Reducing the number of ministers

Lord Norton

House of CommonsIn 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.

9 comments for “Reducing the number of ministers

  1. Carl.H
    29/10/2010 at 7:06 pm

    And yet time and again my Lord you have stated to me that the Whips have very little influence !

    We are headed for a dysfunctional Parliament !

  2. Lord Norton
    Lord Norton
    29/10/2010 at 7:13 pm

    Carl.H: No, I have explained the limitations of the whips, which is not the same thing. The parties still exert considerable influence; the whips are facilitators but not the cause.

  3. Lord Norton
    Lord Norton
    30/10/2010 at 5:41 pm

    As an addendum, I should perhaps mention that just as the previous two Parliaments saw unprecedented levels of dissent by Labour MPs, this new Parliament is witnessing remarkable levels of dissent by Conservative MPs – remarkable for the start of a Parliament with a new Government.

  4. Carl.H
    30/10/2010 at 11:55 pm

    Perhaps in light of Ms. Harriet Harman`s remarks, she of equality rights, we should rid ourselves of all “Ginger” ministers and their ilk.

    My red headed wife was incensed, as I know certain members in high regard in the Lords will be. Had it been a sexist remark by a man HH would have made sure the feminazi`s cut them to pieces.

    To top “ginger” with “rat” from a member high in the opposition is for a me a step too far. Perhaps I expect too much from our politicians nowadays, decorum possibly being too much from someone who was Deputy to the man insulting people with such remarks as ” That bigoted woman!”

    If she worked for my company she`d have to go I`m afraid.

    “Ginger” is a prejudicial word, Ms.Harman.

  5. Gareth Howell
    31/10/2010 at 10:41 am

    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.”

    It is not a third of the parliament surely but a third of the parliamentary party in government?

    100+ ministers to 400-450 members on the coalition side.

    I think the message boarders went thru this earlier in the year to discover that as the parliament wears on the number increases as more people come along wanting to be patronised; that at the beginning of the Blair govt it was only in the low 90s, but worked up to well over 100.

    Thinking back to all my happy days snoozing in the corner of the committee rooms on a cold winter’s day, many of the ministers had an inimitable patter of language, in the way it would fend off all criticism. Blinding with language. Jack Straw was a brilliant example.

    It was/is not so much the ministers and secretaries who are held to account but people like Rail track senior executive and others, who are really hammered by experienced chairmen.

    I really don’t accept what Chris Mullins says, but it is a warning.

  6. Lord Norton
    Lord Norton
    31/10/2010 at 2:14 pm

    Carl.H: When the Constitution Committee took evidence from Baroness Royal, then Leader of the House of Lords, and Chris Bryant, then Deputy Leader of the Commons, the latter by way of introduction (as we were being sound broadcast but not televised) pointed out that both of them were ginger. No doubt they will have views on Ms Harman’s comments.

  7. Lord Norton
    Lord Norton
    31/10/2010 at 2:17 pm

    Gareth Howell: Quite right, it is a third (or thereabouts) of the governing party. We are not quite in the position that once pertained in New Zealand, where (in a small parliament) the number of ministers appointed constituted a majority in the governing parliamentary party, ensuring the ministry always got its way in the parliamentary party caucus.

  8. Croft
    01/11/2010 at 1:10 pm

    Well Carl I generally think free speech means essentially that so can’t manage to generate great outrage.

    However if we are as HH does to make sanctimonious statements about racial and sexual discrimination and criminalise some aspects of the same then to ridicule someone on the grounds of their genetic hair colour is shameless hypocrisy.

  9. Gareth Howell
    02/11/2010 at 7:55 am

    the number of ministers appointed constituted a majority in the governing parliamentary party, ensuring the ministry always got its way in the parliamentary party caucus.

    This would certainly not be an instant receipt for integrity,probity and so on, but it is possible that each minister would have a different approach to any department….. No! No! No!

    Dinner party agreements? “I won’t attack you if you don’t attack me!”

    Blair started off with about 90 and increased to well over 100 minsters, I believe, but Lord Norton,most of the extras being introduced to the house of lords for the purpose.

    I don’t see that as an argument in favour of more ministers in the Lords though, the subject being a reduction all round.

    I have often wondered about the normally cosy relationship between Secretaries of state and the Select Committee chairmen.

    Those who can/do get a beating are chairmen who are interviewed from outside parliament, often because they do not have the debating acumen, which may amount to the same as, not having a full grasp, of their own subject.

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