Who are the ‘unsung heroes’ of Westminster? Results from a survey of MPs staff

Portrait photo of Rebecca McKee

Last year’s outcry about extra funding to assist MPs whose staff were working remotely due to the pandemic demonstrated how little is understood about MPs’ offices and those who work in them. Rebecca McKee presents the first data from her project on MPs’ staff, summarising her findings in response to the question ‘who works for MPs? Much of the data presented here is from a survey of MPs’ staff and more information about the survey can be found on the project webpage.

We know more than ever about our MPs – who they are, what motivates them, and what they say and do in the course of their work. They work hard, and their workload is growing. But this work is supported by just over 3,000 staff, working in offices across the UK, and we know very little about these ‘unsung heroes’, as former Commons Speaker John Bercow called them. They undertake a wide variety of roles: as gatekeepers, controlling access by constituents and interest groups; they are resources, providing research and policy advice; they are channels, linking the constituency to Westminster; and they are providers of essential administrative support. They sit at what has been termed the ‘representational nexus’, as they represent the constituents to the MP and the MP to their constituents.

These individuals have an unusual employment status; they are not public servants in the way that a civil servant is. MPs are responsible for employing their own staff directly and they are able to set the direction of work and the roles of the staff needed to support them, essentially running 650 small businesses. They do so within a framework covering salaries and job descriptions, overseen by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). There is no formal hiring process and staff may lack some of the usual employment protections and support systems. Yet these roles can also provide the incumbents with significant benefits. Staff may be able to trade on the valuable experience they have gained and the networks they have become privy to. Some, but not all jobs, can be a stepping stone to a career as a parliamentarian, a political journalist, in a public affairs agency, or other role where knowledge of ‘the inside’ and a demonstrable ability to engage with it counts for a lot.

Yet not everyone can take advantage of these opportunities. The experience of a caseworker in a constituency office will differ from that of a parliamentary researcher in the Westminster office, simply on account of the different work they do, their exposure to Westminster politics and the people they interact with as part of their job.

Given the importance of these staff in supporting MPs and the hugely varied experiences they have, we should ask who are these people who work for MPs?

IPSA routinely publishes some data on MPs’ staff, but as it’s collected for monitoring MPs’ expenditure and payroll purposes it is quite limited. In autumn 2019 I conducted a survey, sent to the offices of all MPs. I asked questions on three key themes: equality and diversity, capacity and skills, and employment practices and opportunities. I am very grateful for the responses I received, and that staff took the time to engage with this project. Where it was possible to compare with existing IPSA data, I could see that I achieved a sample that was largely representative in terms of gender and category of job (job family – see later) but less so in terms of political party, so the data was weighted to take account of party in the analysis. More information about the survey is available on the project webpage. The figures cited in the following sections come from the survey, except in some cases where the data is taken from IPSA’s website. In these cases I have added a link to the source.

Who works for an MP?

Taking an average of the data, a ‘typical’ staff member is female, 37 years old, white, and a state educated university graduate. They will work in a junior executive role, for example a junior caseworker, in the constituency office. Overall, about 56% of MP’s staff are female, and 93% are white. More than half are over 30 years old, the longest serving staff member according to an IPSA FOI in 2018 had been working for an MP for almost 39 years. Their educational backgrounds vary. Almost 70% received their secondary education at a state comprehensive or secondary modern school, 15% attended an independent (fee-paying) school, and 14% attended a state grammar school. The proportion who attended an independent fee-paying school is almost double the average for the UK population (7%), but half of that of MPs themselves (29% in 2019).

This is a skilled workforce, as judged by formal qualifications. Around three quarters of all staff have a university degree, and around a fifth have a postgraduate degree. Of those with a degree 48% received it from a Russell Group university, including 7% from Oxbridge. The vast majority of degrees are in the humanities or social sciences – of those with degrees, 90% at undergraduate and 82% at postgraduate level have degrees in these subjects. The rest are divided among the sciences, business, education, and planning.

