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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill — Committee (14th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 26th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 9:45 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as he just outlined, is premised on the belief that reducing the number of MPs creates a problem in that the proportion of Ministers in the other place then becomes greater than at present. My starting point is different. My contention is that there are already too many Ministers. Reducing the number of Ministers exacerbates rather than creates a problem.

The size of the so-called payroll vote in the House of Commons, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, has grown over the years. In 1950, it constituted 15 per cent of the House. It now constitutes 21 per cent. Expressed as a proportion of the number of MPs in the coalition parties, it is 38 per cent.

I accept the case for Ministers sitting in Parliament. However, Ministers are members of a body that is expected to subject the Government to critical scrutiny and to hold them to account. The capacity to fulfil that task, both in voice and vote, is limited if the votes at the disposal of the Whips increase. A consequence of the Bill is that the proportion of the House not able to call the Government to account becomes even larger.

I appreciate that there is an argument that the number of ministerial posts has increased in order to meet growing demands of government. However, as I said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee in the other place, I have seen no study to support that contention. There is an alternative explanation: that the growth has been for political reasons, providing a greater pool of patronage appointments available to the Prime Minister. In my evidence to the Public Administration Committee, I quoted Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, in his book, The New Machiavelli, where he wrote:

"If prime ministers had their way they would appoint all the MPs on their benches to ministerial office. The payroll vote is an essential parliamentary tool and the bigger it is, the better".

The patronage explanation has found support from a range of sources. The claim that there are too many Ministers has been supported by, among others, former Prime Minister Sir John Major and my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell. My noble friend in his evidence in 2000 to the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I chaired, argued that the number of Ministers could be reduced without undermining the essential tasks of government. He said that,

"a decision by an incoming prime minister to abolish twenty ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload. The whips and those who enjoy exercising or receiving patronage would be dismayed, but the benefits would be great."

A former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, told the Public Administration Committee that some tasks could be carried out by officials. There is also the argument that some tasks are not necessary anyway. Ministerial work tends to expand to fill the time available-a point well made by a former Minister, Chris Mullin.

What is required is a greater emphasis on quality, rather than quantity. The emphasis has been on quantity for the sake of patronage, rather than on quality for the sake of good government. The growth of the payroll vote has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Commons. I contend that there is no need for so many Ministers. Ministers are largely amateurs in their roles as Ministers. Providing better training for them, and redistributing some tasks to Whips, as happens in this House, would ensure there was no reduction in efficiency. If anything I would contend the reverse.

The Commission to Strengthen Parliament agreed with my noble friend Lord Hurd and concluded:

"The case for reducing the number of ministers is compelling on its merits. It also has a number of beneficial consequences. Limiting the number of ministers increases the number of MPs who are not committed to government by the doctrine of collective responsibility. Narrowing the route to ministerial office may serve to make attractive the alternative careers in the House of Commons. We believe that these benefits should not be negated by extending patronage through other routes".

We recommended that the number of Ministers in Cabinet should be kept at 20 and the number of other Ministers capped at 50. That is a little more than the number suggested by my noble friend Lord Hurd. Back in 1940-41, the Herbert Committee recommended an even lower figure, believing that government could be carried on by 60 Ministers. My right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith introduced a Private Member's Bill in the 1999-2000 Session to place an absolute limit on the number of Ministers at 82. In 2006, my honourable friend Jeremy Browne introduced a Bill to reduce the number of ministerial salaries payable from 83 to 60.

My amendment is a relatively modest one. It seeks to reduce the cap on the number of Ministers who can sit-paid or unpaid-in the House of Commons from 95 to 80. It is modest but essential.

I conclude by emphasising the constitutional significance of this amendment. When I raised the issue on Second Reading, my noble friend Lord McNally treated it somewhat dismissively, as an issue that could be discussed later, after the passage of the Bill. The constitutional import of the amendment is on a par with that of reducing the number of MPs. If the number of MPs is reduced, then the proportion of the other place that forms the Government increases, to the advantage of government and to the detriment of the House of Commons in being able to call to account that part of it which forms the Government.

My starting point is that there are already too many Ministers and reducing the number of MPs will exacerbate the problem. There has been, as I have indicated, a steady increase in the size of the payroll vote in the other place, and now is the time to reverse the process and to strengthen the House of Commons in its capacity to call the Government to account. I beg to move.