In an earlier post, Lord Tyler referred to the Deputy PM indicating his sympathy for the proposal for reducing the number of ministers in the event of the reduction in the number of MPs. This sympathy did not translate into Government action. On Monday, Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne, moved a new clause to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to provide that if the number of MPs is reduced then the number of ministers must be reduced by a proportionate number. He cited me in support of the reduction.
There was support for the clause from all the MPs who spoke. The only person to speak against it was the Deputy Leader of the House, David Heath. He had clearly drawn the short straw. He claimed that the existing number of ministers reflected the demands made on government. This is not something borne out by the testimony of former minister Chris Mullin to the Public Administration Committee. Ministerial posts have expanded to enhance Prime Ministerial patronage, not the administrative needs of government. Mr Heath also argued that there was time to consider the issue at a later date and that reducing the number of ministers in the Commons would not get round using patronage to appoint parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) or ministers in the Lords, which is true but not an argument against reducing the number of ministers in the Commons. It an argument for seeking to restrict the number of PPSs and ministers in the Lords.
All in all, the minister made a lamentable case. There was no appreciation of the constitutional implication of increasing the size of the ministry in the House of Commons. As Chris Mullin told the Public Administration Committee “The function of Parliament is to hold the executive to account. You can’t do that if a third of the Parliament is inside the executive.”
Despite the arguments advanced by supporters of the clause, the Government whipped against it. Although a number of Conservative MPs, and a Liberal Democrat, voted for it, it was defeated by 293 votes to 241.
This is clearly an issue to which we will need to return when the Bill reaches the Lords.