Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the payroll vote under Boris Johnson

The Government has published the latest list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS). I have written a number of previous posts about the role and particularly the rise in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in recent years. I won’t repeat myself here other than to note that these unpaid positions are generally seen as the first rung on the ministerial ladder and, like ministers, MPs who are parliamentary private secretaries are expected to remain loyal and vote with the government. As such the offer of a position as a PPS, like ministerial office, is often seen as a carrot to guarantee support in the chamber of the House of Commons.  Despite the fact that PPSs do not receive a ministerial salary the combination of paid and unpaid ministerial positions is sometimes referred to as the payroll vote.

The size of the payroll vote has increased considerably in recent years leading to criticism that governments have used this form of patronage to pack the chamber with guaranteed votes. Although the number of paid ministerial positions is limited by law, there is no cap on the number of parliamentary private secretaries.

The latest data release indicates that there are 41 parliamentary private secretaries. This looks like a significant increase in the number of these posts under Boris Johnson. There were only 34 PPSs on the final list released under Theresa May in June 2019. However, this was perhaps more a reflection of the difficulties May faced in filling government posts as her government limped towards its demise. Previous lists released under Theresa May in 2017 and 2018 indicated there were 45 and 46 parliamentary private secretaries.

The total number of MPs currently holding government posts is on a par with recent governments. There are currently 80 MPs holding ministerial posts in the House of Commons and 13 serving as Whips. When combined with 41 parliamentary private secretaries this makes a payroll vote of 134 MPs. This is less than the 140 MPs holding government posts under Theresa May in 2018, and significantly lower than the high point of 148 under the coalition government in 2014.

Moreover, while the size of the payroll vote has changed little under the current government, the size of the government’s majority means that the proportion of Conservative MPs holding government positions is considerably lower than under David Cameron or Theresa May. Only 31% of those sitting on the government benches currently hold a government post, compared to 45% even in the final months of the Theresa May government.

Many would argue for the need to address the rise in the payroll vote, including perhaps a further limit on the number of ministerial posts and a cap on the number of parliamentary private secretaries. However, as the current government may discover with significant disgruntlement on the backbenches, political patronage may only stretch so far.

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Watching from the wings: the role of the PM’s PPS in a socially distanced House of Commons chamber

PMQs 6 May 2020 – the Prime Minister has often seemed isolated at recent PMQs. (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

It is clear that the Prime Minister is struggling in his the weekly encounter with the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions. As the Prime Minister, somewhat bizarrely, keeps reminding us Keir Starmer is a former barrister who is always well prepared and not unfamiliar with the adversarial system. The PM on the other hand is not a details man, but does seem to enjoy playing to a crowd. He would clearly be more comfortable in a full House of Commons chamber with ranks of Conservative MPs behind him willing to laugh like drains at his every quip. At times he seems like a lonely figure sitting in the middle of a largely vacant Treasury bench.

The social distancing arrangements in the House of Commons have left the Prime Minister isolated in more ways than one. Aside from depriving him of the comforting presence of his backbenchers, social distancing in the Commons chamber may well be depriving the PM of a more direct form of assistance at PMQs. As I have written previously, when answering questions in the Chamber, Prime Minsters are usually supported by one or possibly two Parliamentary Private Secretaries who sit on the bench behind them, armed with a folder of prepared briefing notes ready to pass to the Prime Minister in response to any question.

If social distancing has altered the theatre of PMQs, careful scrutiny of recent performances reveals a interesting change in the dramatis personae. Under the current arrangements there are usually only three people sitting on the Treasury bench for PMQs, and nobody in the row behind. As a result Parliamentary Private Secretaries can no longer sit behind the PM, pass notes over his shoulder or whisper in his ear. Moreover, the Treasury bench is reserved for Ministers and consequently the opportunity is not available for a PPS to sit alongside the PM.

Indeed for several weeks following the Prime Minister’s return to the chamber following his bout of Coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries were not visible in the chamber at all during PMQs. Although camera angles make it difficult to be certain about this, they were certainly not seated anywhere near the Prime Minister. This perhaps contributed to the Prime Minister’s faltering performances on his return to the Commons.

