The size and turnover of the payroll vote is not found among comparable democraciesby Peter Riddell / September 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain has too many ministers and they remain in office for too short a time. These are the two most distinctive features of British government. Neither trend is new but they have recently got much worse, notably during the merry-go-round of the closing few months of the May administration and the substantial change of personnel with the formation of the verydifferent Conservative administration under Boris Johnson. Many of the key heads of department have changed at least twice during the course of this calendar year and only a handful of ministers are in the same posts as at the beginning of the year.
Yet even if this year’s rate of turnover is exceptional, the underlying trends remain. There are currently 90 to 94 ministers (including whips) in the House of Commons. This is far more than in other parliamentary democracies even allowing for differences in constitutional structures.
As striking are the long-term trends. The number of ministers in the Commons has risen roughly threefold over the past 120 years. This increase has been despite the end of Empire from the 1940s to the 1960s (resulting in the disappearance of several ministries such as the India and Colonial Offices and then the Commonwealth Relations Office), privatisation in the 1980 and 1990s (producing a cutback in the number of ministers who dealt with previously nationalised industries), and devolution in the 2000s (leading to a fall in the number of UK ministers dealing with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Yet, the overall number of ministers continued to rise as a reduction in some ministers was offset by the invention of new posts, while some departments expanded their reach, notably in welfare and social services.
There are two main reasons: first, patronage. Prime ministers like to ensure the loyalty and support of as many MPs on their own side as possible through the offer of office. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff in No 10, remarked that: “If prime ministers had their way, they would appoint all the MPs on their benches to ministerial office. The payroll vote is an essential parliamentary tool, and the bigger it is the better.” Second, an increasingly activist state. Junior ministers do play an important role in translating grand policy ideas into both detailed legislative changes and implementing them in practice. Moreover, officials are quite happy to see ministers representing their departments in visits around the country and in meetings with outside interest groups.
The size of an administration is, however, constrained to some extent by two statutes passed in 1975—the first limiting the number of paid ministerial posts in both Houses to 109 (including 21 cabinet ministers); and the other saying that not more than 95 holders of ministerial office may sit in the Commons at any one time. But these limits have increasingly been evaded by the appointment of unpaid ministers, recently as many as seven to ten. In some cases, these people are wealthy individuals who receive no payments apart from what they are entitled as MPs or peers. In other cases, it is MPs paid as whips who simultaneously serve as ministers. Over the last 20 years it has become customary for half a dozen or more people to attend the weekly cabinet meetings without being full cabinet ministers, partly to show more women attending and partly to satisfy the ambitions of ministers.
In addition, there have been no less than 40, and a maximum of 58, MPs acting as parliamentary private secretaries to ministers. They do not receive any additional pay but they are confusingly counted as part of the payroll vote in being required to vote with the government. So, at least, a fifth of all MPs are generally counted as part of the payroll vote, or getting on for two-fifths at least of the governing party’s support in the Commons.
Allied to this is a frequency of change—which has speeded up since the 2017 election—at a pace wholly unfamiliar in most comparable democracies (apart from, currently, the upper reaches of the Trump administration).
Both trends create a bias towards activism—as ministers seek to be noticed, particularly ahead of the almost certain early reshuffle. That makes for bad government since the political short-term timeline conflicts with the long-term span needed for good policy preparation and implementation. Policy successes have often depended on continuity of political leadership,from the 2012 Olympics to pension reform.
I have argued for reducing the maximum number of ministers and closing the loophole on unpaid ministers, while prime ministers should exercise restraint on the frequency and scale of reshuffles, as David Cameron sought to do at the start of his administration. The aim should be to leave junior ministers in post for at least two years, and secretaries of state for three or four years. Sue Cameron in her review of my book in the October issue of Prospect suggested this was wishful thinking in the face of the inescapable pressures of politics. She has a fair point, but highlighting the undoubted costs to government of too many, short-lived, ministers might, just might, act as a constraint in future.
Peter Riddell, a former journalist and ex-director of the Institute for Government, is the author of 15 Minutes of Power—the Uncertain Life of British Ministers, recently published by Profile Books