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Cutting MP numbers could make Parliament more pliant

Reducing the total number of MPs without trimming the payroll vote could restrict the extent of constructive challenge to which government is subject.

Boundary Commissions proposals would reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Some fear this would decrease challenge to government from its own backbenches by increasing the proportion of MPs subject to government patronage. But, says Hannah White, the debate is stymied: it is hard even to find out the true size of the 'payroll' vote.

While there is no formal definition of the ‘payroll’ vote, it is generally considered to refer to all those who hold a paid or unpaid role in the administration, which they would risk by voting against the Government. The absence of an agreed definition makes it impossible to know what proportion of the total number of government MPs hold such a role. But it is clear that reducing the total number of MPs without trimming the payroll vote will increase the proportion of government MPs who feel unable to vote against the Government.

This is a matter of concern if it reduces the extent of constructive challenge to which government is subject, by making Parliament more pliant. This is important for votes in the House of Commons chamber – particularly salient in the context of a minority government. As discussed in our new Parliamentary Monitor report, another impact of the payroll vote is to restrict the availability of backbench government MPs to sit on select committees.

The legal basis of patronage

Some aspects of the payroll vote are clearly defined. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975, which seeks to minimise patronage, places a legal limit of 109 on the total number of paid ministerial appointments, and further limits on categories of minister within this total. The Act prescribes a maximum of 21 Cabinet Ministers (excluding the Lord Chancellor), a maximum of 50 Cabinet ministers, Ministers of State and other ministers, and a maximum of 83 Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State, other ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. On top of this there can be up to three paid law officers and up to 22 paid whips. The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 limits to 95 the number of these paid ministers who can sit in the House of Commons.

Beyond these legally defined limits the size of the payroll vote at any given time is unclear. First, this is because it is open to the government to make unpaid appointments. Parliamentary Private Secretary roles (PPSs) – normally seen as the first rung on the ministerial career ladder – make up the majority of such appointments.

Although being a PPS is an unpaid job, they are normally seen as part of the payroll vote. The Ministerial Code states that they are expected to support the Government, and there are restrictions on their ability to ask questions of the Government department they are associated with in the Commons, and to sit on departmental select committees. So being a PPS certainly limits the extent to which an MP would feel able to challenge the Government. The Commons Public Administration Committee highlighted the number of PPSs as a problem as early as 2011.

Keeping track is tricky, though. As the House of Commons Library has noted: “It is very difficult to compile accurate and up to date lists of PPSs. Turnover is often high and vacancies can be left open for some time. Official lists are rarely published and updated.”

Party appointments are also part of the payroll vote

Second, there are no legal limits on the Prime Minister appointing MPs to party-funded posts which, equally, might discourage them from voting or speaking against government policy. A longstanding example of a key party-funded role in any Conservative government is that of Chairman of the Conservative party – currently Brandon Lewis MP – who attends Cabinet.

Eyebrows were raised when, in January 2018, as part of a wider reshuffle, the Prime Minister appointed a further nine salaried vice chairs (on top of an existing four) and created a new role for James Cleverly MP as deputy chair. The fact that two vice chairs – Maria Caulfield MP and Ben Bradley MP – resigned their vice-chairmanships in order to speak out against Theresa May’s ‘Chequers plan’ for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU demonstrates that such posts are seen to buy loyalty in the same way as paid ministerial roles.

To have an informed debate on the implications of boundary reform for effective parliamentary scrutiny of government, we would need to have a clear picture of the size of the payroll vote and how this has shifted over time. Unfortunately it remains in the interests of any government – and particularly one wrestling with the challenges of governing as a minority – to draw a veil over the extent to which they are buying loyalty through salaries and patronage.

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