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Clause 51 — Limit on number of ministers

Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill — [2nd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 28th February 2006.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Limit on number of Ministers (No. 2)—

'(1) Not more than eight persons are to hold the office of Welsh Minister appointed under section 48 at any time.

(2) Not more than three person are to hold the office of Deputy Welsh Minister at any time.'.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The amendment and the new clause are designed to engender a debate about the appropriate number of Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government and the difference between full Ministers and Deputy Ministers. We also need to consider how many Assembly Members are not members of the Welsh Assembly Government. If the Assembly contains 12 Ministers, the First Minister and Presiding Officers, then the number of Members available to carry out non-governmental functions in the Assembly is reduced. We must be confident that the number of Members who do not hold Government office is sufficient to scrutinise the work of the Assembly Government.

No such limit was stipulated in the Scotland Act 1998, and it is clear from experience in Scotland that following the arrival of an institution the number of Ministers can grow exponentially. Scotland had five Ministers under the Conservative Government, but it now has 22 Ministers performing the same functions—at a significantly greater cost.

Irrespective of whether one argues in favour of devolution, it cannot be argued that more people doing the same thing is a successful form of it. We must instead focus on whether the proposed number of Ministers is appropriate in light of the value that they bring to the role and the ability of the Assembly's Committees to function satisfactorily. The ability of Committees to function with a number of non-governmental or Presiding Officer Members would leave in the mid-40s the number of Members who are available for Committee work. The provision does not differentiate the role of Minister from that of Deputy Minister, so we could end up with 12 fully paid Ministers.

Throughout the debate, there has been inconsistency about what should be in the Assembly's Standing Orders and what should be in the Bill. We must be clear about whether the Assembly should determine through its own procedures how many Ministers it has. If we are going to determine the number, we must ensure that the ministerial cohort is effective. There is no point in having 12 Ministers simply because the Bill says that there can be that number.

We also need to clarify whether the proposed arrangements are thought of purely in the context of part 3 arrangements. If part 4 arrangements were to come into being, would the number stay the same or need to be revised?

In Committee, there was considerable debate about an amendment that Ian Lucas tabled and how many Assembly Members were needed to make the Assembly function more effectively, especially in the context of the part 4 powers. Although the amendment was not successful, it is important to focus on the right number of Members for an effective Assembly Chamber.

The Government have already changed their minds about the Scottish Parliament. In the Scotland Act, the Government's initial policy was to link the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament directly with that of Westminster Members of Parliament representing Scotland. I fear that the Government's guiding principle in constitutional matters—expediency—prevailed and the link was broken. The Scottish Parliament will continue to have 129 Members, who no longer relate to the constituencies of Scottish Members of this House. At least that decision led to the Arbuthnott report, about which we have heard much, and has been useful for the debate on the Bill. Indeed, the Arbuthnott report has been discussed more here, in the context of the measure, than in the Scottish Parliament or by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

A difficult position has been created whereby there is no link between Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament. That problem would clearly arise in the Welsh Assembly if there were to be more Assembly Members. It is therefore especially interesting, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan said, that Labour Members appear to be completely unwilling to discuss appropriate numbers, should the part 4 provisions come into force.

It is appropriate to encourage debate on the appropriate number of Assembly Members to allow the Assembly to function with a Government of the size that the Government propose or in accordance with our amendment. I hope that our amendments will facilitate the debate.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:00 pm, 28th February 2006

We welcome the definition for Deputy Ministers—it is a fair step forward. I agree with David Mundell about Committees. We must take care—I believe that the Government in Cardiff will take care—that there are enough Back Benchers to ensure sufficient numbers on Committees. The number of Assembly Members imposes its own limit, given that there are only 60.

We do not want to fetter the First Minister in the way in which he—or even she—might want to appoint Ministers.

The Record of Proceedings for the Assembly's Committee that considered the Bill shows that the Tories in Cardiff tabled an amendment, which would have provided:

"The number of Welsh Ministers shall not exceed 8 and the number of Deputy Welsh Ministers shall not exceed 5".

Perhaps the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale could explain the reason for that change.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I should like to speak in support of the amendment. As a Member of the Welsh Assembly, I was quite perturbed when the Labour Administration announced that they were creating a new post of Deputy Minister. Such people would appear to want to have their cake and eat it, because in addition to standing in and answering questions for Ministers who are away, they will be able to put on their Back-Bench hat and start asking questions themselves. That would not happen in this Chamber. I have also noticed that, as well as claiming to be Ministers in their own right, they will be able to sit on Committees as Back-Bench Assembly Members.

