Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Cut number of ministers - Major

John Major
Sir John said the Commons had to become more efficient

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major has called for the number of government ministers to be cut by up to a third.

Talented backbench MPs must be offered alternative career routes to ministerial advancement, he told the public administration committee.

Otherwise there could be a sense that life outside government was a "fruitless" pursuit, Sir John - prime minister from 1990 to 1997 - added.

There are usually between 90 and 100 ministers in the UK government.

Sir John also called for a reduction in the size of the Commons to about 500 MPs - from the current 646.

'Freakish majorities'

He told the committee: "I am pretty dismayed at the disregard in which politics is held today and the way in which politics often seems to malfunction.

"I think this can be put right, and I think it needs to be put right, and part of the remedy is reforms to make the Commons more efficient and better-regarded. I think we would benefit from a wider and more experienced membership.

"For far too many members at the moment, backbench life - particularly in opposition - can be pretty fruitless and hardly uses their talents.

"Our system throws up freakish government majorities that bear very little relationship to the voting pattern of the electorate at large. To address these over-mighty governments, Parliament needs more ability to challenge the executive."

He added: "In my view, the Commons has too many members. Certainly, the government has too many ministers. The payroll vote is too dominant."

'Gene pool'

Sir John recommended that chairmen of select committees - which scrutinise Whitehall departments - be paid a wage equivalent to that of a junior minister, in an effort to make the executive more accountable.

He also argued that parliamentary rules should be changed so that ministers can speak and answer questions in either the Commons or Lords, while voting only in the House of which they are a member.

He backed Gordon Brown's practice of appointing people from outside Parliament to serve as ministers in a "government of all the talents".

Any prime minister whose party has been in power for a long time faces a shrinking "gene pool" of MPs from whom to chose a ministerial team, he said.

But Sir John said ministers awarded peerages in this way should lose their right to sit in the Lords and vote on legislation once they have left office.

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