Parliamentary Private Secretaries: What does the role entail?
Every Cabinet Minister and Minister of State is entitled to appoint a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), an unpaid assistant of sorts, from among the party’s MPs, subject to the approval of the Prime Minister.
Although they hold no official government position and draw no salary, the role is considered a first step on the ladder towards a ministerial careers.
Often dismissed as mere “bag carriers”, the position of PPS is nonetheless sought after by junior members. What does the role actually entail?
Philip Norton, writing in The House magazine in 1997 outlined the following duties:
“They sit behind the dispatch box, running messages between the officials’ box and their ministers. They also serve as important channels of communication between ministers and backbenchers, keeping a weather eye on moods within the parliamentary party and reporting likely reaction to proposed measures. They may also serve as an important means of communication with the party and bodies outside the House, providing a political – as opposed to an official departmental – line of access to ministers. They help ministers with a variety of tasks, including farming out friendly parliamentary questions. They may also be included at the discretion of the Secretary of State in the regular meetings of the ministerial team (ministers, senior officials, special advisers) and may be used by the minister as an additional sounding board for proposals.”
A “good PPS”, according to a 1967 article in The Parliamentarian by R.K. Alderman and J.A. Cross will seek to:
“…act as a liaison between his Minister and backbenchers; and this, as with the Whips, is a two-way process. On the one hand the PPS is a kind of “public relations agent” for his Minister, explaining the policy of his department to MPs and defending him against his critics… On the other hand, the PPS will hear and keep his Minister in touch with backbench opinion and channel comments and complaints to him.”
The Ministerial Code: What PPSs can and can’t do
Page 7 of the Ministerial Code, which sets out the “the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duties”, outlines the restrictions and requirements of the PPS role.
3.6 Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State may appoint Parliamentary Private Secretaries. All appointments require the prior written approval of the Prime Minister. The Chief Whip should also be consulted and no commitments to make such appointments should be entered into until such approval is received.
3.7 Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not members of the Government. However, they must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, and their private interests.
3.8 Official information given to them should generally be limited to what is necessary for the discharge of their Parliamentary and political duties. This need not preclude them from being brought into departmental discussions where appropriate, but any such access should be approved by the relevant appointing Minister. They should not have access to information classified at secret or above. Nor should they have access to secure government establishments.
3.9 Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to support the Government in important divisions in the House. No Parliamentary Private Secretary who votes against the Government can retain his or her position.
3.10 Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not make statements in the House or put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected. They are not precluded from serving on Select Committees, but they should withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointing Minister’s department, and they should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House.
The ‘Payroll Vote’ and calls for reform
The role of PPSs in enlarging the size of the so-called ‘payroll vote’ - those compelled to vote with the Government Whip or resign or be sacked - has long proved controversial.
The report of the 1941 Select Committee on Offices or Places of Profit Under the Crown (the 'Herbert Report') suggested that PPSs were “not without reason, regarded as increasing the voting strength and influence of the Government in the House of Commons; it might (however improbably) be improperly used for this purpose”.
Whether one detects cynicism on the part of the successive governments for the historical growth in PPS numbers, there are indisputable implications for parliamentary scrutiny.
Returning to Alderman and Cross’ article from 1967:
“PPSs are…less able to participate in the work of the Commons as critic and investigator of the Administration…It is difficult to resist the conclusion that, in the institution of PPS, Governments are securing junior Ministers “on the cheap”. If this is in fact the case many would wish to argue that the ability of the House of Commons at times to adopt an independent, uncommitted stance towards the Government is of greater importance than a marginal saving in public expenditure.”
Former Labour minister Chris Mullin argues that the proliferation of PPSs has served to “diminish the number of Back-Bench Members available for scrutiny” as “they enable the Government to get as many people as possible on to the payroll in order to minimise critical activity in the Chamber”. This “part of the purpose in my view” and “how governments have used it”, he argues.
One counter-argument is that those likely to be appointed PPSs are already pliant, loyal MPs. This is a view put forward by Conservative MP Robert Halfon who suggests that “if you look at the list of those who were made PPSs [under the Coalition Government], I suggest the majority of those people would probably always vote with the Government anyway and so, de facto, are on the payroll vote".
Proposals for reform
The Public Administration Committee’s 2010 report Too Many Ministers? notes that:
“Sir John Major described the size of the payroll vote as a ‘constitutional outrage’. His view was that only Cabinet Ministers should be entitled to PPSs. Chris Mullin has described the appointment of PPSs as ‘neutralising intelligent individuals who might otherwise make a rather more useful contribution to the proper functioning of Parliament.’”
