The current system of recruiting and employing MPs’ staff is not one you would design if you were starting from scratch, but before considering an overhaul, it is useful to ask how we got here. In this blogpost Rebecca McKee, who is currently running a project on MPs’ staff, examines the evolution of MPs’ staffing arrangements, providing some context to the current arrangements so we can understand how best to reform them.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has called for a Speaker’s Conference to consider a major overhaul of workplace practices in the House of Commons. Under our current system, it is MPs – not the Commons – who recruit and employ their staff, within a framework of regulations set out by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). While the devolved legislatures and many other countries have similar arrangements, New Zealand stands out as an example where MPs engage staff employed by the parliamentary authorities. This triangular employment relationship is not without its own problems.
The Parliament’s People Awards in March highlighted some of the brilliant, difficult work these staff do. But for most people outside of the parliamentary bubble these staff, their roles, and their employment arrangements are largely unknown.
MPs can claim a package of expenses through IPSA to support their work. This includes their own salary as well as expenses to cover the costs of running an office, a place to live in their constituency or London, travelling between parliament and their constituency, and employing staff. Currently, MPs can claim up to £237,430 for staffing. This sum is calculated by IPSA on the basis that it would cover up to four full-time equivalent (FTE) staff with a mix of roles and responsibilities. However MPs, as the legal employer of their staff, can choose to employ any number of people within this budget. The allowance, and the number of staff it is designed to cover, has increased over the years. Figure 1 shows a timeline of the evolution of MPs’ funding alongside other social and political changes.
Although providing a package to cover salaries and other expenses seems normal now, MPs have not always had access to funds from parliament to cover the costs of doing their job. It is only since 1911 that MPs received a salary; before then, MPs relied on personal funds or financial support from wealthy donors, their party, or other organised groups. And it is only since 1969 that MPs have had access to funds to employ staff and run an office.
1895: early secretarial support
One reason why MPs lacked parliamentary funding for staff is because, on the whole, their job did not require it, although some did have staff employed by their estates or businesses. Things started to change after the election, at the end of the 19th century, of the first Labour MPs, many of whom did not have private means of support. In 1895 an early source of secretarial support was introduced; Ashworth & Co was engaged as the first official typewriting agency for the Commons, creating a shared pool of typists. The company was founded by Mary Ashworth and, unusually for the time, was predominantly run by women. By 1925 it employed 14 women (known colloquially as the Ashworth Girls), providing services to 250 MPs.
MPs could, however, employ their own staff if they had access to private funds. Mari Takayanagi has gathered accounts from some women who worked as secretaries to MPs from the early 1900s. They included Margaret Travers Symons, who worked as a secretary to Labour Party founder Keir Hardie. She gained notoriety because of a dramatic incident in 1908, recorded in Hansard, when she burst into the chamber to demand votes for women.
1969: the office costs allowance
By the late 1960s there were many more MPs who had backgrounds in the public sector, with a keen interest in service delivery in their constituencies. The behaviour of MPs had also shifted somewhat, with a greater emphasis on casework and relationships with constituents. At the same time the country was dealing with rapidly rising inflation. These changes led to calls for greater support for MPs. In a 1969 report the Services Committee stated that ‘the provision of a secretary is essential’.
In 1969 the first allowance for MPs’ administrative and secretarial costs was introduced. The Office Costs Allowance provided up to £500 (just under £9,000 in March 2022 prices), to cover the cost of one full-time secretary per MP. Originally the OCA could only be used for secretarial support as it wasn’t yet considered a necessity for backbench MPs to have their own individual researchers.
The allowance was officially introduced by a resolution of the House in December 1969. In the debate Liberal MP Michael Winstanley cited the difficulties MPs faced with a lack of staffing support:
‘The job of a Member of Parliament is important. We have the twin role of representing the interests of our constituents, endeavouring to ventilate their grievances and sort out problems for them—and very important work it is, and rewarding work, too, if only we are able to do it properly—and, equally important, scrutinising the activities of the Government. How can we do this without being properly equipped and properly staffed?’
In 1972 the OCA was increased to £1,000 and MPs were given the option to use some of the money to pay for a research assistant. By 1977 MPs could choose to use the whole of the allowance for either a secretarial or research assistant.
Figure 2 (below) tracks the increase in the OCA from its introduction in 1969. The dotted line shows how much the allowance would be worth today.
