Adrian Sanders is still right

With the reduction in number of MPs back in the news, so too is the question of how many ministers there are. As I wrote in October last year:

I agree with Adrian Sanders and 22 Conservative MPs
Yesterday in Parliament Adrian Sanders and 22 Conservative MPs voted to reduce the maximum number of ministers allowed in the Commons in line with the forthcoming reduction in the number of MPs

Without a cut in the number of MPs on the government payrolls, reducing the number of MPs will increase the government’s power over Parliament when the whole thrust of other reforms is, rightly, that it should be reduced.

The number of government ministers has soared in modern times:

In late 1914 when Britain ruled much of the world and was fighting a world war, there were a total of 49 ministers. Gordon Brown’s government currently has 119 ministers – an increase of 143%.

Some of the growth is for reasons most people across most parties would support, such as the creation of the National Health Service resulting in the creation of some new roles. But those areas of ‘consensus growth’ are relatively small, and to an extent are offset by the decline in the number of posts required by having an Empire.

At the Cabinet level, those two trends have largely balanced out, with the Cabinet growing by only two. But lower down the ministerial food chain, there has been a massive explosion in the number of posts – frequently driven by the need for posts to use as patronage in internal party control, and by the status symbol that attaches to the number of ministers a department has.

What’s more, people will experience of government agree that the number of ministers could and should be cut, including both former Cabinet minister Shirley Williams and also Deputy Leader of the House of Commons David Heath, who at a fringe meeting at conference last year said counting the number of ministers was a yardstick by which the government’s commitment to decentralisation should be judged a success or failure.

One year on, the government can’t yet claim this as a success. But Adrian Sanders was right, and David Heath and colleagues should make sure they stick to their commitment in the next three and a half.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It’s not fair too compare the Government of today with one from the 1910’s.
    Yes they had less Ministers, but today we have things like the NHS, Dept for Business, Welsh and Scottish Offices and International Development – all good things and all need Ministers to run them.
    Yes we need less Ministers, especially to re balance the Commons if it’s to scrink by around 10%, but lets not use outdated arguments comparing today’s governments to ones almost 100 years ago!

  • *shrink

  • Jonathan Featonby 14th Sep '11 - 1:23pm

    The issue is that if the number of MPs decrease but the executive stays the same size, then the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account lessens. Not only are there less backbenchers to ask questions in the Chamber, but the number of MPs free to sit on Select Committees is reduced.

    And tt’s not only the number of Ministers that is of concern, but also PPSs. If we agree that the number of Ministers is needed for the size of the remit of the Government, then one solution is to have more Ministerial positions given to members of the House of Lords, a position that would be strengthened if there was at least a partially elected upper chamber.

  • If we care about parliamentary scrutiny of the executive, then reducing the number of Ministers is not the right solution (even if we do accept the point about the proportion needing to be addressed). The business of government is not going to shrink, even if you reduce the number of Ministers. So there will still be needed the same number of independent backbenchers to be in the select committees, stay on top of legislation, ask probing questions, and so on. But if we are about to give our MPs bigger constituences, with the consequent rise in casework and the need to win votes in previously unheld territory (a particular issue for Lib Dems), then the problem is exacerbated of finding enough good non-government MPs to keep on top of everything the government, regardless of its Ministerial payroll, will be doing.

    Cutting the number of MPs might save a few quid, but I’m not convinced it will do anything to improve democratic accountability.

  • Daniel Henry 14th Sep '11 - 3:11pm

    @ James
    The business of government should be reduced by decentralization. The more power and responsibility we give local government, the less work there is for parliament.

  • Bah! You have stolen my thunder from the comment under the earlier thread.

    However, to address some of the points above – there are two questions involved in the appointment of ministers and PPSs. How many are needed to run government and how many are beneficial for increasing the payroll vote (and hence reducing rebellions/parliamentary scrutiny). Obviously, it is a bit of a question as to what is driving the increase in Ministers but I incline to the cynical rather than the business explanation.

    (Also, those who reject the 1914 comparison might want to reflect on the fact that numbers have consistently gone up even in the post war era of NHS and welfare)

  • I agree with Adrian Sanders with the need to reduce the executive. Reducing MPs but maintaining the size of the cabinet amounts to further strengthening of the executive which in my view is already too powerful.

    I still believe that these boundary changes are a stitch up to make it easier for the Conservatives to stay in power. Whilst I agree with equal constituency sizes, there appears to be one rule for one seat and another rule for another. Why if equalising constitituencies is the key reason for the boundary changes do the Western Isles, with just 20,000ish voters and Orkney & Shetland with 50,000 voters, get to maintain their smaller electorates (neither are Labour held). Why if equalising constituencies is the key motve, does the Isle of Wight, a safe Conservative seat, get split into two with each IoW seat containing just 55,000 electors? This will just serve to deliver 2 Tory IoW seats instead of 1. Some of the boundary changes are ludicrous but they are going ahead due to the requirement of equal constituencies – but until the Conservatives deal with the proposed IoW split, I sense nothing but party advantage being the key motive for these changes (and I am not a Labour or Lib Dem supporter!)

    The Conservatives need to be careful, because if there is an unwinding of LD tactital voting by Labour supporters in seats where the Labour have no chance of winning (e.g. the South West) and if there is tactical voting by Conservatives in seats where it is a LD-Lab or a Lab-SNP fight, then it is possible that there is a bias towards the Conservatives and people will just blame the boundaries. The worst thing possible for the Tories in 2015 is to win a majority wth fewer votes than Labour!

  • Tony Dawson 15th Sep '11 - 9:19am

    There is no reason at all why Junior Ministers should be MPs. They should be allowed to come to the HoC and address Parliament and should be .sackable by MPs. Being an MP is a full-time job. It stands to reason therefore that an MP who does another job on the side is skimping on what he/she should be doing for his constituents – or pays someone else to do it for him/her – including, most importantly, holding the government to account. How can anyone hold him or herself to account?

  • Old Codger Chris 15th Sep '11 - 1:12pm

    Tony Dawson has a point. Reform of the upper house could include the appointment of members purely for the duration of their ministerial jobs and subject to US style approval by a committee of MPs. Perhaps shadow ministers also, but obviously without needing MPs approval.

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