October 2023
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The government minister scam – politicians ripping us off yet again

Wednesday/ Thursday blog

As our latest PM puts together yet another ‘government of all the talents’, I thought it worth mentioning a scam probably few readers know about

Yes Ministers?

One of the many ways for MPs to increase their remuneration is by becoming government ministers. In the Westminster Parliament we have around 95 MPs who are also paid ministers. This means that more than one in four of the 360 Conservative MPs (at the time of writing) are also government ministers of some sort. In addition there are around 14 salaried government ministers from the House of Lords bringing the total of Westminster government ministers to 109.

This high number of government ministers at Westminster was something that even our parliamentarians were beginning to question. In 2010 the Public Administration Select Committee examined this issue. In its inquiry Too Many Ministers? the Committee found that the UK Government was an international outlier when it came to ministerial numbers; employing more ministers than India, Canada and South Africa.

In 2011, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee wrote a report entitled Smaller Government: What Do Ministers Do? In this report, the Committee noted that Britain had many more paid ministers than most other European countries. With just under 15 per cent of British MPs, being paid ministerial salaries, British citizens benefit from considerably more government ministers than countries like Germany, Italy and France which also have around 600 members of their lower houses but where they had, in some cases (Germany and France), around half or even fewer than half the percentage of MPs being ministers compared to Britain:

Percentage of MPs being paid ministerial salaries in the larger European countries

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee was concerned about the effects on our democracy from having so many ministers: “Having too many ministers is bad not just for the quality of government, but also for the independence of the legislature. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 limits the total number of ministers at 109 but this is regularly exceeded by appointing unpaid ministers. In addition, the existence of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) who, while not ministers, are expected to support the Government in all divisions in the House, further increases the size of the payroll vote. Currently 141 Members— approximately 22% of the House of Commons—hold some position in the Government. This is deeply corrosive to the House of Commons primary role of acting as a check on the Executive as all government ministers are expected to vote with the Government.”

As one former political adviser explained to the Commons Public Administration Committee, ‘if the Prime Minister has his way, he would appoint every single backbencher in his party to a ministerial job to ensure their vote’.

Appointing MPs to ministerial positions is also a good way for prime ministers to reward loyalty. So perhaps we’re very lucky that the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act (1975) limits the number of paid ministers to 109, though governments often exceed this number by appointing unpaid ministers in addition to the lucky 109 who are fully paid.

The Commons Public Administration Committee found three main problems with there being so many ministers in Westminster. Firstly, they were hugely expensive ‘placing a burden on the public purse’. The amounts we pay our 95 MPs who are also government ministers could seem quite generous to ordinary British taxpayers whose average salary is in the region of £24,600:

Cost of MPs who are also paid government ministers

Secondly, the Committee felt that having so many ministers reduced the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account. As all ministers were expected to support the Government in the Commons, by making so many MPs into ministers, the Government ensured their support by creating what was called a ‘payroll vote’ – anyone either getting or hoping to get the benefits of a nice ministerial salary and other perks of office would be unlikely to jeopardise this by ever voting against the Government. As the Committee warned, ‘the temptation to create more and more “jobs for the boys” (and girls) is not conducive either to better government or better scrutiny of legislation’. Moreover, one could imagine that there were many other MPs who were more than tempted by the perks of becoming a government minister – important ego-boosting meetings with important people discussing important issues, chauffeur-driven cars, flocks of civil servant flunkies grovelling to you, private companies eager to pay for your services – who would do whatever the Government told them in the hope that they too might one enjoy the ministerial life of Riley.

And thirdly, the Committee was concerned about the poor managerial qualities of many ministers. As one contributor to the Committee explained, ‘very few ministers have ever run anything. There is no way you are going to convert them into good managers’.

Former ministers and civil servants appearing before the Committee also expressed concerns about having such a large number of ministers when there really wasn’t enough work for them all. A former minister remarked, ‘I think there has probably been an increase in pointless activity’. And a senior civil servant seemed to be suggesting that the large number of ministers was more linked to the Prime Minister’s desire to hand out well-paid favours and ensure support rather than the number being driven by the real quantity of work to be done. T

A civil servant explained how officials spent far too much time trying to find things for the hordes of junior ministers to do: “The more junior ministers you have – and we have more junior ministers than ever – the more work you have to find for them. One of the biggest single frustrations of the political process within the civil service is just the number of junior ministers you have and the work projects that have to be designed and engineered at a political level.”

The Committee also concluded that: ‘The ever-upward trend in the size of government over the last hundred years or more is striking and hard to justify objectively in the context of the end of Empire, privatisation, and, most recently, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. Given that there are another 28 ministers in the Scottish Parliament, 14 in the Welsh Assembly and 10 in the Northern Ireland executive, people from outside of politics might have imagined that this flourishing in ministerial numbers in the regional assemblies might have reduced the need for so many ministers in Westminster.

The Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendation to cut the number of ministers was the usual bureaucratic ‘get lost’ that we should have become used to when any part of the public sector is faced with even the mildest suggestion as to how it might improve its performance and/or reduce its costs to the taxpayer.

The Government thanked the Committee for its work: “The Government welcomes the Committee’s interest in the role and appointment of Ministers, continuing that of their predecessor Committee whose report ‘Too Many Ministers’ (Ninth Report of Session 2009-10 HC 457) gave this Government considerable food for thought when making appointments in May 2010. The Government currently has 121 Ministers, including 95 in the Commons, and is keen that they perform their roles effectively and flexibly, rising to the challenges of the day particularly in the light of the necessary impetus to reduce the deficit.

But the Government rejected any suggestion that the number of government ministers could be reduced towards the level of comparable legislatures in other countries in order to save British taxpayers money:

“The Government is grateful for the Committee’s views on these issues. As the Committee knows, the Government has been clear that it wants to strengthen Parliament, and to look at the issue of the size of Government and the balance between the two Houses in the round. It would not for example be appropriate to only consider the limits in the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975. To this end, the Government will keep the number of Ministers under review particularly in the light of its proposals on House of Lords reform and changes to the number of Parliamentary constituencies.

However, the Government believes that a reduction to 80 ministers shared between the Commons and the Lords over the course of this Parliament as suggested by the Committee is unlikely to be a realistic aspiration.”

Since then, all ideas of reducing the number of government ministers have been quietly shelved and the ministerial gravy train can keep trundling happily along, possibly more for the benefit of Westminster’s many ministers than for British taxpayers. Moreover, this apparent superfluity of government ministers is definitely not in the interests of a functioning democracy in which Parliament is supposed to hold the government to account.

4 comments to The government minister scam – politicians ripping us off yet again

  • A Thorpe

    This is definitely a case of Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth, rather than Many Hands make Light Work. It is not just the number of ministers, but also the number of MPs and even more importantly the number of civil servants. The ministerial salaries are less important in relation to the total cost of government and the salaries are low compared to business salaries, although I’m not convinced that all ministers are capable of getting a top business job.

    We have to ask, especially at this time, what are they all doing and why do they seem to be completely incompetent. Outside government activities, if we don’t get good service or products we can complain and there are guarantees and warranties. We don’t use providers again if they provide a poor service and it is competition that gives us the freedom to go somewhere else and the market will ensure that companies not providing a good service will go out of business.

    We have no protection against bad government except through an election. There are calls now for an election but there is no mechanism to have one except a vote of no confidence. If there were other means to have an election, we would have chaos because with the essentially two-party system there would always be calls for elections. The parties want power over us and not to serve us and fundamentally the party system is designed to create conflict between the parties and those who support them. They are incapable of reaching an agreement on anything because their existence depends on ideologies.

    As I keep saying it is time to cut the government down to size and stop them interfering in our lives. We must take responsibility for our lives and accept the consequences of our mistakes rather the suffer the larger mistakes that the politicians make. The politicians are able to interfere in issues that we are not and that is because they create organisations to enable that, such as the central bank printing of money. But I think the politicians have lost control of that and it is in the hands of the bankers and rich elites.

    It isn’t going to end well because this is not an issue that has suddenly happened due to Tory policies. It started over a 100 years ago when fiat money was created.

  • A Thorpe

    I have just watched a Tony Heller video “The Land of the Free”. It is about America but the same applies here. Worth watching.

  • Carolyn Hill

    More worrying is even if we cleaned out the Augean stable with a GE the same civil serpents are still running the departments and will be waiting to welcome the latest victim with open arms. “Yes minister” wasn’t fiction – it was a fly on the wall documentary. The Secretary of whichever state knows no more about being chancellor/Home/foreign/Health whatever minister than we do. They’re just mates of the PM and will probably be shuffled out long before the next election; it’s the civil serpents job to steer them in the right direction which, of course, means their desired direction. The blob is alive and well. Cummings had the right idea but the vultures will never let their ever increasing empires go. It is indeed Snouts in the Trough.

    Meanwhile can someone please tell me what a “talented” MP is? Apart from an oxymoron. I’m thoroughly bored of the phrase and I would really like to know talented at what? Gove’s main talent seems to be back-stabbing but is this a desirable skill in an MP?

  • Jeffrey Palmer

    Cost-wise, to a Government that spent a cool £37 billion on a Track & Trace app that didn’t work, without blinking an eye, the salaries of Government Ministers are chicken feed.

    £37 billion could have bought eleven aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. But I’ve yet to hear of any demand from any political party for an inquiry about precisely who signed off that expenditure, how it was administered, and who’s trouser pockets that £37 billion ended up in,

    Probably the biggest government financial scandal in the last twenty years, and, er, deathly silence.
    As Cameron candidly admitted – ”We’re all in it together.”

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