On the hook: should we fund former Prime Ministers?

By: Stephen Lynch

The UK now has seven living former Prime Ministers, a first in modern history.

All of these individuals receive certain benefits, like publicly funded allowances and security protection. Given some of this current cohort are still in their forties and fifties, the taxpayer may raise legitimate questions about the spiralling cost as the group of ex-Prime Ministers swells in size.

The current general election polling indicates that there may be another Conservative addition to this group later this year. Some Tories even want to replace the incumbent now.

Assuming there’s a general election before then, we may see eight former Prime Ministers gathering for Remembrance Sunday, with three-quarters of them Conservatives.

So what specifically are they entitled to? Are there lessons we can learn from other countries? And are the current arrangements good value for money?

Public Duty Costs Allowance

Former Prime Ministers are paid out of the Public Duty Costs Allowance (PDCA) in the Cabinet Office’s budget. This was originally arranged by then Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler following Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990. The PDCA was announced by her successor, John Major, in March 1991.

The Cabinet Office’s guidance on PDCA outlines that it was introduced to “assist former Prime Ministers still active in public life.” Payments are only made to meet the “actual cost of continuing to fulfil public duties,” including managing an office, handling correspondence, and providing support with visits, for example.

PDCA is not for supporting parliamentary or private duties or security purposes. It also cannot be claimed if a former PM is serving as Leader of the Opposition.

The guidance does not specify if there are clauses by which this funding can be withdrawn, but says the level of allowance is reviewed if they accept any paid public appointment.

David Cameron’s return to Rishi Sunak’s government prompted Downing Street to confirm last November that he would not claim the PDCA while Foreign Secretary.

Amount

The PDCA is currently limited to £115,000 per year and was set to align with the staffing budget for MPs’ offices (set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, IPSA). The amount has been frozen since 2011 and is reviewed annually and at the start of each Parliament by the incumbent Prime Minister.

As well as this allowance, former PMs are entitled to claim a pension allowance to contribute towards their staff pension costs (limited to 10% of the PDCA limit).

Recent claims

In 2022–23, the cost of the PDCA rose to its highest level of £618,000 from £543,000 the previous year. In 2022–23, former PMs Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, and May claimed the maximum available, or virtually all of it. Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron also did this the previous year.

In 22–23, Boris Johnson was eligible for the PDCA but did not make any claims, while Liz Truss claimed about 20% of the limit. This was her first year of being eligible after leaving Downing Street in October 2022.

According to a Parliamentary answer in 2022, the UK Government has only been able to provide information on PDCA costs since 2009/10. In the thirteen years prior to 2022–23, the total spending (including pensions) for PDCA in this period was almost £6.1 million.         

Security

The tab for protecting former PMs is picked up by the Home Office and is kept private.

The department’s long-standing policy is to not provide details of its protective security to avoid compromising “the integrity of those arrangements.”

All decisions about taxpayer-funded security for high-profile politicians and royals are taken by the Executive Committee for the Protection of Royalty and Public Figures (RAVEC). This includes figures from the Home Office, Metropolitan Police, and Royal Households, who advise an independent chair on the potential risks involved in each person’s circumstances.

For security reasons, RAVEC’s decisions are not made public, but it is reported that protection by an elite Met Police unit is usually provided to former PMs, including when travelling abroad.

POLITICO has reported on anonymous comments by figures with close knowledge of this unit’s operations, one of whom said: “It’s been remarked upon how many ex-prime ministers we now have – we’ve never had this many in quick succession who have required this much security… After all the [government] reshuffles, the Met were struggling to find enough security to protect everyone at once and were having to think about numbers.”

US Former Presidents Act

Last week, Barack Obama visited Downing Street for a ‘private meeting’ with Rishi Sunak, reportedly to discuss artificial intelligence.

He may have also been asked by his British counterpart about life after high office in the States and the status of former American presidents.

How does the United States compare, and can we learn any lessons here?

