As the House of Commons begins to look at a new employment model for MPs’ staff, we should look to other legislatures to see what we can learn from them

A Speaker’s Conference has been established to determine if changes need to be made to the employment arrangements for MPs’ staff. How the UK’s other legislatures manage and recruit their staff can help inform that process. As part of a long-term project on MPs’ staff, Rebecca McKee analyses how three of the UK’s legislatures recruit, employ and pay members’ staff.   

While their precise roles vary, legislators almost everywhere require support staff in order to do their job effectively. In the UK, these staff and their employment arrangements have become the focus both of public attention and internal scrutiny, through a series of reviews in Westminster and the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Later this year, in the House of Commons, the Speaker’s Conference on the employment of Members’ staff will consider other options for staffing arrangements as those currently in place in are only one of a range of possibilities.

This post outlines the current staffing arrangements in three of the UK’s parliaments – the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru – and the key similarities and differences in their employment arrangements. The post covers the key areas of governance, division of roles and salaries and recruitment in each area. It also briefly highlights other possible options from legislatures elsewhere.

Devolved parliaments

Referendums in 1997 paved the way for the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, the latter being renamed the Senedd Cyrmu in 2020 following the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. 

Both of these bodies adopted staffing arrangements similar to those of Westminster, whereby each member employs their own staff within a statutory regulatory framework covering some, but not all, terms and conditions. Each has a designated body responsible for determining the structure and rules on staffing and administering payrolls. The material they produce is a combination of guidance to members – as office holders who employ their staff, there is a balance to be struck between setting rules for best practice and encroaching on the autonomy of the member as the employer – and mandatory policies, such as the rules to be followed when members claim money for staff salaries.

Governance

The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) is responsible for the administration of the Scottish Parliament, including setting the framework for members’ pay, expenses and staffing. In 2020 the SPCB undertook a detailed review of staffing support for MSPs, entitled the Review of the Members’ Staff Cost Provision. Staff at the People and Culture Office provide guidance to members on recruitment, training, terms and conditions, and policies on diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing. The Pay and Pensions Office administers the salaries of members and their staff.

As an internal parliamentary body, the SPCB is quite different from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), at Westminster, which is independent of parliament. Rather, it has some similarities with the procedures in place prior to the creation of IPSA, whereby responsibility for oversight of staffing arrangements lay with the House of Commons Commission.­­

The governance structure in the Senedd lies somewhere between the arrangements in Westminster and those in Scotland. As in Westminster, an independent statutory body, the Independent Remuneration Board of the Senedd (the Board), created in 2010, sets the framework within which members employ their staff. Like IPSA, the role of the Board includes establishing pay scales and standardised contracts and developing a range of employment-related policies. The Board undertook a Review of Staffing Support for members in 2019. Like the Scottish Parliament but unlike the House of Commons, where IPSA assumes this role, the day-to-day administration of the Determination for Members of the Senedd is carried out in-house. This is conducted by the Members’ Business Support team, which sits within the Senedd Commission.

The main differences between these three parliaments are whether the framework for staffing arrangements is set and administered in-house (Scottish Parliament), developed independently but administered in-house (Senedd), or developed and administered by an independent body (House of Commons).

Example from elsewhere

The New Zealand Parliament, Pāremata Aotearoa differs from all the parliaments discussed here in that staff are employed by the Parliamentary Service, not the MP. The Parliamentary Service is independent from parliament, operating as one of the state services. However, it is accountable to the Speaker of the parliament. In practice, this employment model is commonly referred to as a triangular relationship and includes the member, the support staff, and the Parliamentary Service, with the member acting as the day-to-day manager. The employment arrangements and recruitment are facilitated by Member Support Staff Managers.

Staffing allowance, roles and pay scales

The staffing allowance for members in the three parliaments varies (as shown in Figure 1). Staffing budgets are calculated by the respective bodies to reflect the needs of members, taking into account the different responsibilities of the legislatures. While the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd can make primary legislation, they can only do so in areas not reserved for Westminster. The range of issues covered by members of the Scottish Parliament is therefore narrower than their counterparts in Westminster, and for members in Wales, it is narrower still.

Budgets may also account for other factors. In the House of Commons, Members representing a ‘London Area’ constituency are entitled to a higher staff allowance reflecting the greater costs of living in the capital. However, in Scotland and Wales, which have both constituency and regional members, with slightly different duties and demands on their time, these members do not have different staffing allowances. They are free to staff their offices differently, within the budget, which many do. For example, constituency members tend to have a heavier casework load and need more dedicated support for it.

In the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament, budgets are designed to cover four Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) members of staff (the evolution of funding for MPs’ staff is described in more detail in this recent blog post). The staffing budget for MSPs was increased in 2021 after a review of the Members’ Staff Cost Provision to accommodate an additional FTE caseworker. In Wales, the budget was once set to cover 3.5 FTE staff but is now linked to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings estimate of gross median earnings for Wales, rising in line with it each year: the link to staff numbers has been severed. The budgets in Figure 1 reflect these calculations and the salary bands for staff in each parliament.

Figure 1: Staffing numbers and budgets for the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament, and Senedd Cymru.

The roles that members recruit for vary depending on the type of support they require. Support staff categories include: administrative and secretarial, constituency casework, and research and policy advice. In the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament, the various job titles of members’ staff are divided into ‘job families’. Jobs within each family share similar knowledge, skills, or competencies. These job families are further divided into levels to help distinguish responsibilities and to allocate corresponding pay scales.