For several weeks the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, occupied the end of the front bench nearest to the Prime Minister. This was perhaps a means of signalling the Government’s priority in tackling the Coronavirus. The Health Secretary was also presumably in a position to pass details to the PM about the Government’s progress in combating the virus. Across the aisle, the front bench furthest away from the Speaker’s Chair was occupied by the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, and the Deputy Chief Whip, Stuart Andrew.

On 20 May, the Health Secretary was not in the chamber for PMQs and his position nearest to the Prime Minister was taken by the Chief Whip as it has been for subsequent PMQs. (This is mirrored on the other side of the chamber where the Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown has been a regular fixture on the end of the front bench nearest to Keir Starmer.) The Conservative Deputy Chief Whip moved up to occupy the seat across the aisle from the Chief Whip and the remaining position on the front bench was taken by one of the Prime Minister’s PPSs, Alex Burghart. In the course of PMQs, Burghart can clearly be seen leafing through the thick folder of briefing notes. In recent weeks Andrew and Burghart have swapped positions so that the PPS is sitting across the aisle from the Treasury bench and only a short distance from the PM.

PMQs 15 July 2020 – the Prime Minister’s PPS Alex Burghart can be seen in the middle of shot with the PMQs folder. (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

In recent weeks both of the Prime Minister’s PPSs have been visible in the chamber at PMQs. Burghart in his, by now customary, position nursing the folder across the aisle from the Treasury bench. The Prime Minister’s other PPS, Trudy Harrison, can often be seen at the other end of the Conservative front bench standing in the wings just behind the Speaker’s Chair. She too is holding what is presumably a copy of the PMQs briefing notes.

PMQs 15 July 2020 – the PM’s other PPS Trudy Harrison can be seen holding a folder standing just to the left of the Speaker’s chair (Source: Parliamentlive.tv)

What is not clear from the broadcast footage is what these PPSs are able to do to support the Prime Minister in the chamber or even how they are able to communicate with him. It may be that their presence alone provides some reassurance, but the hefty folder on Burghart’s knee suggests a more substantive role. The most important role of the PM’s PPS is almost certainly in preparing the Prime Minister for PMQs, but the re-emergence of these important actors onto the stage suggests that they also have an important supporting role in shoring up the Prime Minister’s performance in the chamber.


All photos are stills taken from Parliamentlive.tv  or UK Parliament YouTube channel.

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An increasingly costly resource: are special advisers value for money?

In recent weeks questions have been raised about the involvement of the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings, in decision-making in relation to the government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. This is not the first time that questions have been asked about the role of special advisers in the Johnson government. The Prime Minister’s decision to appoint the mercurial Cummings as a special adviser raised eyebrows and a few hackles in Westminster, when it was announced in July 2019. In August 2019 it was reported that the Chancellor, Sajid Javid was unhappy that one his special advisers had been sacked on the instructions of number 10. The Chancellor resigned in February apparently after being instructed to replace his entire team of advisers with individuals chosen by Number 10.

Javid’s resignation and the apparent desire of number 10 to control the appointment of special advisers suggests that they are viewed by ministers as an important resource and also, perhaps, as something of a status symbol. However, their role is in many respects somewhat obscure. Special advisers are temporary civil servants appointed to provide political advice to ministers. They are not appointed through the standard civil service recruitment and have a separate code of conduct. They are not bound by the duty of impartiality and objectivity which underpins the work of civil service, yet this elite group of occasionally troublesome political appointees are funded from the public purse. Moreover the annual increase in their numbers means they are becoming an increasingly costly resource.

Some element of transparency is provided through the annual special adviser data release. In recent years the government has adopted a practice of releasing these data just before the Christmas recess when it is often lost amongst other news. The 2019 release appeared on the 20th December, the day Parliament rose for the Christmas recess and only days after Parliament returned following the general election, almost guaranteeing it would pass largely unnoticed.

