John Major gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee yesterday on the subject of ministerial appointments. He offered some sound suggestions to the members present, including reducing the number of MPs and the payroll vote (the MPs who are paid-up members of the Government or in roles attached to Government).
He suggested that the main incentive for MPs is to seek a Government post, and then further promotion within. This can mean that the job of a backbencher can be boring and not very challenging – or “fruitless” as Major termed it.
That needs to change. Central to this - as Major pointed out - is reducing the size of the payroll vote. This has increased since the early 80’s at a steady rate, with around 141 MPs’ votes guaranteed to support the Government on almost any position. The size of the Government itself has also grown during this time to 120 posts, with the sharpest increase occurring between 2005 and 2008.
Cutting the number of MPs would make them more significant in Commons votes. This could mean they are free to act more independently than they do now breaking the reliance on the party leadership to have a successful career. However, this needs to happen concomitantly with reducing the payroll vote to ensure that executive power is not further bolstered. Of course, fewer MPs would ease the burden on the taxpayer.
The role of committees is also important here as they play a vital role in scrutinising and checking the Government. Excellent reports with robust recommendations are released regularly but they are often ignored. The Public Accounts Committee voiced their frustration with this just the other day. Major also suggested that the salaries of Select Committee Chairmen are aligned with those of junior ministers, elevating the importance of their role.
If politicians could go back to formulating policy and effectively scrutinising legislation then it is a reasonable and achievable aim to cut the number of MPs. It will cost the taxpayer less, and Parliament can begin to heal from its self-inflicted wounds.