As per Major’s suggestion, the Committee ultimately recommended that the Ministerial Code be amended to limit PPSs to one per department or Cabinet Minister. The Committee repeated the recommendation in its 2011 report, Smaller Government: What do Ministers do?. Indeed, the same recommendation had been made in 1941 by the Herbert Report.
The 2011 report argued that a reduction in overall numbers, paradoxically, would not just benefit the level parliamentary scrutiny but also the surviving PPSs:
“The growth in the number of PPSs has diluted the impact and status of the individual PPSs …When there were relatively few PPSs… they had much higher profile than they presently enjoy. They could be invited in place of their minister to deliver a speech or attend a particular ceremony. Reducing the number of PPSs may have the effect of enhancing their status, enabling them to shoulder some of the burdens presently carried out by junior ministers.”
Despite these strident voices for a cull in PPS numbers the last Government held firm. Its response to the 2011 PASC report rejected the notion that the appointment of PPSs to both Secretaries of State and Ministers of State undermines parliamentary scrutiny:
“The Government believes that Parliamentary Private Secretaries perform an important role in the parliamentary process which in many ways is beneficial to Parliament as they are able to bring the backbenchers’ perspective to bear on the development of Government policy and contribute to the smooth running of the House. Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not on the Government payroll, and there are limitations on what they can and cannot do within a department. Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State may currently appoint Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but they provide support to all the Department’s Ministers.”
Indeed, the Government has continued with the practice of appointing PPSs to Secretaries of State and Ministers of State following the 2015 General Election.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee was to reject the suggestion outright, arguing that the appointments represent "voluntary associations entered into by private arrangement between Members whose freedom to do so cannot be challenged" and a reduction in numbers "would not serve the best interests of the House at the present time".
In the Commons convention dictates that during sittings any notes from officials should not be passed directly from civil servants to ministers, with PPSs acting as a go-between.
However, the Public Administration Committee's 2011 report Smaller Government: What do Ministers do? argued that note-passing was "a job that could be done either by any available Member in the Chamber or by doorkeepers, as is done in Lords".
In a 2013 video interview, Simon Wright (then PPS to Schools Minister David Laws) said:
“As a PPS I regularly go out and meet with education groups…to find out how government can work better for them…these sorts of meetings feed in both through the department but also crucially for my role through the party as well and that policy development takes place all year round outside of government and within government. Looking ahead to the  general election as we pull together the sort of policies we will be campaigning on and including in our manifesto it’s meetings with groups such as the Open University that inform our policy development.”
Commenting on this part of the role, Ben Gummer (then PPS to International Development Minister Alan Duncan) states:
“What I do is to make sure that questions that are being are asked…are as well answered as possible so that backbenchers are happy that they got a satisfactory answer and likewise I make sure that my minister knows as far in advance about the kind of things that might come up so that he’s going to answer it as well as possible."
In the same video Simon Wright acknowledges that he would help develop questions and encourage colleagues to table them.
Tony Baldry, who served as PPS to a Transport Minister and to the Leader of the Commons under Thatcher, argues that PPSs fulfil an “extremely valuable role in in keeping Ministers in touch with what Back Benchers are doing” by “getting into the Tea Rooms, attending Back-Bench committee meetings”. He asserts that:
“I think that most effective PPSs will make sure that their Ministers know what is going on and actually they are a very good conduit….it's not always going to be possible to get your hands on a Secretary of State or a Minister straight away, and a very useful person to be able to get your hands on to make sure that messages get through is a PPS.”
As Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston told the Commons in 2011, there is no actual job descrption available to prospective PPSs:
"Shortly after I arrived - I am probably not allowed to say this-I was approached and asked whether I would like to become a PPS. I went to the Library and asked for a briefing on the job description, because there are no job descriptions in this place."
In practice, this particular restriction is flouted occasionally with no consequences for offending PPSs.
For example, in the last Parliament the following PPSs all acknowledged having broken the rule:
Tessa Munt, a BIS PPS, spoke in debates on ticket touting and banking competition; Ben Wallace, an MoJ PPS, spoke about health and safety legislation; Dr Thérèse Coffey, a BIS PPS, debated broadband coverage
Mary MacLeod (then PPS to Culture Secretary Maria Miller), speaking in a 2013 video interview said:
“I can get their diary through and look through it and say what are the things that I find interesting or that I want to be involved in or I want to listen to those discussions.”
The number of Commons PPSs has grown from 27 in 1950 to 46 at the beginning of the Coalition Government in 2010.
As there is no set job description the actual responsibilities of the role can be somewhat fluid and dictated to an extent by the whims of the minister.
For example, Harold Wilson was joined a trade mission to the Soviet Union in 1947 by his then PPS, Tim Cook, noting in his auto-biography that he had taken Cook, a "highly-qualified electrician", to help him scan his hotel room for Soviet bugs!