Opinion: 108 Not Out – why do we need so many Ministers?

In the heated pre election days when a Lib Dem and Tory Coalition seemed a remote possibility, there appeared to be few areas of ideological common ground between the parties.

But one area where the parties seemed to agree, and not just the leadership of the parties, but all apparent wings contained within both the future coalition parties, was that there was a need to shrink the size of government.

The recession has given this ideological standpoint a root in pragmatism, and as the Comprehensive Spending review announces cuts to everything from quangos to benefits and prisons, the question must surely be asked, do we need 108 paid ministers?

According to the Evening Standard, 108 is about the average for a British government in recent years, but it is slightly more than there were at the fag end of the Brown years.

The purpose of this article is to ask whether that number of ministers are required, and to asess where perhaps roles could be discontinued.

While many government departments, such as health and the treasury, deal with a vast range of policy areas, and subsequently require numerous Junior Ministers, questions must be asked as to whether other deaprtments need to exist at all.

The clearest example which comes to mind are the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh Offices, with their attached Secretaries of State and Ministers of State.

There has been an obvious change in role for each of these Departmenta, with devolved administrations now dealing with many matters previously within the remit of the Central Government department. And even beyond such an obvious point as that made above , when areas arise which are not within the remit of the devolved administrations, they are more likely to be dealt with by either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor, rendering the relevant Secretary of State a lobbyist for his region rather than a Minister in charge, but surely its the role of all Mps to serve as
advocates for their region rather than appointing a Secretary of State to perform the task.

This is particularly true of Northern Ireland where the negotiations are usually led by the Prime Minister, rather than the Northern Ireland secretary of State, while the economic and foreign policy direction of Scotland and Wales are dealt with at national level.

It is therefore perhaps worth considering whether each of these offices now require a seperate Secretary of State, or whether their departments could be merged.

Another department which is worth investigating is the Department for Communities and Local Government.  There is a debate as to whether a government can really be responsible for creating or maintaing ‘communities’, but that debate is not the purpose of this article.  It is worth investigating whether the functions of this department could be subsumed into the Home Office, with some of the law and order functions of the Home Office moved into the Department of Justice.

This argument is not made merely from the point of view of saving money, but also because if the government must give itself a remit concerning communities, then perhaps it should deal with communities in the same department as it deals with immigration, and these two areas have considerable overlap at present.

Aside from any plan to reduce the number of Secretaries of State, the job functions of every minister of state and junior minister across all departments should be looked at, there are potential savings to be  made which will demonstrate the governments mantra that ‘we are all in this together’, while also achieving a long term Lib Dem objective of reducing the scale  of government presence in the lives of ordinary citizens.

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17 Comments

  • david thorpe 20th Oct '10 - 5:39pm

    Geoffrey

    Localism is central to the Lib Dem policy platform and it invoves shrinking the size of central goverjnment.
    Regulation is someh ting else again, its got to be indepednet of government, not part of government and thus not what Im talking about at all

  • Terry Gilbert 20th Oct '10 - 6:21pm

    But David, David, be realistic! How on earth would we persuade Members of the Governing parties to forsake their long held Pledges to the electorate, were it not for the Payroll Vote?

  • david thorpe 20th Oct '10 - 6:28pm

    light touch regualtion failed in the financial sector, but no lib dem was ever in favour of it for the finanical sector and neither am OI.
    But we do believe in reduced government involved in the private lives of citizens, hence oppoisition to ID cards fior example

  • I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the strongest argument in favour of reducing the number of Ministers, namely the plan to cut the number of MPs. Unless there is a commensurate reduction in Ministers, the power of the legislature will be weakened yet further and the chances of a piece of weak legislation being overturned in the Commons much reduced.

  • david thorpe 20th Oct '10 - 10:10pm

    thats an outstanding point john

  • 108 people doesn’t strike me as that many! I bet Top Shop have more managers…

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Oct '10 - 11:30pm

    for example I rely on my local authority to tell my neighbours not to have a noisy party in the middle of the night that is keeping me awake

    Really? You find it easier to get Council anti-noisy-party officers out in the middle of the night than to go knock on your neighbour’s door? That’s a very strange place you live, Geoffrey.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Oct '10 - 11:39pm

    On the substantive point of the article, this is just silly, I’m afraid. The “size of the state” (a metric which interests me not at all) is nothing to do with the number of government ministers — except in so far as having lots of ministers means having lots of people eager to push “initiatives” to make their jobs seem necessary. But even that is more about increasing the level of monkeying around with what the state does than increasing the amount that it does per se.

    Appointing fewer ministers wouldn’t save money — it would, as Terry and John point out, reduce the payroll vote, which would be a thoroughly good thing; but you don’t even need to cut the number of ministers to do that, you just need to get away from the conviction that ministers must be members of parliament.

  • david thorpe 21st Oct '10 - 12:05am

    Of course the number of ministers ultimately decides the size of the state.
    Ievery minister has an area of responsibility, and that trickles down through to ordinary citizens whose lives are impacted.
    Geofrrey, thats exactly what localism means. I agree.
    And if you read the article you will see that I mention the devolved governments having repsonsibility for areas of responsibility. Thus requiring less central government ministers, and yet we have the same number of ministers for those areas of responsibility.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Oct '10 - 12:38am

    Er -what? You think that if a ministerial post is deleted, then everything that was done by government that came under that minister’s bit of department just vanishes?

    Let me put it this way: Do you think that Britain’s empire disappeared because we abolished the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies? Or was it perhaps the other way around? Just a thought.

  • Fewer departments – probably. Fewer Ministers ? Well, not really. They are the only democractic input into the running of government departments. Frankly they are over worked and not very effective.

    As Sir Humphrey says in Yes Minister, 350 MPs in the Government, 1/3 to unsuitable or inexperienced 1/3 two old or failed already leaving 1/3 to fill the ministerial places – ie no choice at all.

  • Ed Maxfield 21st Oct '10 - 9:56am

    Malcolm, I suspect that what David meant was that if you create a job (a ministerial post) the work will necessarily expand to fill the time and the budget they have available: it’s almost an iron law of bureaucracy so I imagine someone has published some research on it (because they were given the time and budget to do it… 😉 So it doesnt automatically follow that abolishing a ministry will end all of the work they currently do but it would almost certainly reduce it: especially if you insist on a culture of prioritising (and then justifying) what’s important rather than doing stuff because we have always done it.

    I agree that taking ministers out of parliament would be a good thing.

    I amused myself for an hour or so a few weeks ago by playing the ‘how many departments do we really need’ game. I struggled to get more than a cabinet of 15 (PM, DPM, 10 departments, the Whip, the leader in the Lords and a legal adviser.) With two or three junior ministers in each department you would probably halve the payroll vote.

  • “108 people doesn’t strike me as that many! I bet Top Shop have more managers…”

    But you are not counting the Permanent Secretaries and other senior Civil Servants.

  • DAVID THORPE 21st Oct '10 - 2:38pm

    its said that many junior ministers earn their stripes by getting a good budget for their area of responsibility. i.e it helps their career to find things to spend your money on.
    Lets have less ministers and therefore less things for them to finmd to spend money on

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