A Parliamentary Private Secretary
) is a role given to a United Kingdom Member of Parliament
(MP) by a senior minister
in government or shadow minister to act as their contact for the House of Commons; in the Lords, the department's Parliamentary Under Secretary
there takes on this duty.
Duties and powers of a PPS
Although not paid other than their salary as an MP, PPS' help the government to track backbench opinion in Parliament. PPS' are subject to some restrictions as outlined in the Ministerial Code of the British government:
PPS' can sit on Select Committees but must avoid "associating themselves with recommendations critical of, or embarrassing to the Government", and must not make statements or ask questions on matters affecting their minister's department. As a part of this, the PPS in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the PPS is prevented from being involved with making planning decisions or in the consideration of planning cases.
PPSes are not members of the government, ie, the cabinet, and all efforts are made to avoid these positions being referred to as such. They are instead considered more simply as normal Members, however their close confidence with ministers does impose obligations on every PPS. The guidelines surrounding the divulging of information to PPSs are rigid.
Ministers choose their own PPS, but must seek the written approval for each candidate from the Prime Minister, and it is traditional procedure to consult the Chief Whip.
PPSes are expected to act as part of the payroll vote, voting in line with the government on every division, and regarded as members of the government for purposes of collective responsibility. Similarly, they must not appear as a representative for any special policies.
When on official Departmental business, PPSes' travel and subsistence allowances are paid out of government funds, as with formal members of the government. This makes the PPS the only type of unpaid advisor who receives reimbursement in the course of their duty.
As a last resort for ministers who must pull out of an event for whatever reason, a PPS may stand in for the minister at the event. This will only happen in exceptional circumstances and must be justified by the minister in charge of the department. If this event is overseas it again requires the Prime Minister's consent.
The role in the career of MPs
The role of PPS is seen as a starting point for many MPs who are looking to become ministers themselves. In 1963, Professor of Political Science Philip W. Buck at Stanford University published a journal article stating:
- "Nine-tenths of the M.P.'s who first won seats in the House of Commons in 1918 or thereafter, and who held some ministerial office in the years from 1918 to 1955, began their progress towards posts in a ministry or a Cabinet by serving as parliamentary secretaries or as junior ministers... Recruitment to the front bench clearly begins with these two offices.
After the leaking of party details in emails associated with Desmond Swayne, PPS to David Cameron, a writer of the Thirsk and Malton Labour Party Constituency Blog commented:
- "A Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) is a thankless job. Despite having risen to the rank of MP, those with Governmental ambitions will need to pay their dues oncemore - as a bag carrier. Admittedly, PPS is a bit more than that - you are supposed to be the eyes and ears, reporting back to your boss all the gossip, what people are saying about your work in the bars and cafes of Westminster
The use of PPSs has in the past been a source of comedy as seen in the series, Yes Minister:
- "James Hacker: Who else is in this department?
- Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well briefly, Sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary, I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretary are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
- James Hacker: Do they all type?
- Sir Humphrey Appleby: No. Mrs. McKay types. She is the secretary.