The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, has made headlines by suggesting that ministers need not always be MPs or peers, something the Commission for Smart Government also mooted in a recent discussion paper. While outsiders can make a valuable contribution to politics, non-parliamentary ministers would represent a major constitutional innovation and they would need to be implemented with great care.
The concept of responsible government is at the heart of the British constitution. At the highest level, this means that a government can only hold office if it commands the confidence of the House of Commons. But it also means that individual ministers are accountable to Parliament for their actions. Prime Minister’s Questions is probably the best-known example of this, but other ministers answer questions from MPs and peers as well. On a more informal level, having ministers in Parliament also means that they’re accessible to backbenchers. Since ministers have to go through the Division Lobbies like everyone else, it provides an opportunity for parliamentarians to have a quick chat with them. And, in extreme situations, voters can punish ministers who are MPs by refusing to re-elect them.
The Scottish Law Officers (i.e., the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland) are an exception to the usual convention. Despite being members of the Scottish Government (albeit ones outside the Cabinet), they are not MSPs. Section 27 of the Scotland Act 1998 allows them to participate in parliamentary debates ex officio, but they can’t vote. However, they are not typical ministers. Indeed, there has been a concerted effort to de-politicize their roles, which is why they no longer attend the Scottish Cabinet.
It’s theoretically possible to devise mechanisms of accountability for non-parliamentary ministers at Westminster. Right now, ministers have representatives in the other chamber who can answer questions on their behalf. For example, a minister who sits in the Commons will be represented in the Lords by either a junior minister or a whip. The Commission for Smart Government also notes that existing Commons Standing Orders allow ministers to make statements before the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland Grand Committees even if they aren’t MPs.
However, it’s debatable whether either of these options would be an adequate replacement for the status quo. Having a minister represented by junior counterparts in both chambers is less than ideal since they won’t have the same level of authority. One also wonders if ministerial questions would receive the same level of attention from MPs or the public if they were relegated to committees. These alternatives also fail to replicate the informal aspects of responsible government.
It’s also worth remembering that there’s already a mechanism to bring outside talent into the government, namely giving someone a peerage. While having a minister in the Upper House does have its disadvantages, it’s still preferable to having them outside Parliament entirely.
Bringing fresh perspectives into government is a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t undermine one of the core tenets of the British constitution.
 Similar arrangements apply to ministers who sit in the Lords, though they will always be represented by junior ministers rather than whips.
 Commission for Smart Government, “Ministers: Effective Political Leadership in Government,” (July 2021), 25-26. The relevant Standing Orders are SOs 93(3), 102(4), and 109(4).