Coronavirus and constituents: working for an MP during a pandemic

IMG_20200430_150419.jpgAfter it was announced that IPSA had made an additional £10,000 available to MPs to support their office costs to help adapt to the ‘new normal’ of working from home with an increasing workload, there was much confusion and some misinformation about what this money was for. Emma Salisbury explains what MPs’ offices do, where that money might go, and what it has been like working for an MP as the UK has experienced a change in the way we live and work of a type that few (if any) people have experienced before.

The headlines were stark – MPs given £10,000 bonus to work from home! The news prompted criticism from political commentators and on social media, resulting in a petition (signed by 250,000 people) to reverse the decision. This wave of headlines prompted Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, to make a statement on the matter. Misinformation such as that put out about this issue has been one of the many democratic challenges of the coronavirus crisis, as the Unit’s Deputy Director, Alan Renwick, and Michela Palese have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

The truth is less exciting, and results in fewer sales and clicks. MPs pay for their offices and staff via the expenses system administered by IPSA, a body set up after the 2009 expenses scandal (for a summary of the 2009 scandal, see this recent blogpost by former Commons clerk Sir David Natzler). Each MP has budgets for their necessities: accommodation, travel, staffing, and office costs. The latter of these is how we pay for the boring things we need to run an office, everything from paperclips to envelopes to printer ink. In order to help support us during the pandemic, IPSA raised the cap on this budget by £10,000 to make sure that every MP’s office had the capacity, if needed, to buy whatever was necessary to make the transition to home working; if the MP or one of their staff does not have access to a computer or printer at home, for example, the budget can cover acquiring this equipment. 

All purchases reimbursed through IPSA need to be claimed for with a receipt and an explanation of why it was necessary, and the conditions of these new funds are no different. If IPSA decides that a claim for an item is not reasonable, then it can refuse to reimburse the MP for that expense, meaning it would have to come out of the MP’s own pocket. The extra amount is a cap, not a target: many MPs will not need to claim for the maximum additional amount. No matter how much of the budget MPs end up spending, this £10,000 is certainly not a lump sum gift to them or their staff. 

Why do MPs need an office in the first place? The answer is that their job has changed over time. The traditional role of an MP is to represent their constituents in the House of Commons and hold the government to account – participating in debates, asking questions, and voting on legislation. If we look back to even a couple of decades ago, MPs were not expected to engage much with their constituents. Many felt they didn’t have to answer letters, hold surgeries, or assist with complex issues – they just had to turn up at the Commons when it was sitting, make sure they kept their whips happy, and return to their constituencies when there was an election. 

Nowadays, the role of an MP has expanded dramatically. Every MP is now expected to do casework – answering queries from constituents and helping to fix their problems. Not doing so is not only viewed as electorally damaging – people are less likely to vote for an MP who doesn’t help them – but also as undermining the ethos of public service that forms the basis of the job. Those who run to become an MP know that they are expected to help people as well as perform their democratic duties, and a great many of those who are elected have a true commitment to doing so. 

The role as it is today is not something that an MP can do by themselves, so they hire staff to support their work. Most MPs now have two offices, one in Westminster and one in their constituency, and usually around four to five staff at any one time. While the specific set-up differs between MPs, the Westminster office normally supports the MP with their Commons role (diary, research, policy, and so on) while the constituency office deals with casework and local issues. 

Having worked for MPs in various roles since 2008, I have seen the full gamut of what an MP has to deal with. Most cases we get are people who genuinely need help – they have fallen foul of an error in a government department, are being treated unfairly by a local council, or need help in dealing with one of the many layers of bureaucracy in our system. Quite often the MP’s office is the place of last resort, and we see many people who have exhausted their own resources or knowhow and simply don’t know where to turn. There are some things we are not allowed to do – we can’t interfere directly in legal matters and police investigations, for example. A big part of our job is signposting people to the right place to get help – our system can be confusing and hard to navigate, and just having someone experienced who can tell you what the next step is can be a relief. 