There are 31 job titles available to MPs’ staff in the House of Commons, divided into three job families. The job titles were re-evaluated following a 2019 Pay and Job Description Review; changes included removing the title ‘secretary’. In the Scottish Parliament there are four job families. MSPs have discretion with job titles so they can use any terminology within reason, but they tend to follow a similar pattern to those in Westminster. If members of both parliaments are to be reimbursed for their staff, they must employ staff within the pay ranges and job families. It is possible to employ staff outside of the framework, for example staff employed using Short Money in the House of Commons are not on the IPSA payroll, but this is a minority of staff.

In the Senedd, the Board does not stipulate a list of job titles. Instead, members can choose anything that fits the role. In November 2021, there were 118 different job titles in use. This included familiar ones such as Office Manager and Administrative Assistant, and less familiar ones such as Sustainable Futures Coordinator and Constituency Liaison Officer. Instead of job families, staff are divided by pay grades, from Band 3 (junior) to Band 1 (senior) and an additional Senior Advisor band.

Job families are a useful way of trying to ensure pay and job consistency across the hundreds of members’ offices, so that staff are paid equitably. However, too much structure can hamper the flexibility to staff offices with the combination of roles members need. This reflects the tightrope that those making the decisions around staffing have to walk so as not to encroach on members’ autonomy as the legal employers.

Table 1: Categorisation of roles and salary bands (FTE) for members’ staff in UK legislatures 2022–23.

Sources:  House of Commons[i]
The Senedd[ii]
Scottish Parliament [iii]
 
[i] House of Commons pay scales taken from New Starters information on IPSA Online
[ii] The Senedd pay scales taken from Determination on Members’ Pay and Allowances 2022-23 March 2022
[iii] Scottish Parliament pay scales taken from a document provided via email by the SPBC 15th July 2022

 

All three parliaments have more women than men employed as members’ staff. However, the distribution varies across job families and pay grades. In the Senedd, 63% of staff in Band 3 (most junior) are women, yet they make up only 55% in Band 1 (senior) and 31% in Senior Advisor roles. In the House of Commons, where staff are divided into job families, women comprise 72% of administrative staff, 54% of executive staff, and only 46% of research staff (I am still awaiting data for Scotland).

Example from elsewhere

Members of the Australian House of Representatives are given a set number of staff rather than a budget allocation. This is currently four full-time staff to support their electorate (constituency) responsibilities. There are three levels of electorate officer (A, B and C, with C being the most senior level) with commensurate salary bands. Parliamentarians must choose from one of two predetermined options for staffing their offices, comprising a combination of numbers of staff and grades.

Recruitment

In each parliament, members have considerable discretion in how they recruit staff. There are very few rules around how applicants are recruited. Members aren’t required to conduct interviews, there are no minimum qualification requirements for employees, or requirements for workplace references, and, mostly, positions don’t have to be advertised externally.

In Scotland, advertising all roles is encouraged, but not required; the People and Culture Office can publish vacancies online on the Scottish Parliament careers website, and jobs are also advertised on the @W4MSP Twitter account, a dedicated resource for advertising MSP staff roles. In Westminster, MPs can advertise jobs on W4MP, a standalone website run by an independent organisation on behalf of the House of Commons. The website accepts job adverts from MPs and other organisations that can provide opportunities for those seeking employment or experience in parliament or someone with a career in parliament who would like to make further progress. However, it isn’t used by all parties: in an analysis of adverts between July 2018 and July 2019 most (59%) were placed by Conservative MPs, 39% were by Labour MPs and 2% by Lib Dem MPs. There were no adverts by MPs from other parties.

In the Senedd, all permanent posts or those with a duration of over six months must be advertised on the Senedd website and visible for at least one week. However, a post can instead be advertised internally if the member has identified one or more suitable candidates who have previously been employed through a fair and open process. Temporary posts do not have to be advertised.

Example from elsewhere

Applicants for the role of parliamentary assistant for members of the Dáil in the Republic of Ireland undertake a qualification assessment procedure as part of the recruitment process. Applicants must demonstrate that they have certain competencies, skills, qualifications, or work experience using a structured and standardised rating system.

Conclusion

Whilst the staffing arrangements in each of the UK parliaments are similar; there are some key differences in the governance, division of roles, and recruitment of staff. Comparing arrangements from other parliaments, including some more radical differences from parliaments in other countries, is a useful way to learn lessons about how the system in the House of Commons can be improved.

There are pros and cons to all of these arrangements but, ultimately, what counts is whether members are adequately supported in the work that they do and that their staff are fully supported. Parliaments should provide an example of best practice for the recruitment, management and development of staff who do such a vital role.

Author’s note: This blog post does not discuss the situation in Northern Ireland because due to the Executive shutdown there have been no reviews or new determinations on MLAs’ staffing since 2016. There have been amendments to the 2016 Determination made by Members, including the latest in 2020, which made some changes, but no review of the arrangements has been undertaken in recent years.

This is the second in a series of blogs about staff in UK legislatures. The first post, on the evolution of MPs’ staffing arrangements, was published in May, and an additional post about an upcoming Unit report on MPs’ staff will appear on the blog later in the year. If you are interested in who MPs’ staff are, what they do, and how they learned to adapt to the pandemic, the Unit has numerous posts on these ‘unsung heroes’ of Westminster on its blog.

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 year. 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.

Featured image is of Portcullis House and has been made available by Ozeye on a Creative Commons basis (CC BY-SA 3.0).