House of woes: the mis­ery of work­ing for an MP

Sworn at, forced to sleep in the of­fice, fired at will … work­ing for an MP in the Bri­tish par­lia­ment can be a mis­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Josh Ja­cobs

In 2013 I was fresh out of univer­sity when a friend told me about a job go­ing as an MP’s re­searcher in West­min­ster. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to be at the heart of Bri­tish pol­i­tics, cycling past the armed po­lice and min­is­te­rial Jaguars ev­ery morn­ing, then writ­ing speeches, or notes for meet­ings with for­eign lead­ers. But after a few weeks in an or­nate, if slightly di­lap­i­dated, of­fice, I re­alised I’d en­tered an anachro­nis­tic place where out­ra­geous be­hav­iour was com­mon. I was well treated, but walk­ing through the gothic cor­ri­dors and talk­ing to col­leagues over lunch, it be­came clear that oth­ers’ po­lit­i­cal dreams had quickly be­come night­mares. “Take your lit­tle fuck­ing pen­cil and write this down,” I saw an MP yell at his me­dia as­sis­tant.

One staffer had to help or­gan­ise a birth­day party for her boss’s child; more unusu­ally, an as­sis­tant told me she’d been tasked with car­ing for her boss’s chicken eggs in an in­cu­ba­tor in the of­fice un­til they hatched.

I left West­min­ster after a year to pur­sue jour­nal­ism, but al­ways won­dered whether this opaque in­sti­tu­tion would ever change. In the last 12 months, it has be­come clear that the things I heard and saw only scraped the sur­face. Last Oc­to­ber, shortly after the Har­vey We­in­stein al­le­ga­tions emerged, the po­lit­i­cal blog Guido Fawkes pub­lished a spread­sheet of anony­mous ac­cu­sa­tions against about 40 Con­ser­va­tive MPs who were said to have ha­rassed their teams, or were de­scribed as “handsy” or “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” or “per­pet­u­ally in­tox­i­cated”. Around the same time, many com­plainants started to come for­ward pub­licly. This sparked a cross-party re­view into MPs’

staffing and com­plaint pro­ce­dures, led by An­drea Lead­som, the leader of the Com­mons.

In Septem­ber, West­min­ster was plunged into scandal again, when Dame Laura Cox pub­lished a 155-page re­port into the treat­ment of Com­mons staff, which found that high-level fig­ures had “tol­er­ated and cov­ered up” abuses in­clud­ing MPs “pat­ting women’s heads”, “try­ing to kiss them” and “stroking their breasts or bot­toms”. At the time of go­ing to press, pres­sure was mount­ing on Com­mons speaker John Ber­cow, ac­cused of bul­ly­ing staff in his pri­vate of­fice (some­thing he de­nies), to step down ear­lier than his planned de­par­ture next June.

Cox’s re­port is the first in­de­pen­dent re­view of the way Com­mons staff are treated and sup­ports the case for ur­gent change. But there has not yet been a sim­i­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion into MPs’ pri­vate staffers: the as­sis­tants, re­searchers and ad­vis­ers whom they are al­lowed to em­ploy di­rectly, with no su­per­vi­sion over re­cruit­ment or man­age­ment, and whose mis­treat­ment first prompted Lead­som’s re­view.

How deep are the prob­lems in my ec­cen­tric former workplace? Over the past few months, I in­ter­viewed nearly two dozen staffers, cur­rently or for­merly work­ing for West­min­ster MPs. Al­most all de­scribed a high-stress, chaotic and at times abu­sive en­vi­ron­ment.

Former par­lia­men­tary as­sis­tant Mar­got was thrilled to get a job in pol­i­tics a few years ago, when she was in her mid-20s, but soon found her­self a per­sonal lackey, of­ten do­ing pri­vate work in­stead of the con­stituency case­work she was hired for – some­thing that is against par­lia­men­tary rules. She spent three days de­sign­ing a web­site for her MP’s wife’s com­pany, and was then sent to the cou­ple’s home to show his wife how to use it. At other times, she was told to run an on­line auc­tion to sell her MP’s live­stock col­lec­tion and find peo­ple to write ref­er­ences so he could ap­ply to a pri­vate mem­bers’ club. “It would have been so hard to say no to what­ever I was asked to do,” she tells me. “I as­sumed it was par for the course, al­though I recog­nised it was out­side of my du­ties. Had I wanted to com­plain, I would have had no idea how.”