The rest of the correspondence we receive tends to be people giving their views on policies, decisions, and actions. Our democracy is based on MPs representing their constituencies, and they can’t do that unless they know what their constituents think and want. You want your MP to vote for or against a particular piece of legislation? Tell them why. You want the government to enact a specific policy? Ask your MP to raise it. You think the government isn’t doing enough on a certain issue? Let your MP know. There’s a measure of cynicism in our country about politicians listening to those they represent, but I can genuinely say they do listen – even if they may not always agree! 

So, that is my job – or, more accurately, was my job until the pandemic hit. We are now in the time of the ‘virtual parliament’, the home office, and the video call, all while we face a serious public health and economic crisis. Our roles have changed dramatically. 

When the lockdown began, and the scale of the situation started to really hit home, people understandably looked to their MPs for guidance. For the first two weeks of the lockdown we had an absolute flood of requests for help, advice, or information – around five times more correspondence than we usually receive per day. 

The problem initially was that for many specific questions, we didn’t know the answers. Before the government’s guidance was fleshed out, we had no more insight than anyone else. Now that comprehensive advice is available, things are much easier – the civil service has done an absolutely fantastic job of getting all the informatio online for people to access and setting up the portals through which people can apply for support, and we can now point them in the right direction much more easily. 

The way we do things has also had to change. We have had to shift almost entirely to email, including for ministerial correspondence that is normally done by post. We can’t hold meetings in person, so we have to do video or phone calls. Some people who need our help don’t have access to the internet, so it is important to make sure we can still receive letters and speak to people over the phone. MPs can’t go and visit businesses or organisations in their constituencies to get a better idea of the problems they are facing, and we have to try our best to help remotely. As with other home working roles, it can be tough for those with young children or other caring responsibilities, or those who do not have the space at home to be able to work comfortably; we also have to be careful to make sure we keep confidential conversations secure and uphold the data protection rules. 

There has also been a whole new set of problems caused by the specific circumstances we are in; problems we have never had to deal with before: ‘my son is stranded in Australia and can’t get home’; ‘my elderly mother can’t leave the house and has nobody to do her food shopping’; ‘my employer won’t comply with government restrictions and let us work from home’. For each of these issues, and more, we have had to work out a way to help and give advice, or figure out who to contact to get things sorted. Our office has become a hub for local volunteer groups, for example, and we can put vulnerable people in touch with those in their community who can bring them their prescription or drop off a box of food. 

The pandemic context has also made things significantly harder for us given the stakes involved. The advice we give was always important, but now it is much more so – we are dealing with people’s health, and with their entire livelihoods. I know from talking to colleagues in other offices that we are all under increased stress from the pressure; but we know how hard everyone on the frontline is working, and we are all trying our best to do our bit. 

The initial flood has eased off now, as support is getting through and people have worked out how best to deal with their individual circumstances, but we are not complacent – once the restrictions begin to be lifted, and as we know more about the impact on the economy, more people will need our help. As we move towards reopening our communities, people will have more questions about the health implications for our country and the way we are caring for those who need it. 

Something I have always had to deal with during my time in parliament has been abuse – from constituents and the public more generally, via email, phone, and social media. Sadly, this is becoming part of the job, and new technologies have made it even easier for people to express their displeasure at their politicians. The staff tend to bear the brunt of this, although I have been lucky to work for MPs who have always stood up for me and my team. We are currently in an unprecedented situation, and the additional stress on all of us has caused some to be even more rude and abusive. 

However, this is always outweighed by the majority of people we talk to; they are kind, understanding, and grateful for what we do. I have been touched by the sheer number of people who are helping their community, looking out for their neighbours, and working hard in front line jobs that put them in danger. It is these people who keep us going. 

This is the latest in a series of Unit blogs in response to the constitutional challenges posed by the coronavirus. To see past blogs in the series, click here. To be notified of future blogs as they go live, sign up for updates in the left sidebar. 

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About the author

Emma Salisbury (@salisbot) has worked for MPs since 2008, and is currently Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Paul Holmes, MP for Eastleigh. She is also working on her PhD in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.