Following last year’s release, I wrote a post for Democratic Audit in which I noted that the number of special advisers has increased almost year on year since 1997 and that the upward trend has been particularly steep since 2010. This is notable not least because in opposition the Conservative Party had been critical of Labour’s use of special advisers and the 2010 Conservative manifesto had declared:

We will put a limit on the number of special advisers and protect the impartiality of the civil service.

The number of special advisers has increased again under Boris Johnson, from 99 in the final set of figures released under Theresa May, to 108 under the current government. This is only the second time that the total number of special advisers has exceeded 100, the previous occasion was under the coalition government in 2014 (see below). The numbers initialled increased considerably under the coalition, partly as a result of demands for special advisers from Ministers from both parties in the coalition. The numbers had fallen towards the end of the coalition but have risen steeply again since 2016.

This year’s increase is in part attributable to the number of special advisers located in number 10. This has increased from 37 under Theresa May to 44 under Johnson. This perhaps reflects an attempt to concentrate more power in Downing Street. The number of advisers allocated to number 10 is almost back to the peak of 46 in 2014. However, unlike under the coalition, when number 10’s special advisers were shared between David Cameron and the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, the current batch are entirely at the Prime Minister’s disposal.


The cost of special advisers

Another consequence of the increase in numbers is that there has been a significant increase in the cost of special advisers. The annual data release provides details of the total salary cost of special advisers and the four pay bands under which they are appointed (see below). Special adviser annual salaries range from £40,000 to £145,000. While individual salaries for all special advisers are not published, in keeping with other senior civil service appointments, details are provided for those whose annual salary exceeds £70,000.

Taken from Annual Report on Special Advisers, 2019

The total cost of special advisers has increased considerably in the last year from £8.1 million in the 2017-18 financial year to £9.6 million in 2018-19. This included around £208,000 in severance payments, although this does not include those who left posts since Boris Johnson took over as PM including those special advisers whose sacking led to the resignation of the Chancellor. These costs are therefore likely to be significantly higher in the next financial year.

Any increase in costs will also be in no small part due to an increase in the number of the most highly paid special advisors since Johnson became PM. Under Theresa May there were five special advisers in the highest pay band, those earning over £96,000 p.a., while under Boris Johnson there are nine, including Dominic Cummings and the Downing Street Director of Communications, Lee Cain. All but one of the most highly paid special advisors are located in Number 10, with one working for the Chancellor. Seven of those in the top pay band have salaries in excess of £120,000, compared to four under Theresa May. This does not include Cummings who enjoys a relatively modest salary of between £95,000 and £99,999. Significantly, however, the total cost of special advisers in the top pay band has almost doubled under Johnson from £620,000 in 2018 to £1,149,994 in 2019.


Special advisers are now an established fixture in the machinery of the UK government. They are a significant resource which ministers clearly value and jealously guard. Although there is now considerable transparency around who these individuals are and what they earn, as recent events have shown, the precise nature or their role, powers and influence is not always so clear. If their numbers and associated costs keep on rising, questions will understandably be asked about whether this expensive resource is a worthwhile use of taxpayers’ money.


The role of special advisers was considered in more depth in an excellent Institute for Government live discussion, ‘The good the SpAd and the ugly: special advisers in government’. Available here and here.

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Can the Independent Group of MPs survive?

Photo by Jessica Taylor, official House of Commons photographer @Jess_Taylor_

One of the consequences of Britain’s protracted and disorganised attempt to leave the European Union has been the decision of a group of MPs, seven Labour and three Conservative, to leave their parties and establish a new Independent Group in Parliament. The Independent Group is not a political party although it is assumed that at some point they will seek to become one. This post identifies some of the challenges facing The Independent Group in seeking to establish themselves at Westminster and to attract electoral support. It argues that the two-party system is the product of the electoral system, underpinned by the media and embedded in the practices and procedures of the House of Commons. It suggests, however, that the answer to this may not lie in The Independent Group seeking to establish themselves as a new political party but rather in embracing their independence.