Her boss, who is still an MP, shouted and swore at staff and told racist and sex­ist jokes, she and other mem­bers of his team tell me. With four full-time as­sis­tants paid from his par­lia­men­tary staffing al­lowance (this is £153,620 [$197,000], or £164,460 for Lon­don MPs), who helped with his per­sonal life and po­lit­i­cal work, the MP spent sig­nif­i­cant time con­sult­ing for pri­vate busi­nesses and at­tend­ing board meet­ings. More than once, staff opened his of­fice door and found him playing com­puter games. “All I could re­ally do was roll my eyes,” Mar­got says. “Be­cause these peo­ple are more pow­er­ful, you just have to put up with it.”

Oth­ers I spoke to sat in their MPs’ homes wait­ing for tech­ni­cians to in­stall broad­band boxes, or were dis­patched to buy socks. Some told me of MPs send­ing staffers to their houses to let their pets out or babysit. Some have made their al­le­ga­tions pub­lic but most al­leged mis­use and abuse has gone un­re­ported, as the power im­bal­ance of­ten makes it im­pos­si­ble to speak up. “We are set up like small busi­nesses by our­selves, but with­out any of the over­sight that prob­a­bly even small busi­nesses have to ad­here to,” the Green party MP Caro­line Lu­cas tells me. “MPs ap­pear to think they live in a bub­ble where spe­cial rules ap­ply to them – it is a par­tic­u­larly bizarre work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.” Lu­cas was part of the com­mit­tee that de­vel­oped the new West­min­ster-wide be­hav­iour code, voted through by MPs this sum­mer. The com­mit­tee also ap­proved a process to in­ves­ti­gate complaints from MPs’ staffers, a new in­de­pen­dent ad­vice ser­vice and man­age­ment train­ing for MPs.

Par­lia­ment’s staffing ar­range­ments have been ripe for abuse since they were cre­ated. In 1969 MPs gave them­selves the first hir­ing al­lowance, a measly £500 an­nu­ally to pay for part-time sec­re­taries, who hud­dled in crowded typ­ing pools in the bow­els of West­min­ster, rou­tinely over­worked and of­ten with­out proper con­tracts. Two years later, the first po­lit­i­cal as­sis­tants ar­rived, paid for by the Joseph Rown­tree Re­form Trust, a group funded from the for­tunes of a con­fec­tionery busi­ness, whose trustees felt se­nior op­po­si­tion MPs were strug­gling to do their jobs. The as­sis­tants were known as “choco­late sol­diers”, in homage to their fun­ders.

One of the first choco­late sol­diers, Archy Kirk­wood, re­calls walk­ing into the West­min­ster li­brary on his first day in Au­gust 1971, aged 25, and MPs turn­ing to him in con­fu­sion. “Peo­ple were very cu­ri­ous about what some­body help­ing a mem­ber of par­lia­ment would do,” says Kirk­wood, who went on to be a Lib­eral Demo­crat MP for 22 years, and now sits in the House of Lords. “We were ob­jects of in­ter­est and I had the run of the whole place – ac­cess all ar­eas.”

Bri­tish pol­i­tics was an am­a­teur­ish world in those days. Many MPs did not have in­di­vid­ual of­fices and some did not even have a desk. They hud­dled into the West­min­ster li­brary or sat on benches in cor­ri­dors, writ­ing mis­sives in long­hand and post­ing their own cor­re­spon­dence. As staff have grown – by more than 70% since 2000, in­clud­ing in con­stituen­cies – they have changed this pic­ture. “I think they have made the mem­ber of par­lia­ment much more ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient in the cham­ber and com­mit­tees,” the former Labour MP David Blun­kett tells me. “And the ser­vice pro­vided [by MPs to cit­i­zens] is much bet­ter than it was 30 years ago.”

Yet staffers’ jobs have not mod­ernised in turn. MPs are not re­quired to ad­ver­tise jobs or trained to in­ter­view peo­ple. This can make the hir­ing process un­pro­fes­sional or even dis­crim­i­na­tory, as many peo­ple told me. “I am not sure about her,” one former staffer re­calls her boss say­ing of a job ap­pli­cant, after an in­ter­view, while mock­ing her African sur­name.

Daniel, who has worked for four MPs in the last seven years, was shocked when he joined his first boss as she in­ter­viewed a can­di­date for a year-long un­paid in­tern­ship. The MP turned to him and said, “He seems all right – we should hire him.” When the ap­pli­cant asked if she would con­sider pay­ing travel ex­penses, the MP re­voked the job of­fer.

All I could do was roll my eyes. Be­cause these peo­ple are more pow­er­ful, you just have to put up with it

Daniel, who still works in West­min­ster, says the lack of su­per­vi­sion also en­ables MPs to dis­miss peo­ple ar­bi­trar­ily. He was fired from his first re­searcher job in 2012 with­out warn­ing or spe­cific rea­son, he says. “Please don’t come back again,” he re­calls his MP say­ing one morn­ing. She told him not to bother serv­ing his no­tice pe­riod, say­ing he didn’t un­der­stand pol­i­tics: “You don’t get it, and you are never go­ing to get it.” A col­league work­ing for the same MP came to Daniel a year ago, after he, too, was in­tim­i­dated and mis­treated. He ad­vised him to move on. “Seven years ago she was like that, and she is still like that now.”