The Former Presidents Act of 1958 was enacted to “maintain the dignity” of the Office of the President. It provides pensions and other benefits for all former presidents, except those that have been removed from office by the impeachment process. The largest personal benefit that former presidents are entitled to is an annual pension equal to the pay for a Cabinet Secretary (which was around £175,000 in 2021). Widows of former presidents are eligible for a yearly pension of almost £16,000.

Former presidents can claim: an unspecified amount of funding for office space anywhere in the US; generous staffing allowances of approximately £100,000 a year; maximum travel expenses around £790,000 annually; health benefits (if they’ve held a federal position for at least five years); and a funeral ceremony with full honours (and the option to be buried at Arlington’s National Cemetery).

Lifetime Secret Service protections have been provided since 1965 under a separate law. This benefit is not impacted by removal from office by impeachment or conviction of a crime and can only be relinquished by the protectee. Since then, only Richard Nixon has waived it in an attempt to save money for taxpayers, 11 years after his resignation. As with the UK, details on the provision and the cost of this security are classified.

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation pressure group, among others, has criticised the generosity of these subsidies given the great personal wealth of certain multimillionaire former presidents.

Reforms

One could argue the annual cost of the PDCA is a miniscule drop in the ocean compared to the £1,200 billion or so the UK Government spent in the last financial year. Going further, the yearly cost of PDCA is around one percent of the total combined basic salaries of all 650 MPs.

That said, with so many former PMs and escalating public costs as their number increases, it seems reasonable to ask how to minimise costs, or at least how to maximise the taxpayer’s value for money?

On the latter question, one solution is to offer them more formal, visible, and constructive roles in public service that are befitting of their experience.

These could be trade envoy roles, which are voluntary (unpaid) and are also taken on a cross-party basis from both Houses of Parliament. What if two former Prime Ministers, from different parties, co-chaired an all-party Royal Commission on the future of the NHS? What if Sir John Major and Sir Tony Blair joined the NI Executive’s leadership in its visit to the United States this month to drum up investment for Northern Ireland? What if they led trade missions to the so-called ‘Middle Powers’ like India, Germany, and Korea? 

An example of such a return to public life is of course Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton returning as Foreign Secretary, albeit as a political appointee for a Conservative administration, but perhaps this might pave the way for more involvement across the board. In the same way former footballers later become ‘ambassadors’ for their clubs, there are surely other ways the country can benefit from the insight and experience of former PMs. 

Our former PMs do already sometimes work behind the scenes to support the national interest in diplomacy and to advocate for causes most would agree are worthy, usually with cross-party agreement. These have included lobbying for more Western military support for Ukraine, universal access to quality education globally, developing actionable policy solutions during the Covid pandemic, explaining to overseas audiences the merits of the UK’s position on the Northern Ireland Protocol, raising funds and awareness of dementia, and working to eradicate slavery, trafficking and forced labour around the world.

Away from the world stage, we might formalise the unofficial role ex-PMs have in offering counsel and training to new Ministers and administrations.

At present there are no conditions attached to receipt of the Public Duty Costs Allowance, at least in the public domain. One might argue it is unnecessary to codify these arrangement, as to this point the individuals claiming these allowances have done so to support them in continuing to make a positive contribution to public life. However, one way of explaining this more clearly to the public and ensuring a stronger case can be made for the PDCA would be to add explicit language to the guidance clarifying that it is constantly kept under review to ensure taxpayer value for money, and that it is not a right but a privilege offered to those who wish to fulfil public duties and be of service to the country. A Ministerial Code-style set of standards may be going too far, but a set of basic principles one signs up to could be a practical next step.

Currently, some taxpayers may be cynical about politics and its rising cost. We should defend more actively public service and its costs and present more clearly the evidence of how taxpayers benefit from the state funding of former Prime Ministers, so this cynicism and apathy may be replaced. 

Stephen Lynch. 

Stephen Lynch is a writer focused on political and economic issues. His work has been published in the Times, Daily Telegraph, and Independent, as well as leading accountancy publications.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.