The electoral system

There is a widely-held assumption that the British electoral system will strangle at birth the aspirations of any newly formed political party which hopes to have a national impact. The first-past-the-post electoral system rewards winners but offers nothing for those coming second. Widespread national support will not deliver seats in Parliament, unless it is combined with concentrated local support. The most striking example of this was provided by the 1983 general election when the SDP-Liberal Alliance won 25.4% of the vote, but only 23 seats. More recently, in the 2015 general election the UK Independence Party attracted almost four million votes, 12.6% of the vote, but only managed to win one seat.

According to this view if it is to have any prospect of success the newly formed Independent Group of MPs must quickly form itself into a political party and embrace electoral reform as the only means of real electoral impact. This was the approach adopted by those MPs who broke-away from the Labour Party in 1981 and quickly formed the SDP. As a third party attempting to usurp the two-party domination of British politics, electoral reform has remained a core plank of Liberal Party policy to the present day.

The media

The two-party system is also locked in by the UK media. Britain has a highly partisan press but while the support of the print media fluctuates between the Conservative and Labour parties, smaller parties have struggled to gain support or coverage. For most of the post-war period more than 90% of UK press share, in terms of circulation, has fallen to the two main parties. The winning party at each general election since 1979 has enjoyed a larger press share than share of the vote. In contrast the electoral fortunes of some of the smaller parties has exceeded their press share. The combined circulation of those newspapers supporting parties other than the main two accounts for less than 10% of the total press circulation in the UK. Only one national daily newspaper supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (The Guardian) and 2015 (The Independent) and none in 2017. The Daily Express supported UKIP in 2015 but switched back to the Conservatives in 2017.

Broadcasters in the UK have a duty to be impartial but are not required to give equal weight or airtime to all parties. Ofcom expects that broadcasters will provide ‘appropriate’ coverage of smaller parties, but if the electoral system ensures that a large majority of seats will continue to be held by the two main parties, this will be reflected in the broadcast coverage. This may vary in the different parts of the UK, but a party wishing to appeal to voters across the UK may struggle to justify an appeal for more airtime.

Parliament

Independent MPs and those from smaller parties may also struggle to have an impact in Parliament. As Louise Thompson has shown the two-party system is embedded in the practices and procedures at Westminster. Parliament is dominated by the Executive and the Official Opposition (Labour) enjoys privileges which are not extended to other parties. Independent Group MPs may struggle to contribute to debates, they are likely to be called to speak later, if they are called at all, when time is short. They are also likely to be further down the pecking order when tabling amendments and will struggle to get seats on bill committees which scrutinise legislation.

Several of the Independent Group MPs currently hold prominent seats on select committees but these may come under threat. Labour has moved motions to remove its former MPs, Mike Gapes and Ian Austin from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chris Leslie from the International Trade Committee. The Conservative Party has not yet indicated that it will seek to remove its former MPs from select committees, but Independent Group MP, Sarah Wollaston who chairs the Health and Social Care and the powerful Liaison Committee, may find her position threatened.

The Independent Group may also struggle for resources. They are no longer able to draw on the not inconsiderable resources available to a national political party. So-called Short Money, parliamentary funding which is available to parties with seats in the House of Commons to provide administrative and research support, will not be available to The Independent Group unless and until they become a political party. Limited resources will impact on their day to day operation as a group in Parliament but also on their ability to contest elections.

Should The Independent Group become a political party?

One obvious first step towards long-term sustainability would be for The Independent Group to register as a political party. This would allow them greater access to parliamentary resources and perhaps parliamentary positions and time. With eleven MPs they would have as many seats in the House of Commons as the Liberal Democrats. Registering as a political party would also give them an identity and allow the inclusion of a party name and other identity marks such as a logo to appear on ballot papers. Establishing an identity might be particularly helpful given that The Independent Group comprises MPs who previously sat on both sides of the House of Commons. Registering as a political party would also bring certain responsibilities in relation to transparency about their funding. This may also be beneficial given that the group has already been subject to some unpleasant sniping about the sources of their funding.

