Parliamentary private secretaries

What is a parliamentary private secretary?

A parliamentary private secretary (PPS) is an MP who serves as an unpaid assistant to a government minister.

What do parliamentary private secretaries do?

A parliamentary private secretary’s duties vary considerably between departments and the minister they work alongside. The most basic part of the PPS role is collecting and passing on documents from civil servants to their minister while he or she is speaking in Parliament. Beyond that, they serve as an informal liaison between their minister and their party’s MPs.

As part of the latter role, PPSs attempt to relay the mood of the parliamentary party back to their minister and are often described as being that minister's ‘eyes and ears’ in the Commons. Equally, they are an important channel of communication from their minister to Parliament as they explain and defend their department’s policies to their party’s MPs.

Are parliamentary private secretaries members of the government?

No, but many of the same restrictions apply to their conduct. The Ministerial Code states that "parliamentary private secretaries are expected to support the government in divisions in the House", and that, "no parliamentary private secretary who votes against the government can retain his or her position". They are also expected to "avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the government". 

Despite being bound by many of the same rules as a government minister, PPSs lack many of the same privileges. They do not attend Cabinet meetings, are not privy to the same level of sensitive information, and cannot contribute to departmental discussions unless explicitly permitted by their minister.

As they are not members of the government, PPSs are also barred from speaking or answering questions from the frontbench in Parliament.

What are the benefits to being a parliamentary private secretary?

For MPs seeking to one day reach higher office, a role as a PPS is highly coveted: it is generally considered the first rung on the ladder to becoming a fully-fledged minister. Indeed, at least 39 current government ministers have previously worked as PPSs. Steve Brine MP, who served as a junior minister at the Department for Health and Social Care 2017–19, said: “Being a PPS is a perfect preparation for being a minister, in the sense that you see inside the machine.”

How many parliamentary private secretaries are there?

All Cabinet ministers and ministers of state are entitled, but not obliged, to appoint a parliamentary private secretary. However, it is often difficult to know how many there are at any given time, as no regularly updated list of PPSs is maintained, and appointments are not usually publicly announced. The most recent official tally, released by the Cabinet Office in June 2019 prior to a change of prime minister and extensive government reshuffle, put the number of PPSs at 34. It is not clear if or when a new list of appointments will be released.

The number of PPSs has approached an all-time high in recent times, having significantly increased since the beginning of the 20th century. However, the number of ministerial resignations over the last year has led to many former PPSs being promoted to replace vacant ministerial roles. As the pool of MPs who are eligible to be parliamentary secretaries has decreased, so has the number of PPSs. The figures released in June 2019 showed fewer PPSs working for ministers than at any other time since 1980.

Why is the appointment of PPSs sometimes controversial?

As MPs who are obliged to vote with the government, PPSs form part of the ‘payroll vote’ of guaranteed support to government (despite taking no extra salary). However, as they are not government ministers, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 – which caps the number of holders of ministerial office that can sit in the House of Commons at any one time at 95 – does not apply to them.

This has led to accusations that successive governments have used PPS appointments to inflate their payroll vote, while at the same time decreasing the number of MPs who can properly scrutinise government policy. Governments have defended the role of parliamentary private secretaries as providing an important channel between Parliament and government, as well as for the useful experience it gives to the next generation of ministers.

Update date: 
Monday, November 4, 2019