Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill: Number of Ministers

Charles Walker tables an amendment to the Bill which would reduce the number of Government Ministers to reflect the overall reduction in the number of MPs. The amendment was defeated.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 7 would amend the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of Ministers allowed in this place at 95. As you know, Mr Streeter, part of this Bill, if passed, will bring about a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. My new clause is very modest in its scope. All I am seeking to do is to amend the 1975 Act to ensure that the ceiling for the number of Ministers is pushed down from 95 to 87, which directly reflects the percentage reduction in the number of Members of Parliament.

My new clause is very moderate. Many colleagues urged me to go further and to make a real assault on the patronage of the Executive, but I thought that that would be unreasonable and unreasonably ambitious. There might be voices of self-interest, largely residing on the Front Bench, who argue that we have the right amount of Ministers. They might even argue that we need more Ministers. I hope that I do not hear those arguments tonight.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Might there not be even more Back Benchers interested in increasing the number from 95 to about 195?

Mr Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes his usual sparky intervention.

Rafts of leading academics and political commentators have recognised for a long time that there are far too many Ministers in this place. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, has argued that we could easily do as well with a reduction of 25 to 30%. Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, told the Select Committee on Public Administration earlier this year that the number of Ministers could be cut by 50%. Professor Anthony King has argued the same, as has Lord Norton of Louth.

Of course, those academics and political commentators are in good company. Our own Deputy Prime Minister argued in January that the number of Ministers should be reduced.

Fiona Mactaggart: Has the hon. Gentleman spoken more recently to the Deputy Prime Minister, because it is my impression that he is not likely to say today the things he said in January?

Mr Walker: The Deputy Prime Minister is a man of great integrity. I recognise that this is his Bill, and once he has heard the force of my argument he will rush here and demand a rethink from his Front Benchers.

Speaking at the Institute for Government in January, the Deputy Prime Minister called for the House of Commons to be reduced to 500 and for the number of Ministers across both Houses to be cut to 73. The Government's demands are much more moderate. They are talking about reducing the size of the House to 600, but if we reduce it to 600, following the Deputy Prime Minister's logic, we should reduce the number of Ministers by 15. That would tally with his mathematics, but, as I said, my new clause is modest. I am not calling for a reduction in the number of Ministers by 15. I know that many Members are demanding that I do that, but I shall not hear it. I am simply demanding a reduction in the number of Ministers by eight.

Many people here have argued privately in the corridors that there is no link between the size of the House of Commons and the number of Ministers. That is total nonsense. We know that as far back as the Bill of Rights of 1689 this House expressed concerns about the Crown having a presence here in the form of Ministers. The 1701 Act of Settlement tried extremely hard to remove Ministers from this place, because the politicians of that time wondered how one could serve the Crown as well as one's constituents. Unfortunately, that never saw the light of day because the Executive got their way in 1706. As recently as 1926, if someone became a Minister of the Crown, he was required, in between general election periods, to resign his seat so that his constituents could decide whether their Member of Parliament could serve two masters-the interests of the constituents and the interests of the Crown.

That is where I am coming from. I am arguing for a modest reduction in the number of Ministers. We have had enormous ministerial inflation since 1983. Margaret Thatcher-we all remember her, that great lady-had 81 Ministers to run this country in 1983. We now require 95. Is the world so much more complex? I say to those who argue that it is that since 1983 we have privatised a large number of previously Government-owned industries and we have allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have their own devolved Assemblies. The number of Ministers has still risen inexorably.

I do not want to try your patience, Mr Streeter, by straying off new clause 7 and talking about inflation in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but we are now seeing 50 PPSs adding to an already burgeoning payroll. Although these people are not even paid, they are called the payroll vote. As far back as the 1960s, one could be a PPS and vote against the Government without danger of losing that role, but that is not the case today. The civil service code of conduct says that a PPS is required always to support their Government.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I am mystified as to what the role of a PPS has to do with the civil service code.

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to correct me. It is the ministerial code, which is similar to the civil service code.

Those on the Front Bench might well argue that they have made progress in reducing the cost of the ministerial payroll. They will argue-it is a bit of a red herring-that on taking the seals of office, Ministers took a 5% pay cut. In reality, they did not take a pay cut, because they went from being in opposition to being in government and took a 25 to 50% pay rise. It just was not as large a pay rise as it could have been.

The savings to the ministerial payroll are about £500,000, not an insignificant sum. Lord Turnbull said to the Public Administration Committee that the average cost of maintaining a Minister, with private offices, cars and private secretaries, is £500,000 per Minister. By reducing the ministerial payroll by eight in 2015, we will save the taxpayer a further £4 million. While we are at it, we might like to consider the 10 unpaid Ministers we have across the two Houses, because if we got rid of them we could save another £5 million. However, that is an argument for another time and another place.

Mr Streeter, you know better than anyone that we live in an age of austerity. Things are changing. We are dismissing senior permanent secretaries from across the civil service. We are removing chief executives of councils and their directors. We are attacking senior and middle management across the country, yet there is one group of senior management that is completely immune to these cuts and that is the ministerial corps. Yes, we are all in it together, but not quite if one is a Minister. I do not think that any good argument could be presented from the Front Bench for not reducing the ministerial head count.

I am an enormous fan of the coalition and the Prime Minister, and I think that the coalition is what the country needs at this time. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have talked about new politics, a new way of doing things and a new optimism. New clause 7 is the litmus test for new politics, because I do not understand how we can have new politics and oppose reducing the Government's patronage at the same time. I hope that Front Benchers can respond to that point.

To colleagues who are, perhaps, being leaned on by the Whips, I say that this is our chance to take ownership of new politics, which cannot be driven by Front Benchers and the Executive because the Executive are all about taking and retaining power and extending the tentacles of patronage even further. We as Back Benchers will take ownership of new politics tonight; we will do the heavy lifting for the Executive. By going into the Lobby and supporting new clause 7, we will be able to look our constituents in the eye when we go for reselection after the boundary review or the general election and say, "I was different." When they challenge us with that worn cliché, "You're just the same as the rest of them. You're only in it for yourself," we can say, "You are wrong. I was one of those Members of Parliament in 2010 who voted to reduce the number of Ministers."

I have spoken for too long. In conclusion, new clause 7 is the very essence of new politics. The House and my colleagues have the chance to do the right thing tonight and I hope that they take that chance, because they will be respected for it if they do.

8.30 pm

AMENDMENT IN FULL

Variation in limit of number of holders of Ministerial offices

'(1) The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is amended as follows.

(2) For section 2(1) substitute-

"(1) The number of holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time, whether paid or unpaid, must not exceed 95 if the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is 650.".

(3) After section 2(1) insert-

"(1A) If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount.".

(4) In subsection (2), after "subsection (1)", insert "or subsection (1A)".'.- (Mr Charles Walker.)

IN WINDING UP THE DEBATE

Mr Walker: I say to new colleagues who were not here in 2009 that it was the most awful experience. We were led up the garden path by a powerful Executive and had our legs cut from underneath us. We vowed that we would never, ever let that happen again. We vowed that we would take control of this place back from the Executive.

I wish I was being braver in my new clause. All I am asking is that when the House of Commons reduces by a mere 50, we reduce the number of Ministers by a mere eight, yet in this age of new politics the Front Bench cannot even give us that. Colleagues, this is the night when the new politics will be born, or it will die. Please support new clause 7 tonight, to give new politics some meaning, because it will be driven by Back Benchers-it can never be driven from the Front Bench.

I call for a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 241, Noes 293.

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