Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the irresistible rise in the payroll vote

The role of unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) and the impact of these appointments on the size the payroll vote has been something of a preoccupation of this blog. I first wrote about the payroll vote in a post in 2013, which showed how the number of PPSs had increased more than fourfold over the last century, from less than 10 to over 40. It argued that these unpaid positions, which are often seen as the first rung on the Ministerial ladder, are used by governments as a means of promoting loyalty amongst its own MPs, effectively increasing the number of guaranteed votes in Parliament. By 2013, when counted alongside paid, (and unpaid), Ministerial positions, this meant that 39% of coalition MPs held government posts which they would need to resign if they wished to vote against the government.

Another problem, which was discussed in this post in 2015, is that it is often quite difficult to find out which, and crucially, how many, MPs hold positions as Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Prior to the 2010 general election the Conservative Party promised to make government more transparent, and following the election did publish a list of PPSs. However, this list was never updated and, although such a list presumably always exists, it has proved remarkably difficult to track down. Following the 2015 general election after unsuccessful attempts to track down a list of PPSs from various sources including the Houses of Commons library, I was eventually able to secure a list, by effectively submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office. This list, which was published on this blog, has been widely used including by the House of Commons library.

It is therefore, pleasing to note that following the general election this summer the current government published a full list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries on the government website. This is a positive development and it is to be hoped that, unlike in 2010, the list is kept updated following reshuffles and elections.

The list reveals that there are currently 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, five more than following the 2015 general election. There has also been a change in the allocation of PPSs. The Prime Minister now has two, George Hollingbery and Seema Kennedy. Secretaries of State all have their own PPS, but only one Minister of State, Brandon Lewis the Immigration Minister, is now listed as having a PPS. While most government departments have retained two PPSs, in a change from previous practice the second PPS is designated as supporting the ‘Ministerial team’ rather than the Minister of State. This may be a more accurate reflection of their role, it may also be designed to avoid the criticism that allocating second-tier Ministers their own PPS looked rather like padding out the payroll vote. The Home Office, inexplicably, has four PPSs attached to it, supporting the Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, the Minister of State, Brandon Lewis, and two further PPSs supporting the rest of the Ministerial team. It is not clear why this is the case, the Ministerial team at the Home Office, which comprises six Ministers, is no larger than several other government departments including the FCO, the DWP and the Cabinet Office.

Finally, what does all of this mean for the payroll vote? Without a majority the government’s ability to ensure the support of its own members is clearly crucial, and without any drop in the number of Ministerial and PPS appointments, the proportion of MPs who are bound to support the government has inevitably increased. There are currently 83 Ministers in the House of Commons and 18 Whips, although five of these hold more than one post. Which means that 96 MPs are Ministers or Whips. When added to the 46 PPSs, this means the payroll vote in the House of Commons is comprised of 142 MPs (10 more than in 2015). 45% of Conservative MPs must now vote with the government or resign their post. Calls to limit the size of the payroll vote are often heard from observers of parliament and occasionally from those who sit within it, but clearly the temptation to draw ever more MPs into the cosy embrace of government, continues to prove irresistible to those in power.

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