Not the answer

During debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill earlier this year, there were attempts to amend the Bill to reduce the number of ministers.  Some parliamentarians argued that if the number of MPs was reduced, then there needed to be a commensurate reduction in the number of ministers, otherwise the dominance of the Government’s payroll vote would be reinforced.   I argued that the reduction in the number of MPs did not cause a problem but rather exacerbated a problem.  There were  already too many ministers.   The Government payroll, or jobsworth, vote (ministers + PPSs) had increased in recent decades and should be reduced.  I reinforced this argument in evidence to the Public Administration Committee in its inquiry into Smaller Government: what do ministers do?

The Government resisted the amendments, arguing that time was needed to consult and consider what could be done.  The priority, as far as ministers were concerned, was reducing the number of MPs.  

Given that the Government recognised the case for considering a reduction in the number of ministers, I put down a Parliamentary Question last month ‘To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to bring forward proposals to reduce the number of ministers; and, if so, when’.  I have now received an answer from Baroness Garden of Frognal, the Government Whip: ‘The Government will continue to keep the number of ministers under review’. 

This is a non-answer.  What is meant by keeping something under review was well explained in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister: keeping something under review means that the civil servants have lost the papers; keeping something under active review means that they have found them.

Given such an inadequate answer, I shall be pursuing the issue through other means.  This is not something that the Government can put on the back burner.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to Not the answer

  1. David Rostron says:

    Perhaps we will end up with a Minister of Smaller Government.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Somewhere early in the history of the Norton View this issue came up and I tried to indicate by links that it is possible to trace much of the history and dvelopment of politics in the West by only looking at the varied ancestors and cousins of this single issue. I still feel thaty way. I commend Your Lordship for giving it due attention….

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank w. Summers III: Next you will be suggesting I return to issues on which I have previously written. Perish the thought….

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,
        Although I am real (if not superlatively succesful) journalist Iam also an Historian and an archivist and therefore recycling is no sin in my view. In an earlier time I would surely have included the equivalent of the link in my previous remarks.

        However, in one of the many signs of my overall decline I combine many of the bad qualities of most decades of human maturity including those I have not reached. Thus I am slower now. Her is the link to the post and thus the comments I mentioned in my earlier post:
        https://nortonview.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/too-many-ministers/

        By the way Lord Norton, you are a professor and thus stand condemned as a recycler long before your defense can see the first juror or even fully read the accusation…

  3. Paul N. says:

    Best of luck Lord Norton, I feared it was an empty promise from the government when they defeated the amendment in the Commons (think the amendment was moved by Charles Walker). It is shocking that they are dragging their feet over this issue, as you say there are too many ministers anyway but to reduce the number of MPs without a proportionate reduction in the number of ministers really is wrong. The coalition promised to be more accountable to Parliament, they must deliver on this issue.

    By the way, what was your opinion on the policy to reduce the number of MPs. I opposed it because it made no sense. The cost argument was weak, especially given the fact that we held a referendum on AV, which had it passed would have cost a fortune in future elections. Secondly it is contradictory to the idea of representation. Between 1922-1945 there were 615 seats while since 1945 there has never been less than 625 (1950-55), so at a time when population is increasing albeit slowly, reducing the number of MPs is not based on any historical precedent. Added to this and most importantly is that members are expected to do more than ever (not necessarily a good thing) by their constituents, it makes no logical sense to reduce their number.

    The only argument I could see was if Scotland and to lesser degree Wales and Northern Ireland had seen the creation of larger super constituencies, thus reducing drastically their representation because of the devolution settlement.

    Anyway sorry for the ramblings and good luck in pursuing the issue once Parliament returns.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Paul N: It was indeed Charles Walker who moved the amendment in the Commons; we liaised closely on the matter.

      When I chaired the Conservative Party’s Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000, we looked at the size of the House of Commons and recommended a substantial reduction in numbers. There is no obvious need for so many MPs. The number has never been below 615 in recent history, as you mention, but it is one of the largest legislative chambers in the world. Much of the work done by Members is constituency work, much of which could be done (usually more efficiently) by other grievance chasing agencies or (as now) by Members’ staff. A redistribution of resources would enable MPs to cope. The reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 entails a modest increase in constituency size, the average being well below that of some current constituencies which are quite well represented by their Members.

  4. Daniel Olive says:

    I think the correct quote from Yes, Minister is actually ‘We’re trying to find it’, not ‘We’ve found it’. In this one area your students may have the advantage on you. While you are a very important professor and peer, and your time is both scarce and precious, students frequently have both the time and inclination to watch UKTV Gold.

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