Adam Afriyie is the Member of Parliament for Windsor and
Co-Chair of the 2020 Conservatives Economic Commission. He was Shadow
Minister for Science and Innovation from 2007 to 2010.
It’s time to fulfil the promise of smaller government – and temporary ministers can help.
In our 2010 manifesto we were committed to reducing the size of government. And yet, three years on, it only seems to be growing in size and expanding in reach. To me, this expansion is deeply worrying and rather perplexing.
Starting at the top, there are currently 31 people who attend Cabinet on a regular basis. Having spent more than 20 years starting and growing businesses, I cannot ever recall chairing a company board meeting with more than a handful of directors and executives in the room. Any more people and it simply wouldn’t work; it wouldn’t be effective. In my time as a Governor of the Museum of London, we would seldom have more than a dozen or so active participants in a board meeting; even in some of the world’s largest companies you’d be unlikely to see more than 15 people.
Of course the government is not a private business. But there is no doubt that the infrastructure that governs us is growing. According to a report by the Public Administration Select Committee, in 1900 there were 60 ministers, by 1950 this had increased to 81, and by January 2010 the figure was 119. The number of ministers below Cabinet rank increased much more substantially, from 41 in 1900 to 96 in 2010. And remember, there is now devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so logically the figures should have dropped – but no, they’ve just kept on going up.
And there’s a cost implication too. As Lord Turnbull, a former Cabinet Secretary, pointed out, even an unpaid minister is not without cost to the taxpayer: “If you give a minister three private secretaries, a press officer, a driver, a car, there is not much change from half a million pounds…[as well as] tying down a lot of civil service resources.”
Basically, there are just too many government departments ,and there are too many people attending Cabinet to make it an effective decision-making body. This may be uncomfortable for career politicians hoping for a ministerial post or a seat in cabinet, but we must remain true to what we believe.
Do we need so many departments and cabinet ministers?
This begs a number of questions. First, for example, why do we need two separate departments to cover energy and climate change, and environment food and rural affairs? Why does the Department for International Development need to be separate from the Foreign Office? It is not that the functions performed need necessarily to be reduced or even given less priority. It just seems to be more practical and business-like to streamline and combine similar functions.
While I very much approve of maintaining a vibrant and creative arts and sporting culture, many people ask me whether it’s really necessary for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to have a cabinet presence with a Secretary of State, rather than a Minister of State. In the same way that we have seen job-title inflation in the public sector, we have, sadly, seen our Government follow suit with permanent new jobs and departments. I suspect it’s more about jobs for the boys and alleviating political pressures. Therefore, I really think we must take a serious look at how our country is governed before there are more MPs on the government payroll than there are holding it to account.
Making use of ‘temporary’ ministers makes good sense
In addition cutting the numbers on the government payroll, I believe there is a compelling argument for ‘temporary’ ministers. Temporary ministers would act as project managers, rather than permanent fixtures. They would focus on specific legislation, major changes, or events such as The Olympics, for example. Once their job was completed they could move on with a sense of satisfaction and achievement – without having been sacked. If there was a need for them to stay, then it would be a sign of failure rather than success.
Stemming the flow of legislation and regulation
When I started as a Conservative activist in the late 1980s, I knew what I wanted: smaller government and a smaller state, so that people had a greater sense of control over their lives. Unfortunately, since the 1980s, the government has kept on growing – not just in size but also in reach. It’s now in every area and aspect of our lives. Some of this stems from the ever-expanding legislation factory in Brussels. But thankfully the EU does not control the size of our government: it is one area where we can make our own independent decisions and we must act to create a more effective, efficient, business-like government operation.
At home, the pressure for British ministers to constantly create new laws and regulations is relentless. It is perhaps the only way they can make their mark and it has become the culture of modern politics. But it is the worst way to govern. I want to see a Conservative government that stems the flow of unnecessary legislation and regulation. And if successful we should see a Parliament that sits for fewer days each year, with MPs free to spend more time with the people they serve who live in the real world rather than the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster.
So we must grit our teeth and do everything we can to deliver a wholly Conservative government at the next election; one that can fulfil its promise to decrease the size of the government and hand more control back to the British people.