However, The Independent Group are not obliged to register as a political party and are not required to do so in order to stand in elections in the UK. Moreover, while there is a widespread assumption that political parties are the only vehicle for electoral success in the UK, this is not the case and there are several reasons why they may choose to retain their current status, at least for the time being.

Perhaps the most significant asset of The Independent Group is their independence. The fact that they are not a political party, and moreover, that they comprise MPs from across the political spectrum may appeal to voters who are tired of the established parties and in particular their inability to set aside narrow party concerns in order to manage Britain’s exit from the European Union. Retaining this independent status may also help them to gloss over the obvious policy differences which exist within the group. The rigid application of party discipline may be necessary for parties which hope to form a government, but it is not clear that party whipping is understood or appreciated by the public, who may be more inclined to vote for candidates who can justifiably claim to put their views first.

The Independent Group may also be able to take advantage of a long-term fracturing of the British public’s affiliation with the two-party system. While the electoral system continues to favour two-party politics, the electorate are in large numbers voting for parties other than the main two. Gone are the days when Labour and the Conservatives between them accounted for more than 90% of the vote in UK general elections and 90% of seats in Parliament. At the 2015 general election, the combined share of the vote of the Conservative and Labour parties was 67%. One in five voted for parties other than the main four (Conservative, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat) and eleven parties won seats at Westminster. The 2017 general election was seen by some as a return to two-party politics, with Labour and the Conservatives accounting for 83% of the vote, but almost one in ten still voted for parties other than the main four and eight different parties won seats.

Polling organisations are not quite sure how to test support for The Independent Group, they’re not a party and don’t have enough members to stand across the UK. Nevertheless, some early polling does indicate support for The Independent Group ranging from 6% to 14%, on a par or better than smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.

There are also precedents for successful independent members at Westminster. Independent MPs were the norm prior to the emergence of political parties in the nineteenth century. There have, nevertheless, been some prominent examples in recent years, notably the journalist Martin Bell who stood on an anti-sleaze platform against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997 and Dr Richard Taylor who stood against plans to close Kidderminster Hospital in 2001 and retained his seat in 2005. Sylvia Hermon has sat as an independent MP for North Down since she left the Ulster Unionists in 2010. There are currently 21 independent MPs sitting in the House of Commons, although several of these have had the Whip withdrawn for a range of alleged misdeeds within and beyond Parliament and are unlikely to be invited to join The Independent Group. Crucially, aside from Sylvia Hermon none have tested their independent status at the ballot box.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there are 151 independent members sitting in the House of Lords. Crossbench peers comprise the third largest group in the Lords. Although none owe their seat to success at the ballot box, they are nevertheless valued for offering a non-partisan perspective to debate in the upper chamber.

Perhaps more significant than the decidedly mixed fortunes of independent members at Westminster, is the public’s willingness to vote for independent candidates in other elections in the UK. Independent candidates are a common feature of local elections in the UK and attract considerable support. There are around 1800 independent councillors in the UK, around 9% of all local councillors. In Lincolnshire, where I write this, the County Council includes six independent councillors, the same as the number of Labour councillors. Of the twenty-three directly elected mayors in England and Wales, two are currently independent (Copeland and Mansfield), while independents have previously been elected as Mayors in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and London.

The challenges for The Independent Group to establish themselves as a significant force in British politics are not inconsiderable. The best response to this may not, however, be to form themselves into a political party and seek to challenge the established parties on their own terms. At least some voters may be ready for an independent voice at Westminster and a different way of doing things. The fortunes of independent MPs have been somewhat mixed, but the experience of local government in the UK indicates that the public is willing to vote for independent candidates, even when standing against members of the established political parties. Why not at Westminster?

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How did the Government end up in contempt of Parliament?

This post first appeared on the blog of the Political Studies Association Parliaments Group on 10 December 2018.


The Government has found itself in the unprecedented position of being in contempt of Parliament. The immediate cause of the contempt motion was the government’s failure to release in full the Attorney-General’s legal advice on the EU withdrawal agreement. The Government had been instructed to release the advice in an Opposition motion which was approved by Parliament on 13th November. The Government’s refusal to do so, coupled with its attempt to circumvent Parliament’s instruction by sending the Attorney-General to the House to explain his advice, prompted Labour to table a contempt motion which, on 4th December, was passed by 311 votes to 293.

