The evolution of MPs’ staffing arrangements: how did we get here?

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.

Figure 1
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What role should party members have in leadership elections?

As Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer continue to be investigated for possible breaches of lockdown rules, it is conceivable that both major parties could hold leadership contests in the near future. What role should party members have in those elections? The Unit asked Paul Goodman, Cat Smith and Tom Quinn for their view. Tom Fieldhouse summarises their responses.

The Westminster system, where the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons usually becomes Prime Minister, makes how parties select their leaders (and the electorate), matter enormously to the health of our democracy.

In light of the continuing uncertainty about whether the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will face a leadership challenge, the Constitution Unit held a webinar on 7 April 2022, entitled ‘What role should party members have in leadership elections?’. The event was chaired by the Constitution Unit’s Director, Professor Meg Russell, and she was joined by three distinguished panellists: Paul Goodman, Editor of Conservativehome and former Conservative MP for Wycombe; Cat Smith MP, Labour Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Fleetwood; and Dr Tom Quinn, Senior Lecturer, Department of Government, University of Essex

The summaries below are presented in the order of the speakers’ contributions. The video of the full event, including a lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, while the audio version forms a Unit podcast.

Paul Goodman

Paul began his contribution by providing some useful history, reminding us, that Conservativehome (under its previous editor), had risen to prominence when it campaigned for the right of Conservative Party members to have a role in electing party leaders.

He went on to explain that, at least in relation to Labour and the Conservatives, an intractable tension exists that prevents a perfect solution. On the one hand, party leaders are the leader of a political organisation – and so it follows that to have a democratic culture the party members should elect the leader. However, because both parties seek to govern (via exercising a majority in the House of Commons), they also need their leader to enjoy the confidence of MPs – suggesting it should be they who decide instead. Paul thought that, considering this tension, the best solution involves both members and MPs each having a say, and that the present Conservative Party system actually does quite a good job in this regard.

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Partygate illustrates the fundamental constitutional responsibility of government MPs

Boris Johnson and his Chancellor have now been fined for breaking lockdown restrictions. Both have misled parliament over Downing Street parties. These are clear breaches of the Ministerial Code, which should lead to resignation. If the PM refuses to police the Code, says Meg Russell, that constitutional responsibility rests with MPs. A failure to exercise it would seriously undermine both the integrity of, and public trust in, the democratic system.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have been issued fixed penalty notices for breaching COVID-19 lockdown rules over parties in Downing Street. This means that they have broken the Ministerial Code on two counts. Paragraph 1.3 emphasises ‘the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. But the police have concluded that the law has been broken. Paragraph 1.3c of the Code then states that:

It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.

But it has been clear for some time that Johnson breached this rule, by repeatedly insisting in the House of Commons that all regulations were followed, and denying knowledge of Downing Street parties, when it subsequently emerged that he had attended such gatherings. Multiple sources have catalogued these denials. Rishi Sunak also said on the parliamentary record that he ‘did not attend any parties’.

But the final line of paragraph 1.3c is the rub. While both of these forms of breach would normally be considered resigning matters, the ultimate keeper of the Code is the Prime Minister himself. He has already faced down criticism over failing to uphold it in the case of bullying allegations against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which led to the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they are not going to resign, indicating that the Prime Minister is once again setting aside the Code – this time over multiple breaches, which are highly publicly salient.

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Should we be allowed to see MPs’ voting records?

Sites like TheyWorkForYou have led to a greater use of parliamentary voting records as a means of holding MPs to account, but it can also lead to misunderstandings about the position taken by the person voting, and to those absent due to maternity or illness being branded lazy. Ben Worthy and Cat Morgan discuss how their research has highlighted some of the problems and benefits of this additional data being made more readily available.

Watching Westminster has got a great deal easier. Since 2005, a whole array of new formal and informal disclosure tools mean we can watch, analyse and verify what MPs and peers are doing much more easily, often at the push of a button. Our Leverhulme project looks across this shifting landscape of searchable digital platforms of MPs’ expenses data, register of interests declarations, and Freedom of Information  requests.  

Most famously, at the centre of these transparency ecosystems stands TheyWorkForYou (TWFY), which monitors MPs’ voting and other activities. Created by volunteers in 2004 and run by mySociety since 2005, it allows us to see individual MPs’ (and peers’) voting records far more easily than in the past. For each MP it offers up, as the website describes, ‘a summary of their stances on important policy areas such as combating climate change or reforming the NHS’, described with phrases such as ‘generally voted for’, ‘always voted against’, and ‘never voted for’. Elsewhere it lists their full record, appearances, and declarations on the register of interests. It averages around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits, though this jumps amid elections or scandals.

And some MPs are not happy. A tweet by John Ashmore summarised, perhaps rather too pithily, the two reasons for their unhappiness or concern:

The first worry is that the voting data offers a distorted view. It doesn’t discriminate, for example, between certain types of votes and over-simplifies the rather complex realities. This means, as Stephen Bush recently explained, Green MP Caroline Lucas appears to have ‘voted a mixture of for and against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas’ because she opposed, and voted against, legislation she considered too weak. Some of the most controversial votes, such as the Free School Meals vote, only make sense in the light of the fact it was an Opposition Day vote, something the site doesn’t explain either. Our research has shown how the data is biased and unevenly focused on, for example, high profile or controversial MPs or particular votes. Aggregated data easily becomes a metric to measure, compare and create yardsticks for what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad‘ MP, giving the illusion of objectivity and measurability.

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