Little is ever said or known about the most populous group in parliament, the Members’ staff. Though we are an overwhelming majority in Parliament, not much is understood about our role in the wider political arena. The reason for this is that it’s very hard to quantify exactly what a Member’s staff does, particularly because the function of each MP’s office is different. Some MPs have constituency and parliamentary staff, and the work is divided according to local and parliamentary issues, others mix and some even wing it.
Of course, there are similarities. There are set employment contracts that no one follows, shared responsibilities and the nature of the work itself is similar in each office. Each office will have tons of casework, parliamentary duties, diary management and some very frustrating administrative work. All such work is, on average, divided between five members of staff. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on whether the Member is a minister and needs less parliamentary support or whether the Member manages to hire more staff on a smaller salary. After all, each MP has a set budget for staff which limits how many people can be employed. Unfortunately, this budget also impacts that staff’s wages.
It is perhaps for this reason that Members’ staff tend to be young, often fresh out of university, and, the truth be told, many do the job for benefits which are nothing to do with their contracts or their pay. These benefits include the social life, connections and the thrill of seeing a former Prime Minister queue to buy jerk chicken in the canteen. Burn-out is common and severe, and the job itself is emotionally consuming while also requiring a lot of skills – pretty much all of which are learned on the go.
Most Members’ staff are expected to know how to deal with immigration issues, health and social care, local government, dental care access, benefits, education, housing problems, child welfare, social services and so on whilst also being well versed in matters of national government policy. All while dealing with the abuse, threats and security issues which are all too often sent to MPs. All that is academic is easily learned, but the practical problem is the lack of training on how to deal with complex pieces of casework which can be about almost anything.
I remember vividly when the American troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021 which was at the same time as poor Geronimo the alpaca was being executed due to bovine TB. At the time, it was summer, and I was trying desperately to help Afghans related to some constituents to escape the country. Adrenaline was running high and every single office in Parliament was in the same position. Of all the issues I have dealt with, this was perhaps the one which was the most emotionally draining. I read through desperate pleas for help from people who shared with me the threats to their lives, sent photos of their babies, and shared photos of themselves after being tortured or beaten by the incoming regime. I had no power to help them other than ensuring that their case was passed on to the relevant department and trying to get at least one junior minister to confirm that they were aware of the case.
Suddenly my phone rang, and it was an inquiry about Geronimo and the impact his euthanasia would have on the alpaca industry. Probably the last thing I wanted to speak about and the least productive phone call of my life. “People’s lives are more important than your alpacas”, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Now, I still know Members’ staff who haven’t recovered from suddenly never hearing again from the people they were corresponding with in Afghanistan, and the guilt they still hold on to.
And yet, many constituents at the time felt like inquiring or lobbying on behalf of Geronimo was a productive use of MPs’ time. To me, this reflects the poor understanding of the capacity of MPs’ offices and how unrealistic the expectations placed upon them are.
The work demanded of an MP’s office has reached new hights since the pandemic began, and it only grows as we are dealing with the impact of lockdowns, limited economic productivity and a devastating war in the heart of Europe. MPs’ offices were used to responding to constituents on policy issues and dealing with some casework. We were often able to make a difference to the lives of constituents, and most still do. However, since 2020 our workload has grown without the necessary associated changes to MPs’ offices. During the pandemic, our offices were awarded additional funds to hire one new employee or increase pay for the other staff. Thankfully, this pay uplift was temporarily adopted to reflect the increasing demands on us over the pandemic, but it’s nowhere near enough.
Since the pandemic the workload has expanded further. Now offices deal with complex medical casework which reflects the very real issues of backlog and staff shortages in the NHS. Then there are issues around the cost-of-living crisis, which is, again, complex and wide ranging. But another huge issue in MPs’ offices is the ever-increasing number of cases which should fall under the jurisdiction of local government. Constituents are still unaware how to effectively get in contact with councillors, or whether the problems they are experiencing are a local or national government issue. Councils don’t help with this and don’t sign-post well on their websites. Some to this day either ignore queries from residents or withhold their contact information altogether.
These factors combine to a workload which is unsustainable and will only lead to Members’ staff having to sacrifice other important tasks. The impact this has on individual staff members is obvious. We are tired, stressed and overworked. The impact this has on our MPs is a whole other story.
Members’ staff will often eventually leave Parliament for a job which pays better, has a manageable workload, and has a functioning HR department. In turn, all the skills and knowledge, which isn’t taught, but acquired, is lost when a member of staff leaves. Some of this experience can be re-learned by a replacement, but if the member of staff was part of the team for a lengthy period, this experience cannot be directly replaced.
With time, this increasing instability will have a real impact on MPs output and on the image of the UK Parliament as a whole. If your Member of Parliament is experienced and has been around for a long time, they may well be independent and less reliant on their staff to complete basic tasks. But if they aren’t, the impact of an ever-changing team is amplified.
Like any public sector workforce, MPs offices require the right teams to assist and support with the work which needs to be done. Much has been said over the past years about contemporary politicians not being of the same standard as in the previous 70/80 years. Back then, MPs could solely focus on introducing new legislation, make vital changes to their constituencies and be full time professional policy makers. Today, the job of an MPs office is more similar to that of a social worker. Without the support of well resourced offices, it’s no wonder that the public often hold MP’s themselves in lower regard.
In the constraints of the Houses of Parliament, MPs from all sides frequently admit that they are not fully aware of what they are voting on, and only big pieces of legislation which make it into the papers are awarded the required scrutiny. Even so, whips offices and party-political headquarters will tell Members about a piece of legislation in a few short paragraphs and will help train them should they need to make a media appearance on this topic. Suffice it to say, having legislation explained to our legislators and having them coached with speaking notes to deliver snappy talking points is not what we should aspire to. But if we want to aspire to higher standard, we need to provide Members and their staff with the resources and time they need to do the job.
We are getting dangerously closely to a place where we have MPs who are without the space to think for themselves. With a new general election looming and with many experienced and independent thinking Members set to either lose their seats or resign, we will have a new generation of MPs taking over our laws, and our futures. In a democratic society, the last thing we need is for them not to have time to fully dedicate themselves to this job. Politicians need to be switched on for a functioning and healthy democracy. For that to happen, they need more resources. For that to happen, they need properly resourced staff.
Every public sector body needs a fair assessment of what their limits are, and MPs offices are no different. This is the job of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but today it’s considered a taboo to even mention the difficulties experienced by MPs and their staff, even when this can ultimately have a detrimental impact on the whole country. We have the mother of all Parliaments, a beacon of democracy and one of the most historic institutions in the world, and it can only function well on the backs of dedicated and devoted MPs. Without a functioning workforce, we will start seeing fewer of those in years to come.
Laura Gherman is a parliamentary aide to a senior backbench Conservative MP and the Vice-Chair for LGBT+ Conservatives.
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.