The roots of the Government’s parliamentary difficulties in relation to the Attorney-General’s advice do not, however, lie in its handling of the EU withdrawal agreement, so much as its response to an Opposition Day motion on Universal Credit tabled in October 2017.

Opposition Motions and the Humble Address

Although most parliamentary business is dominated by the Government, in each parliamentary session several days are set aside for Opposition motions. A Government with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an Opposition motion. Moreover, even if passed Opposition motions are non-binding and the Government is not usually required to do anything in response. Opposition days do, nevertheless, allow opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. Ministers must come to the House to respond to a motion and they can be used to put pressure on the Government.

Following its failure to secure a majority at the 2017 general election, the current Government adopted a policy of not contesting Opposition motions, on the perhaps dubious premise, that it could not be said to have been defeated if it did not contest a vote. This approach to opposition days caused considerable consternation on both sides of the House and following an uncontested vote on universal credit in 2017, the Speaker was moved to suggest to Opposition MPs that ‘mechanisms’ were available to secure a Government response and that he would not be opposed to the use of such mechanisms.

The mechanism adopted by Labour at its next Opposition day debate was to table its motion in the form of a Humble Address to Her Majesty requesting the release of certain documents relating to the Government Brexit impact assessments. While Opposition day motions are non-binding, the Humble Address, is a binding resolution of the House. Although it is usually used to communicate the House’s congratulations or commiserations to the Monarch, in a rarely used form, known as a motion for a return, the humble address can also be used to invoke Parliament’s power to call for papers from a Government department.

The Government was caught out by Labour’s use of a motion for a return in relation to its Brexit impact assessments and, reluctantly released the papers to the House. Having successfully forced the government to release Brexit papers, Labour has continued to deploy the motion for a return, with varying degrees of success. Labour has used the Humble Address as a motion for a return eight times in this parliamentary session, including the motion calling for the release of the Attorney-General’s legal advice on the EU withdrawal agreement. Labour has not, however, had it all its own way. In May this year, in response to an expansive opposition motion requesting documents relating to the Windrush scandal, the Government decided that it could no longer afford to allow Labour a free hand and, for the first time in this Parliament, contested and defeated an Opposition motion.

In this context it was little surprise when Labour used its Opposition day on 13th November to present a Humble Address requesting the release, ‘in full’, of any legal advice relating to the withdrawal agreement. Although, as indicated by the Windrush motion, it was by no means certain that the motion would be approved by the House, the Government had already come under pressure to release the Attorney-General’s advice. When it became clear that Labour’s motion would also be supported by MPs from the DUP and Conservative MPs opposed to the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, the Government chose not to contest the motion which was approved without a vote. The Speaker advised that ‘it is an expression of the will of the House that certain documents should be provided to it. It is then for the Government to respond, and we await that response, which it is to be expected will be swift.’

The Government’s response to Parliament’s demand for the Attorney-General’s legal advice

Last Monday, the Government sought to head off the demands of the House by publishing a lengthy overview of the legal position with regard to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and sending the Attorney-General to the House of Commons to explain his legal advice and why the Government was not releasing it in full. Despite a robust performance from the Attorney-General, there was considerable concern on both sides of the House, both regarding the legal implications of the withdrawal agreement and also the Government’s attempt to circumvent the requirements of the 13th November motion.

Events moved fast on Monday evening. Shortly after the end of the debate on the Attorney-General’s statement, the Speaker revealed that he had received a letter asking that the House be allowed to debate the matter of contempt, “at the earliest opportunity”. The letter, which was signed by the Brexit spokespersons of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and perhaps most remarkably, the Democratic Unionist Party, argued that the information released by the Government that day did not constitute the “final and full” advice provided by the Attorney General to the Cabinet and did not therefore comply with the motion of 13th November.