An increasing workload
In the latter half of the 20th century MPs’ workloads continued to grow, with demands on them increasing in three key areas. First, scrutiny of the executive expanded with the introduction of departmental select committees. Second, legislation became more complex with primary, secondary and European elements. Third, there were greater expectations from the public for direct help from MPs.
By 1984 MPs were once again debating staffing support, in light of increasing constituency demands. Conservative MP Geoff Lawler noted:
‘If, like myself, an hon. Member has an inner city constituency, the constituency office receives constant demands. Literally hundreds of callers arrive there, and the phone rings continuously. … Therefore, it is important that there is provision for secretarial allowance to provide for adequate back-up in the constituency.’
A series of incremental changes to the scheme saw intermittent increases in the funds available: by 2000 the maximum MPs could claim from the OCA was £52,500 (£98,100 in March 2022 prices). It was designed to cover office costs, including salaries of up to 2.5 FTE staff.
2001: a new building and changes to the system
By the start of the new millennium, it was clear that MPs’ roles had fundamentally changed. Staff were vital for MPs to be able to cover the range of responsibilities they had and had become integral to the functioning of parliament.
2001 saw quite a few changes. First, Portcullis House was opened, creating over 200 new offices for MPs and their staff. Second, the staffing allowance was further increased to provide funds to cover the employment of up to 3 FTE staff (later increased in 2007 to 3.5). Third, the OCA was replaced by two separate budgets, a staffing allowance and the incidental expenses provision. The responsibility for administering the staffing allowance and paying salaries was moved to the House of Commons Commission. The expenses were still linked directly to the MP, who remained the employer, but the Commission took on administrative responsibility. At the same time the Commons introduced a structure of pay scales and standard contracts for all MPs’ staff. Figure 2 (above) shows how the staffing allowance has increased since it replaced the OCA.
2009: a different employment model?
In April 2009, MPs debated changing the employment model for staff to make the House of Commons the employer. In part this was motivated by concerns about the public perception of MPs and their expenses. Discussing how expenses were being muddled and reported in the press Labour MP Dr Nick Palmer stated that the situation ‘allow[s] the continuation of the fiction that we are passing £130,000 through our own pockets’. Ultimately the Commission rejected the scheme proposed by MPs, recommending a range of reforms in a report published later that year. However by this point the expenses scandal had broken, and IPSA was created instead, taking with it the responsibility for setting and administering the staffing allowance.
Staffing in the IPSA era
IPSA was set up as an independent body to oversee MPs’ expenses and allowances, the legislative basis of which was set out in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, subsequently revised slightly by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. IPSA has three main responsibilities: regulating MPs’ business costs and expenses (including staff costs); determining MPs’ pay and pension arrangements; and providing financial support to MPs as they carry out their parliamentary functions.
IPSA initially kept the staffing allowance as it was, providing funds for each MP to employ 3.5 FTE staff, before increasing the allowance in 2012 to allow for 4 FTE staff. A second change in 2012 was a differential allowance for MPs who represented 96 ‘London Area’ constituencies to reflect the higher cost of living in the capital. Figure 2 (above) shows the development of the staffing allowances for MPs, including the introduction of a higher allowance for London Area MPs.
In 2020–21 there was a year-on-year funding increase of 13%. Two things preceded this. First, in 2019 IPSA had proposed plans that would have meant that the salary increase for MPs would have been almost double that of their staff. In response more than 200 MPs campaigned for their staff to get a bigger pay rise. Second, a 2020 IPSA review of how MPs use their staffing allowance found that MPs’ staff were underpaid compared with equivalent workers in other sectors. The allowance and salary scales were adjusted as a consequence.
MPs’ roles have expanded as they deal with more complex legislation, undertake greater scrutiny of the executive, and conduct more administrative work. Constituency work has been a large driver of change, with MPs’ offices now seen as a vital resource for constituents. The need for MPs to have staff to support their work both in and out of parliament is now undeniable.
When a staffing allowance was first introduced, no one foresaw the expansion of MPs’ roles which followed. The incremental historical development of staffing allowances, lacking an explicit overarching vision of what was needed by MPs, has meant that the evolution of staffing support has been uneven, seeking short-term solutions to emerging problems. An awareness of the key stages in the evolution of support for MPs’ staffing helps us understand the current model. My report, due out later in 2022, will explore the current model of staffing for MPs in more detail, including an analysis of who these staff are and what they do.
About the author
Dr Rebecca McKee is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit. Rebecca is currently running a project on MPs’ staff with a report due out later in the summer. More information about the project can be found on this webpage. The project is funded by the British Academy as part of a Postdoctoral Fellowship.