I have written in previous posts about the rise of the so-called payroll vote, those MPs holding government jobs who would need to resign their position if they wish to vote against the government. Although the number of paid Ministerial posts is limited by legislation, successive governments have used a variety of mechanisms to expand the cadre of loyal MPs, including the creation of unpaid Ministerial positions (currently 8) and also the appointment of a seemingly ever-increasing number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries – unpaid Ministerial aides, widely seen as the first step on the Ministerial ladder.
I have also written about the frustrations of trying to keep track of these appointments. Ministerial appointments are announced publicly, Ministerial teams are listed on the website of each government department and a full list can be found on the Cabinet Office website. In contrast the appointment of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is not widely publicised, except in some cases by the individuals concerned. In the past, numbers and lists have emerged in answer to parliamentary questions or through websites of parliamentary watchers such as Guido Fawkes. Prior to the 2010 election the Conservative Party was critical of the lack of transparency in government and following the election, for the first time, published a full list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries.
However, the turnover of PPSs is often high, and despite two significant Cabinet reshuffles in 2012 and 2014, and a general election in 2015, neither the Coalition nor the Cameron government published an updated list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. It was pleasing then that following the 2017 election, following the establishment of Ministerial teams the May government promptly published a list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. In a post written at the time I expressed the hope that this list would be updated following reshuffles and election.
Following the Prime Minister’s January reshuffle, a new list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries was indeed placed on the Number 10 website. Moreover, after a long period of seemingly inexorable rise in the numbers of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the January 2018 list indicated that there had been a slight fall in the number from 46 in July 2017 to 43 in January 2018. The list indicated that the number of PPSs supporting the Treasury’s Ministerial team has been reduced from three to two, while the Home Office, which previously and inexplicably had the support of four PPSs, has had that number cut to two. Three departments, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, have had their number of PPSs reduced from two to one. Although three departments have seen an increase in their complement of Ministerial aides. The number of PPSs supporting Ministers in the MoD and the Department for Education has increased from two to three, while the Wales Office has gone from one to two.
However, what appeared to be a welcome development both in transparency and a gradual reining in of the payroll vote, may in fact be neither. Two days after the government’s PPS list was published, Caroline Johnson, the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, tweeted that she had been appointed as PPS to the Treasury Ministerial team.
Several days later another tweet by Andrea Jenkyns, revealed that she had been appointed as PPS to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Neither Johnson nor Jenkyns were on the list published by Number 10 on 22nd January.
The appointments of Johnson and Jenkyns bring the total number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries to 45, only one less than in July 2017. Although in fact there may be more. The published list has not been updated to take account of these new appointments and it is perfectly possible, perhaps likely, that others have been made which have not come to my attention. That the compilation of a complete list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is dependent on the serendipitous identification of tweets by new appointees is hardly a model of transparency. It’s also not clear why these appointments which followed only days after the list was published were not included on it. If the turnover of PPSs is significant then there may be some justification in suggesting that providing an updated list every month or two is not the most effective use of resources by staff at Number 10, although presumably such a list exists and is updated when there is a change. However, it is quite clear that the current list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries was published before the latest round of appointments was complete. It is unfortunate that as a result what might be seen as a welcome movement towards greater transparency on the part of government, begins to look like an exercise in obfuscation.