Too many ministers

This morning I gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee in the Commons as part of their inquiry into Smaller Government: What Do Ministers Do?  I appeared with Peter Riddell, now of the Institute for Government, and Robert Hazell, who runs the Constitution Unit at University College London. 

I produced a memorandum and used that as the basis for what I had to say.  My principal points can be summarised as:

* There are too many ministers, both in absolute and relative terms.

* The emphasis has been on quantity for the sake of patronage rather than quality for the sake of good governance.

* The growth of the so-called ‘payroll vote’ has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Commons.

* There is a need to move from many ministers to fewer and better-trained ministers.

* Some tasks can be jettisoned and others taken on by whips and, if necessary, more junior ministers in the Lords.

It was a very useful session.  I enjoyed it.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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12 Responses to Too many ministers

  1. Croft says:

    Is the coverage on parl tv yet?

    Btw did you catch Michael Ancram’s introduction.

    Rather confusingly the introductions were listed on the parliament site as “Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint will be introduced and The Rt Hon Michael Ancram will be introduced as a Baron. ” Do you happen to know why is the first given their ‘new’ title the second not? Is it normal for hereditary peers given life peerages to use barons robes? Which title is he using in the house now?

    • Lord Norton says:

      The form that appears on the order paper depends on when their Letters Patent are sealed. If sealed by the time the order paper is printed, then thay are listed as ‘Baron’; if their letters patent are still to be sealed – which may occur on the morning of introduction – then it says ‘Fred Bloggs will be introduced as a Baron’.

      All life peers are Barons so if introduced as a life peer then I presume one must wear the robes appropriate to the rank of peerage, even though as a hereditary peer one is referred to by the senior title.

      • Croft says:

        I thought that might be the explanation but different parts of the parliament site gave different names which is not helpful!

  2. Carl.H says:

    Could a number of your points also be taken in the context of Peers ?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: Not really, rather the opposite. Whereas the ‘payroll vote’ (ministers + PPSs) constitutes over 20 per cent of the membership in the Commons – and will constitute a greater proportion if the number of MPs is reduced – the payroll vote in the Lords is less than 3 per cent of the membership, and will become a smaller proportion as the number of peers increases.

      Indeed, one of the points raised in the discussion was whether or not whips in the Commons could follow the practice of whips in the Lords and actually take on some the roles of junior ministers, thus reducing the need for so many junior ministers in the Commons.

      • Carl.H says:

        * There are too many Peers, both in absolute and relative terms.

        * The emphasis has been on quantity for the sake of patronage rather than quality for the sake of good governance.

        * The growth of the so-called ‘payroll vote’ has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Lords.

        * There is a need to move from many Lords to fewer and better-trained Lords.

        There maybe some argument over what constitutes a “payroll vote” but raising a leaving MP to the House of Lords where all he has to do is turn up to be paid and be guided by whips how to vote does in my mind constitute a payroll vote.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Carl.H: Nice try, but falls down at various levels. Peers may need induction (which is provided) on how the House works but are generally already schooled in their particular area of expertise. Former MPs are not necessarily the most loyal members: they are quite capable of going ‘native’ upon arrival in the House. The Government is running into trouble from some of its own supporters on both the Public Bodies Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constitutencies Bill – as evidenced by the speeches on Second Reading – and some of the most vocal critics are not only former MPs but also former Cabinet ministers.

      • Lord Norton says:

        There are, though, too many peers.

  3. Sam H says:

    Interesting fact brought up by the Private Eye is that at the height of the British Empire we made do with under 60 ministers. Now that we only have 50 million people under the sovereignty of parliament we have nearly double that number.

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    * The growth of the so-called ‘payroll vote’ has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Commons.
    I don’t expect anyone to read all these links but this is an issue which has been demanding hard work from constitutionalists an legislators continuously for thousands of years in different guises I think.
    Aristotle looking back to royalist mixed governments in discussing the Spartan constitution and its succesors in its colonies worries about money and partiality and governance not having been successfully resolved and argues against an elected upper house (sort of) in the process:
    ” Again, the council of elders is not free from defects. It may be said that the elders are good men and well trained in manly virtue; and that, therefore, there is an advantage to the state in having them. But that judges of important causes should hold office for life is a disputable thing, for the mind grows old as well as the body. And when men have been educated in such a manner that even the legislator himself cannot trust them, there is real danger. Many of the elders are well known to have taken bribes and to have been guilty of partiality in public affairs. And therefore they ought not to be irresponsible; yet at Sparta they are so. But (it may be replied), ‘All magistracies are accountable to the Ephors.’ Yes, but this prerogative is too great for them, and we maintain that the control should be exercised in some other manner. Further, the mode in which the Spartans elect their elders is childish; and it is improper that the person to be elected should canvass for the office; the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not. And here the legislator clearly indicates the same intention which appears in other parts of his constitution; he would have his citizens ambitious, and he has reckoned upon this quality in the election of the elders; for no one would ask to be elected if he were not. Yet ambition and avarice, almost more than any other passions, are the motives of crime”.

    Your own case seeks to balance electoral politics with administration:

    Click to access snpc-03378.pdf

    In not so ancient Greece the role of political fellowships of leaders in voting is known if not well documented:

    Some see the whole shape of current US government staffing as essentially partisan:

    The royal perogative of patronage has been at the root of the British journey:

    Presidential custom has charted a patronage path and been reformed some say:

    Major Constitutional shift occasioned by Army voting for Lincoln in 1864 in USA:,_1864

    Rome was built on Senatorial patronage in its best and worst Kingdom and Republic Days. When King Tarquin disrupted the patronage the Republic emerged some say:

    Of course the US idea of separation of powers is a real thing partly motivated by such tensions:
    US Constitution Article One Section Six states
    “No Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time: and no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either House during his continuance in office”.

    This has not removed the more complex patterns arising in the links above. I simply wish to emphasize the significance of the project in history rather than to opine about its ourcome in your case. The payroll vote writ large as it were…

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