What do ministers do?
Prime ministers have sought to bolster the numbers by appointing unpaid ministers and platoons of parliamentary private secretaries. Currently, 141 MPs, 22 per cent of the total, hold some sort of position. This seems at odds with David Cameron’s pledge to cut the cost of politics.
Admittedly, ministers’ salaries have been cut by 5 per cent, but there is no sign of any willingness to reduce the number of ministers, paid or unpaid, even though the size of the Commons is being reduced by 50 to 600 at the next general election.
Indeed, Oliver Letwin has said the number of ministers is being kept “consistent to ensure we can impose political will on the machine to get the fundamental reforms that give power out to the people”. But this reinforces the executive bias of the Commons by reducing the number of (often talented) MPs able to serve on select committees and hold the government to account.
So the Public Administration Committee of the Commons is on strong ground in urging controls on this juggernaut – not least at a time when the Government is seeking to shift responsibility for delivery away from Whitehall. (I gave evidence to the committee and acted as a temporary adviser in order to be able to comment on the draft report.)
The MPs rightly argue that the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act, limiting the number of ministers to 109, should be treated as a maximum and there should be no unpaid ministers. This total should be reduced in line with the cut in the number of MPs, to take effect at the same time in 2015. And the number of parliamentary private secretaries should be reduced to one per secretary of state. This would reduce the total by 34.
The MPs fail sufficiently to take account of the additional demands created by the Coalition. This has increased the workload and requires both parties to have some representation across Whitehall. This could be achieved without increasing overall ministerial numbers by using whips, as in the Lords, as departmental spokesmen.
However, as the committee recognises, this is only one part of the question. The other is defining what ministers do, and should do. At present, there is a sense of activity creep as diaries are filled with unnecessary meetings and events to fill the time available. There needs to be a clearer focus on the basic role of ministers in providing leadership and setting, and monitoring, objectives for their departments.
The Institute for Government will be examining these issues in a report on Ministerial Effectiveness due out in May. The committee has endorsed the broad thrust of our proposals for more systematic training, mentoring, coaching and assessment of ministers.
Of course, such help has limitations and is no substitute for experience in office. But too many MPs and ministers still believe they possess innate political skills by virtue of being in the Commons, but fail to recognise that being a minister requires different talents and abilities.
Many new ministers have no experience whatever of working in, let alone leading, a big organisation. As the committee concludes, “everyone, including ministers, can always find ways to be better at their job”.