A little over two hours later, midway through an SNP-led adjournment debate on Scotland’s foreign policy footprint, the Speaker returned to the chamber to announce that having considered the request he was convinced that “there is an arguable case that a contempt has been committed” and that a contempt motion would be debated as first business the following day. The Foreign Office Minister, Alan Duncan was then placed in the unenviable position of stretching out the Government’s response to the SNP’s adjournment motion, long enough to allow the Government to table an amendment to Labour’s motion of contempt before the House rose for the day. To the bemusement and irritation of SNP members, he was assisted by numerous interventions from a group of Conservative MPs who suddenly appeared in the Chamber with a new-found interest in Scottish affairs.

The future of the Humble Address

The Government’s amendment to Labour’s contempt motion, remarkably, sought to refer itself to the Privileges Committee to rule on whether it had responded sufficiently to the demands of the 13th November motion. Interestingly, the Government also sought to question Labour’s use of the Humble Address by asking the Committee ‘to consider the constitutional and historic context and the proper use, ambit and scope of the motion for return procedure.’

In the debate on the contempt motion the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom described Labour’s use of the Humble Address as ‘irresponsible’ warning that ‘the House might request, by way of a Humble Address, information that could compromise national security or which might put the lives of our troops in danger.’ Similar concerns had been raised by the Attorney-General in the previous day’s debate, when he had asked:

Where do the limits of this power end? Does it extend to Cabinet minutes? Does it extend to the papers of the secret intelligence service? Is the House, by means of this motion, to command any paper of any kind, central to the interests of this nation, without even being able to check that, by its release, it is causing, or might cause, severe damage to the public interest?

The Government’s amendment was defeated, and the contempt motion approved. The Attorney-General’s legal advice has now been released in full, in line with the instruction of the House delivered on 13th November. The Privileges Committee will ultimately decide whether any punishment will follow. Interestingly the contempt motion which was approved by the House referred to ‘Ministers’ rather than to any individual, which suggests that any punishment should extend beyond any individual, such as the Attorney-General. The Government has sought to keep pressure on Labour’s use of the Humble Address by writing to Privileges Committee to ask it to consider whether it is appropriate. The Privileges Committee, however, acts on the basis of instruction from the House, rather than individual parties and may not feel minded to respond to the Government’s request.

The Government’s response reflects a change in their approach to Opposition motions. The Government had begun this Parliament by whipping its MPs not to vote on Opposition motions in order to avoid the appearance of defeat. Labour’s repeated use of the motion for a return eventually prompted the government to contest these motions, with some success, earlier this year. However, following its defeat on the legal advice motion and the tabling of a motion of contempt, it has now sought to question whether the motion for a return it is an appropriate procedure for the Opposition to deploy.

During the contempt debate the Government repeatedly suggested that the use of the Humble Address as a motion for a return is an arcane, outdated and potentially dangerous practice. Yet Labour has deployed this tactic on several occasions during this Parliament and on each previous occasion the Government has accepted the outcome, albeit reluctantly. The Government was not tricked into releasing the Attorney-General’s legal advice or outflanked by a clever piece of parliamentary procedure about which it was unaware. Given what has already taken place during this Parliament, Labour’s approach and the likely outcome were entirely predictable.

Moreover, whatever the dramatic scenarios presented by Government Ministers, the motion for a return does not give the Opposition absolute power to secure the release of government documents. Parliament already has the power to call for papers, this is a central feature of parliamentary sovereignty. The motion for a return provides a mechanism to enact that power, but it may only be enacted if a majority of MPs support it, this is also a central feature of parliamentary sovereignty. The Government simply failed to secure a majority to defeat Labour’s motion of 13th November. Parties which can command a majority in the House of Commons, whether Government or Opposition, face very few restraints on their powers.

Opposition motions do not usually cause Governments such difficulty. They have done so in this case, not because parliamentary procedure is weighted against the Government, indeed quite the opposite is true, but rather because the Government cannot command a majority in the House of Commons. If the Government thinks this is damaging to the national interest it should consider its own position rather than seeking to blame parliamentary procedure.

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