There is a great deal of confusion about the constitutional role of a Deputy Minister, and it has even been suggested that the position is simply a means for the Labour party to shore up a bit of support on its Back Benches by handing out a bauble that some people might find enough to assure their loyalty. Of course, I would never suggest such a thing, but I support the call of my hon. Friend David Mundell for clarity on the constitutional role of a Deputy Minister and for a firm upper limit on the numbers involved, so that the posts cannot simply be handed out as a way of shoring up Back-Bench support for the Administration.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The problem here is not the concept of Deputy Ministers or the number of them that a First Minister might want to appoint. The problem is that the Assembly is not big enough to cope with the job that it has been given. The Liberal Democrats have proposed to increase the number of Assembly Members in order to get round the difficulties that we are discussing.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so soon. Surely he can see that the job of running Wales, which was previously being done by three Ministers in the Wales Office, is now being done by 60 politicians. How many extra Assembly Members does the hon. Gentleman want?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman forgets that, aside from doing the work of three Ministers in the Wales Office, the Assembly has also taken on the various responsibilities that used to be undertaken by the 40 Members of Parliament who now quite rightly observe the delegation of those responsibilities to the Welsh Assembly.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I hesitate to say this to the hon. Gentleman in public, but he is simply not correct. The role that the Assembly plays now is exactly the same as the role that was previously played by the Wales Office. The Wales Office was previously responsible for health, education, transport and so on, and those powers have now transferred to the Welsh Assembly. We went from having three Members of Parliament performing all those functions to having 60 Welsh Assembly Members doing so. I repeat my original question: how many more does the hon. Gentleman want—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Perhaps this is the appropriate moment to remind the House that we are talking about Ministers rather than Members of the Assembly.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I set that hare running myself. If I may, I shall just give David T.C. Davies one sentence in response before getting back to the subject of the amendments. I want to remind him that Welsh Assembly Members have responsibilities that were not formerly held by Ministers in the Wales Office. I shall be happy to discuss this with him outside the Chamber; perhaps he overestimates the amount that Ministers did before the Welsh Assembly was set up.

There are insufficient Assembly Members, so we are now having artificially to protect the Committee structure. In some ways, that is an unavoidable consequence of the size of the Assembly. Furthermore, if the Deputy Ministers operate sometimes as stand-in Ministers and sometimes as Back Benchers, it will achieve exactly what we have tried to avoid, which is to blur the distinction between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Assembly as an institution in itself. Will the Minister explain what firewalls will exist, both psychologically and morally, for someone who can run with the fox and run with the hounds—someone who is occasionally part of the Welsh Assembly Government and who at other times freelances as a Back Bencher?

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Is there not more to it than that? Deputy Ministers will be remunerated. Does the hon. Gentleman not share my concern about the fact that what the Welsh Affairs Committee dubbed the payroll vote will account for 20 per cent. of the Assembly? Does he not find that unacceptable?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 4:15 pm, 28th February 2006

In proportional terms it is not very different from what happens here in Westminster, so I am not as concerned as the hon. Gentleman on that score. However, it is rather ridiculous for Deputy Ministers to be paid to be part of the payroll vote, while at the same being allowed to act as Back Benchers. If all those positions are taken up, we shall have an enormous, overbearing, burgeoning administrative, and rather centralist, Welsh Assembly. How can the Minister justify an arrangement that seems to muddy the waters between Back Benchers and payroll, which, as other Members have said, we would simply not tolerate in the House of Commons?

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

I am conscious of your suggestion that we concentrate on the amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will do so, but I want to say a little about Members' comments on whether there will be enough Assembly Members to scrutinise and hold the Assembly Government to account. I also want to say something about the point made by Lembit Öpik about the role of Deputy Minister.

Welsh Members will know what the Presiding Officer, in particular, has said about what will happen after the enactment of part 3 and, possibly, part 4, and about the need for Assembly Members' roles to take account of the additional work that they will be required to do. The Presiding Officer has said that the Assembly should sit for four days a week rather than two. I think that that will cover the extra work load, and will go a long way towards meeting the understandable concerns of many Members about whether 60 Assembly Members will be able to perform the scrutiny role.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

May I first answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire about the role of Deputy Ministers? I understand his point, especially in the context of the clear split between Executive and legislature. I would expect the definition in Standing Orders to apply to Deputy Ministers, and given that Deputy Ministers will clearly be part of the Executive, I would not expect them to have the same role as an ordinary Back-Bench Assembly Member; but that is a matter for the Standing Orders.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I apologise to Mrs. Gillan, who is still waiting to intervene.

