The Public Administration Select Committee today released a report called Too Many Ministers? Well, the short answer is yes. The Committee found that:
Government has become too strong in relation to Parliament over time and this is not surprising when consecutive administrations flood departments with more and more Ministers. There are a few explanations for this. One is that creating new jobs mean that there are more career opportunities available to the MPs from the governing party; the grip of Number 10 on the reins has consequently become ever tighter as they get allies on the ‘payroll vote’.
Another is that imperious Secretaries of State who involve themselves too much in policy detail and delivery – as opposed to offering direction and strategy – will look to get a bigger team of Ministers/friends to help them control their silo-like departments. Also, many of the services that they run are vast – the NHS and the Environment Agency are two examples. Politicians micromanaging monolithic organisations would probably require a little help. If less responsibility is centralised in Whitehall, the Government might be able to shrink again.
New departments will also mean an increase in Minister numbers – and the ever changing machinery of existing departments exacerbates this problem.
For Ministers, they argue that Government has become more complex, and they may be right. But they use this same argument to justify the proliferation of quangos, to offer expert, independent advice. Why is this accompanied by a concomitant rise in the number of Ministers? And as the Committee point out, privatisation and devolution should have reduced the numbers further.
A smaller Government would mean better oversight of departmental strategy, without an overbearing Secretary of State running the show. Smaller, more streamlined services would mean that a smaller number of Ministers wouldn’t be overwhelmed with near impossible jobs. Parliament would also gain back some power from the Executive; when combined with other reforms this may mean that they can properly hold them to account. And reducing the ‘payroll vote’ would save money, which is always nice.