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House of Commons: Ministers

Volume 767: debated on Monday 30 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reduce the number of Ministers in the House of Commons proportionately to the intended reduction in the overall number of members in order to avoid any increase in executive influence over the elected House.

My Lords, we have acknowledged the link between the size of the House of Commons and the size of the Executive, both in this House and in the other place, and we will continue to keep the number of Ministers under review as the consequences of the forthcoming boundary reforms are delivered and begin to take effect.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no other first Chamber in a democratic Parliament in the western world which has as high a proportion of people caught up in government as in our House of Commons? Would he also agree that that is part of the cause of tension between the two Houses, and the Commons as a result does not do its work of scrutinising and holding the Government to account as vigorously as a democratic Parliament ought to do and that, as we reduce the number of MPs, it is vital that we reduce the number of Ministers in the Commons as well?

First, I pay tribute to what the noble Lord did on this issue in the last Parliament, in which I seem to remember that this matter was discussed quite considerably. Just to illuminate the issue, as the noble Lord said, a number of comparisons could be made between the other place and other Chambers around the world. Some 14.6% of Members in the other place can be appointed Ministers, which compares with Australia where Ministers account for 23% of their Parliament and New Zealand where, also, 23% of their Parliament comprises Ministers. I, for one, think that the other place actually does a very good job, although I would like to pay tribute to this place as well, as it performs an excellent role in what I consider to be legislative acupuncture, which can be quite painful for those standing in this place but can be very good for the nation as a whole.

Did the Minister manage to read the article in the Telegraph about a proposal to reduce the size of this place by 20% by what the former Leader of the House described as a “hair cut”? How does he reconcile that with the introduction of Peers two by two, day after day and week after week?

It is always good to see the noble Lord on such fighting form. I did read that—I always read the newspapers on a Sunday morning, obviously. It is always interesting to read about what might or might not happen in the weeks ahead. I shall save what might happen for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

My Lords, Parliament was invented to control government. No Minister was allowed into either Chamber until the reign of George I; then they came in by invitation or permission. Since then, they have multiplied, and the body that was invented to control them is now populated by large numbers of them. If we are going back to basic constitutional principles, surely we should increase the weight of parliamentarians and reduce that of the Government.

I am sure that noble Lords and Members in the other place will wish to return to this matter as the boundary review continues its work. Let me remind noble Lords that, if the number of MPs were reduced to 600 but the percentage of Ministers in the other place were to remain the same, the number of Ministers would need to fall by about seven, in my calculation, from 92 to 85. However, as the noble Lord points out, over the years there has been a considerable rise in the number of Ministers. In researching for this Question, I came to the understanding that there were about 60 Ministers when we had an empire. In the intervening period, while we may have lost an empire, Ministers have certainly found a role.

My Lords, is it not a little disingenuous for international comparisons to use just the number of Ministers? Should the Minister not look at the total payroll vote, which includes Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and rework those figures to give a more accurate picture of the power of the Executive over Parliament?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. On my calculations, if the number of MPs was reduced from 650 to 600 but the number of Minister and PPSs in the other place remained static, the percentage of Ministers plus PPSs as a proportion of the other place would be 22.2%. That is equal to what it was in 2001.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, really has quite a nerve in asking this Question, because the most obvious abuse of influence over the House of Commons is the Liberal Democrats’ massive overrepresentation in this House, which they can use to defeat the will of the elected Chamber—or can we assume that some 70 Liberal Democrat Peers are about to resign?

My Lords, the noble Lord, as usual, makes an interesting point. I am sure it is one that he will wish to continue to make in future.

My Lords, is the real issue not that the Government do not like to be challenged, whether in your Lordships’ House, by Back-Benchers in the Commons or by the Opposition? How otherwise can the Minister explain that while the Chancellor apparently employs 10 political advisers at taxpayers’ expense, and the cost of special advisers to Conservative Ministers rose by £2.5 million over the past five years, the Government are cutting the Short money which helps the Opposition hold the Government to account?

Of course I understand the interest that the noble Baroness has in this issue, and she is quite entitled to ask this question. Taxpayer-funded Short money has risen year on year from £6 million in 2010-11 to £9 million in 2015-16. That is a 48% rise. Subject to confirmation by Parliament, the Government propose to reduce Short money allocations by 19%. This will save in the region of £10 million. Under these proposals, state funding to opposition parties will be greater than the special adviser pay bill.

Will my noble friend say whether he has heard whether there is any suggestion to increase the number of hours sat by the House of Commons to make it a full-time affair instead of a part-time one?

As always, my noble friend makes a very interesting point. I am sure that the other place will listen to his words with interest.

Does the Minister accept that there is a growing problem with the way that our constitution is working? Many changes have been made and they have left a number of things very unsatisfactory, and his answers today have indicated some of that dissatisfaction, not least the wider issue of the constitution of the UK. Will the Government please begin a serious look at this problem and maybe have a debate in this House where we can start to look at the more serious changes that need to be made over a period of time?

My Lords, this House is an extremely good place to debate a number of the constitutional changes that we are making. We have done so in the past few weeks over the Scotland Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has a Bill before this House on the convention idea, which again we will be discussing next week. We will continue to perform this useful role in all these matters.

My Lords, when is the situation in the Commons that is politely called “programming” going to cease so that Bills that go into Standing Committee there are properly scrutinised and debated? It is a total disgrace that they come to this House with only one-third of the Bill having been examined. It is high time that there was proper scrutiny there and programming was brought to an end by both parties.

The noble Baroness speaks with a great amount of experience and wisdom on these matters, and I am sure that the other place will take note of what she has to say.