I fear that if what the Minister says is correct, we shall not have enough Assembly Members to fill the Committees. I assumed that the schizophrenic role of Back Bencher-cum-Deputy Minister had been created because that seemed to be the only way of ensuring that the Committee structure was fully stocked with Assembly Members. Is that not the case?

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

Not necessarily. As I have said, if the Assembly sat for four days a week rather than two, that would probably take account of the fact that four additional Members would no longer be available to sit on Committees.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

As the Minister says, discussions have turned on the proposal for the Assembly to sit for four days a week rather than two. What discussions has he had about remuneration for Assembly Members and Ministers? Does he expect their salaries to increase in line with their increased work loads, or to remain the same?

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

Fortunately, that issue is way above my pay grade; it is clearly one for the Senior Salaries Review Body, as is our own remuneration.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

The Minister is talking a lot of sense in proposing to increase the time that the Assembly sits from seven hours a week to four full days, but as Assembly Members have repeatedly said, they already work very hard when they are not there. So there is surely no need to increase their remuneration, because they will not be doing extra work; they will simply be spending more time in the Assembly.

C

Well said!

Submitted by Christian Holliday

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

As I said, this issue is way above my pay grade and I am not going to get involved in any discussion about Assembly Members' salaries.

Let us move on the amendments before us. It is important to the Assembly's effective functioning that there be a limit on the size of the "payroll vote", so clause 51 sets a statutory limit on the size of the Government within the Assembly. The limit prescribed—a combined total of no more than 12 Welsh Ministers and Deputy Welsh Ministers—is consistent with the current arrangement. It seems to work now and I see no reason why it should not work post-May 2007.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Does the Minister really think it right that, on that basis, 40 per cent. of the Labour party should be on the payroll?

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

The issue is not what percentage of the governing party is in government, but what percentage of the whole Assembly is in government. A considerable percentage of the Labour party is in government in this place, but the issue is the proportion of Parliament that is in government. I shall return to this point in due course.

Currently, there are eight Cabinet Ministers in the Assembly, in addition to the First Minister, and four Deputy Ministers. On comparing that figure with the UK Parliament, it is clear that it is not disproportionate. There are 90 Ministers, including Whips, and 51 Parliamentary Private Secretaries in the House of Commons—21.8 per cent. of its total membership. Our proposed limit for the Assembly, taken with the First Minister and the Counsel General, represents 23.3 per cent. of total Assembly membership if the Counsel General is also an Assembly Member, or 21.7 per cent. if he or she is not. So the proportion is very similar to that in this place.

In the light of that and of the Presiding Officer's suggestion—it is supported by the First Minister—that the Assembly sit post-May 2007 for considerably longer, there should be no problem with scrutiny. However, it is not necessary to limit the First Minister's discretion concerning the balance of Ministers and Deputy Ministers, as the amendment proposes. Should the Assembly have any concerns about the size of the pay bill, it will have powers over Welsh Ministers' and Deputy Welsh Ministers' salaries by virtue of clause 53. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

As I made clear to Hywel Williams during my initial remarks, our probing amendment is designed to allow the sort of discussion that has indeed taken place, and which has proved very helpful. Although we have strayed into discussing what constitutes the appropriate number of Assembly Members, that issue will require further consideration. However, I take on board the point, made by my hon. Friend David T.C. Davies, about the benefit of the Welsh Assembly's working longer hours. Inevitably, the range of Committee activities will put disproportionate work loads on particular Members, although a rough calculation suggests that they are more likely to be Labour Back Benchers at this stage.

It is important that the Deputy Minister role is clarified in the Standing Order process. The Scottish Parliament has provided the model for much of the discussion on this Bill, and Deputy Ministers there are not able to serve on Committees or ask questions in the Chamber. People understand that Deputy Ministers are part of the Executive—or, in the Wales context, of the Welsh Assembly Government. The debate has made it clear that combining the two roles is unsatisfactory, and I hope that the Standing Orders will deal with the problem and clarify the position of Deputy Ministers. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan noted, the office attracts a payment. The duties and responsibilities that go with that should mean that office holders are not able to move from being a member of the Government to being a Back Bencher as and when required.

I shall not press the amendment to a Division, as the House has been able to raise the relevant issues. People are worried about the percentage of members of institutions such as this Parliament or the Welsh Assembly who are on the payroll vote—that is, the number of Ministers who are needed for effective Government. The Opposition believe that we should always strive to ensure that the number is the smallest possible. In the hope that the numbers set out in the Bill do not become the norm but will be assessed in the context of ministerial duties, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.