in fact, a very modest reduction.

Thirdly, the number of PPSs should be limited to one per Department. When he gave evidence to the PASC in the last Parliament, Sir John Major described the size of the payroll vote as a “constitutional outrage”. His view was that only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs. That suggestion was endorsed by Lord Norton and others, who argued that doing so would make the post more meaningful. This would lead to 26 fewer Members being on the payroll vote.

I commend my hon. Friend for the report and for his recommendation on PPSs. I am conscious that I am sitting in front of a distinguished Member of this House who is a PPS. Nevertheless, the report says that, with a few notable exceptions, departmental PPSs

“perform few functions of real value…the Ministerial Code”


“be amended to limit PPSs to one for each department.”

My constituents would applaud that, as, I think, would many Members of this House.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for reading out that part of the report. The important point is that PPSs are not paid by the Crown to be Ministers, but they are hijacked by the Executive to prevent them from doing the job for which they are paid, which is to be Members of Parliament. We need to be mindful of the fundamental duty of a Member if they are not a Minister of the Crown.

I, too, am proud of this report and of serving on the Committee. Does my hon. Friend think that as part of this process we also need to formalise the role of PPSs, which we all agree has been over-extended and abused, and not only to restrict them to one per Department?

We looked at that suggestion, but it is rather difficult because there is no legal definition of a PPS. However, they are referred to in the ministerial code. I wonder whether something procedural could be done under Standing Orders to formalise the arrangement, or whether they could be given statutory status. However, that is a step further than our report went.

Is not one of the problems that we have at the moment that very good Members of Parliament get elected to Select Committees, and then as soon as they are offered a job as a PPS, they disappear from the Select Committee where they are carrying out scrutiny and become a bag carrier?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, because the large number of PPSs does rob Select Committees of the talent that they need to function effectively. Very often, the most able Members are selected as PPSs and taken away from Select Committees.

To conclude, the academics who appeared before us agreed for the longer term with the suggestion made by Lord Hurd in the previous Parliament that the abolition of

“20 Ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload.”

We therefore repeat the recommendation made in our original report that, over the course of this Parliament, the total number of Ministers should be reduced to 80, shared between the Commons and the Lords. We welcome the fact that the Government’s thinking seems to be moving in that direction. The Deputy Leader of the House said last year that

“it is likely that at some stage in the future we will reduce the number of Ministers.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 129.]

I welcome that. I hope that the report will encourage the Government to move in that direction faster, and to review the number and functions of Ministers in a way that strengthens Parliament and delivers a better quality of government.

Question put and agreed to.