Cutting the number of MPs will have consequences. Let’s get this right

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 17th November 2016

This article was first published in the Times

You might have forgotten about it, but the government’s boundary review – the redrawing of the area that your MP represents – is still going ahead, and it’s happening alongside a cut to the number of MPs, from 650 to 600.

We can reveal that the new limits could, if not done right, have some unexpected, and unwanted, consequences.

Our research for Parliament Week shows that in a smaller, 600-seat Commons, 23 per cent of MPs would be on the government payroll if the parties’ proportion of MPs, and the total number of ministers and whips, stayed the same as today  an all-time high, and up from the 21 per cent at present.

Why is it worrying? This would leave a record-low proportion of MPs free to scrutinise the government from the backbenches. At the same time, the proportion of Conservative MPs on the government payroll could rise to 43 per cent of the party’s total after the boundary review. It would be the third-highest ratio of government frontbench MPs to governing party backbenchers in recorded peacetime history, with the figure reaching 45 per cent under Labour in 2005.

Our big concern is that with nearly half of governing-party MPs on the prime minister’s payroll, there will be fewer MPs to draw from for vital parliamentary roles. That will affect everything from the calibre of select committees to the candour of debates in the Commons.

The more governing party MPs filling up cabinet posts and other executive roles, the fewer there are to hold their government to account. It’s often outspoken MPs from the governing party itself that are the most effective and listened-to voices.

The analysis, which goes as far back as 1900, also shows that the proportion of government MPs to MPs as a whole grew significantly in the 20th century  from about 10 per cent in the 1920s to about 20 per cent in 1990. This is an established trend and unless something is done about it, it could spiral out of control.

What this research shows is that we’re at risk of a crisis of scrutiny if the cut in MPs goes ahead without a corresponding cap on the number of payroll MPs. Having nearly a quarter of all MPs in the pocket of the prime minister is not a healthy situation for our democracy.

Being on the prime minister’s payroll ties MPs’ hands – they’re locked into collective responsibility, meaning they can’t speak publicly about policy failures or air important differences of opinion in parliamentary debates.

So, we’re calling for a cap on the proportion of payroll MPs to the Commons as a whole to prevent a “crisis of scrutiny” emerging in parliament.

By cutting the size of the Commons without cutting the size of the payroll, parliament’s ability to scrutinise the government will be weakened. Now is the time to take notice of this much-ignored but highly concerning trend.

Now, this isn’t about party politics. It’s about the crucial role that parliament plays in holding the government of the day to account, whichever party or parties hold the keys to No 10. The role of backbench MPs of all parties – not least the governing party itself – in holding the government to account is crucial to our democracy and needs recognising and protecting.

With the boundary review going ahead in 2018, the government must take steps to ensure that the power of MPs to effectively scrutinise the government won’t be put at risk.

It’s time for a cap on the number of MPs on the payroll to stop this situation spiralling out of control after the cut in MPs goes ahead.

Let’s have a real debate on our shrinking House of Commons and what it will mean for representation and scrutiny in this country.

Katie Ghose is Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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