By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin secured a short snatch of parliamentary time allotted by the backbench business committee to speak to the new report published yesterday by the Select Committee on Public Administration, which he chairs.
You can read Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? in full here, but here's a taste of what Bernard Jenkin told the Commons:
"Our Committee decided to inquire into the role of Ministers following the Government's decision to reduce the number of right hon. and hon. Members by 50 without a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. The Prime Minister made it clear before the election that the public wanted us to "cut the cost of politics. Everyone is having to do more for less". He therefore asked if it was not time that "politicians and ministers did a bit more for a bit less". He was absolutely clear that he intended that statement to apply to Ministers as well as to MPs."
"So, to echo the title of our report, what should Ministers do? The consensus is that they should set policy priorities, provide leadership to their Departments, represent their Departments across Government and outside, and answer to Parliament. They should focus on their core job and less on what one might call "announceables". Lord Rooker pointed out how they had to operate in this way in the old Northern Ireland Office before devolution, where there were only four Ministers covering a broad range of portfolios. He added that officials were forced to "fillet out the key strategic decisions that as a minister you really had to do. So you didn't get all the minutiae that you get in Westminster Red Boxes." This strongly suggests that having fewer Ministers would itself bring about new ways of working. It is also obvious that if Ministers were reshuffled less often and specialists were more encouraged, they would be more effective as Ministers."
"We must acknowledge that Ministers are busier than ever in Parliament, with more Select Committees, Westminster Hall and other new procedures that bring them before us. However, we believe that Parliament must stop holding Ministers accountable for matters which no longer fall within the remit of Whitehall Departments or, indeed, have never fallen within their remit. The habit of grilling Ministers on every local detail militates against devolution, decentralisation and localism."
"By how much could the number of Ministers be cut? Numbers are currently limited by two statutes: the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which limits to 95 the number of Ministers who can sit and vote in the House of Commons; and the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, which constrains to 109 the number of ministerial salaries that can be paid."
"Currently, a total of 141 MPs are on the payroll vote as Ministers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If this number remains static at the same time as the number of MPs is cut by 8%, the payroll vote as a proportion of MPs will increase from an already staggering 22% to 23.5%… The Government say that they want to see Parliament strengthened, but this increase in the percentage of the payroll vote as a proportion of the House of Commons would further strengthen the Executive at the expense of Parliament; that seems to be unanswerable.
"PASC urges three steps on the Government to reduce this power of patronage. First, the current legal cap on the number of paid Ministers should be the absolute limit on the number of Ministers. The increasing number of unpaid Ministers has been described as an abuse by one of our witnesses, the right hon. Peter Riddell. Secondly, the legal limit on the number of Ministers in the Commons should be cut by eight, at the very least, in line with the reduction in the number of MPs just enacted. This is, in fact, a very modest reduction.
"Thirdly, the number of PPSs should be limited to one per Department. When he gave evidence to the PASC in the last Parliament, Sir John Major described the size of the payroll vote as a "constitutional outrage". His view was that only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs. That suggestion was endorsed by Lord Norton and others, who argued that doing so would make the post more meaningful. This would lead to 26 fewer Members being on the payroll vote."