Twelve months after be­ing fired, Daniel was hired by a dif­fer­ent MP as an ad­viser, but his dif­fi­cul­ties con­tin­ued. He was given so much work that for up to three nights a week he wouldn’t even go home, in­stead catch­ing a few hours’ sleep in an arm­chair in his boss’s West­min­ster of­fice. “It felt like this was how you proved your­self. You show you can be good at the job, to get on in pol­i­tics.” He stayed in that job un­til two years ago, when he moved to work for a dif­fer­ent MP, then a se­nior mem­ber of his party. He is now happy at work, but says that West­min­ster re­mains a toxic place for many col­leagues.

Fig­ures from par­lia­ment’s staff union, Unite, this Fe­bru­ary show just how wide­spread such be­hav­iour re­mains: 27% of sur­veyed MPs’ staff said they had been bul­lied or ex­pe­ri­enced “in­tim­i­dat­ing be­hav­iour” from their bosses, and 14% said they had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed.

Ge­orgina Kester, chair­woman of West­min­ster’s staff as­so­ci­a­tion, Mapsa, and a se­nior as­sis­tant to a Tory MP, tells me she has known about staff mis­treat­ment for years, but fre­quently felt pow­er­less when col­leagues ap­proached her. “Of­ten it was [just] of­fer­ing boxes of tis­sues and shoul­ders to cry on be­cause there was no process” for deal­ing with abuse, she says – al­though she be­lieves this has changed since the new griev­ance pro­ce­dure was in­tro­duced by Lead­som. This gives par­lia­ment’s stan­dards com­mis­sioner the au­thor­ity to con­fi­den­tially in­ves­ti­gate complaints. Be­fore then, MPs’ staff who called West­min­ster’s ad­vice hot­line were fre­quently told to re­di­rect complaints to their line man­ager, who was of­ten the al­leged per­pe­tra­tor.

And some­times it is MPs’ staffers who abuse West­min­ster’s dis­or­der. Some politi­cians have lit­tle idea what their em­ploy­ees are do­ing all day. I met one former staffer who spent sev­eral weeks launch­ing a startup. Some were bored with the job after four years there, but told me there was no sense in leav­ing – they could work on their busi­ness while still re­ceiv­ing a salary and a free of­fice. Aban­doned work­ers are par­tic­u­larly vis­i­ble dur­ing “re­cess”, the roughly 20 weeks dur­ing which par­lia­ment is not in ses­sion and MPs are away. One former staffer de­scribed their sum­mer re­cess rou­tine as go­ing “from break­fast to elevenses to lunch”.

West­min­ster’s odd work­ing con­di­tions also have se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions for the di­ver­sity of Bri­tish pol­i­tics. Count­less se­nior politi­cians be­gin their ca­reers as staffers, in­clud­ing jus­tice sec­re­tary David Gauke and former prime min­is­ter David Cameron. But get­ting hired usu­ally “comes down to if you know some­one lo­cally, or a friend of a friend”, says Robert Dale, staffer to a Labour MP un­til 2015. He tells me of a col­league whose own girl­friend took over his job after he left par­lia­ment. One MP I met would only con­sider re­searchers from Ox­ford and Cam­bridge. Like many, I found out about my own West­min­ster job by chance, via a friend who knew the MP’s se­nior as­sis­tant.

It also helps to be re­lated or mar­ried to your boss: more than 100 MPs cur­rently em­ploy their rel­a­tives with pub­lic money, ac­cord­ing to par­lia­ment’s regis­ter of mem­bers’ fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests. Among them is Labour’s Margaret Beck­ett, whose hus­band Leo, in his 90s, has worked for her for decades. In a rare in­stance of in­tru­sion into staffing, last March par­lia­ment’s stan­dards au­thor­ity banned MPs from hir­ing fam­ily mem­bers, say­ing it hin­dered di­ver­sity and trans­parency, al­though rel­a­tives who were em­ployed can re­main. Archy Kirk­wood tells me he “made no se­cret” of em­ploy­ing his wife, that she worked hard and “would never let me down”, but ac­knowl­edges some MPs have been less con­sci­en­tious. “The only per­son in the world I would trust to han­dle con­stituency busi­ness in Lon­don in my ab­sence would be my wife,” he says. “But [the sys­tem] was abused. It was.”

Get­ting hired usu­ally comes down to if you know some­one lo­cally, or a friend of a friend

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