Of course, university is not the only place where people gain experience and skills. Because there are 650 individual offices, each with a small number of staff, a higher proportion are in the senior roles needed to run them. Just under a third are in the top employment band including, for example, office managers and senior parliamentary assistants, which gives them experience in taking responsibility that will be very useful in future roles. Overall, staff have worked in a broad range of sectors, including but not limited to hospitality, consulting, marketing, retail, law, finance, research, and health and social care. The most common settings are the charity – or ‘third’ – sector (11%) and public services and administration (18%), such as local government, the Civil Service, government agencies or elsewhere in parliament. Around 15% had previously worked in an administrative role. This makes sense when we consider that many MPs depend on skilled administrators and office managers. While it is clearly valuable to have staff who bring expertise from outside, it’s always possible for staff to learn on the job, making use of the vast experience offered to them once they’re in the door. As Chris Skidmore MP explained, a background in Tudor history doesn’t preclude you from getting a job with an MP, working your way up through the system, getting elected yourself and one day becoming the Universities and Science Minister. 

Staff have a wide range of political experience. Just over 20% said that they had held party office at local level, 13% had been elected as a local councillor, and 4% had been a candidate for the UK or European parliaments. However, the goal of becoming an MP is not universal – when asked how likely it was that they would ever run for parliament, almost 50% stated that the chance was zero.

The structure of staffing: job families

MPs are responsible for staffing their offices, creating roles that are in line with the job descriptions and salary brackets set out by IPSA, whilst not exceeding their overall staffing budget. Ideally MPs will use this budget to staff an office with the appropriate mix of roles to support their work, within the budget they are given. In 2018, each MP had 4.3 people on average supporting them. However, the way that MPs staff their offices varies hugely; some MPs choose to have all staff in the constituency office and have no one in Westminster, instead making use of pooled research services, others choose to have a large number of junior researchers in Westminster, and some – very few – have no staff at all.

Job titles, job descriptions, and pay levels are brought together as ‘job families’ by IPSA. There are three job families; administrative, executive, and research. They sit amongst three levels of seniority which link to the job description and salary bands. IPSA asks that MPs employ their staff within this structure. Despite the wide range of possible job titles, over 50% of staff reported having one of four; caseworker, parliamentary assistant, office manager, and senior caseworker. Whilst this structure is used by MPs to staff their offices, it’s recognised by many that in practice staff often work across the spectrum. In the survey I asked staff to write in an alternative job title if they felt their job wasn’t fully reflected in the IPSA structure. Just under 10% chose to do so, although many of the additional suggestions were within the same job family or tier.

Table 1 shows how staff are formally split across this framework. Administrative roles are split across three tiers, whilst Executive and Research roles are split across two.

Source: IPSA FOI June 2020

Using this framework to look at who works for an MP, we can see how staff in different roles may have different experiences. Perhaps the greatest difference relates to where they are mainly based, in the MP’s constituency or Westminster offices. Approximately 85% of research staff are based in the Westminster office. This drops to around 30% for administrative staff, and further to only 12% for executive staff. The experiences of staff across all 650 MPs offices will be different, but there is some association between where they work, their role, and the experiences they will have.

Table 2: Distribution of male and female staff by job family

Source: Survey of MPs’ staff 2019, The Constitution Unit, UCL.

In the NHS, women have traditionally been more likely to work in administrative and human resources roles: in 2017, 75% of HR staff were women. We can see a similar pattern for MPs’ staff: almost three quarters of administrative staff are women, occupying roles such as secretaries or personal assistants, traditionally held by women. A January 2018 FOI request to IPSA revealed that, within the senior tier of the administrative job family, although 83% of principal secretaries were women, this was the case for only 35% of people with the job title ‘chief of staff’.

There are also more women than men working in the executive job family, but whilst the majority of caseworker and support staff were women, men are in the majority when it comes to communications roles. The story is different amongst research staff, who are more likely to be male but the distribution among different job titles is more balanced. 

Other characteristics also vary. The largest differences are between the administrative and research staff, with executive staff falling roughly in the middle. The average age of an administrative staff member (42 years) is almost double that of a researcher (22 years).

Over 90% of research staff have a degree, compared with 62% of administrative staff.

Why does this matter?

These staff make an important contribution to the democratic process, sitting at the heart of this ‘representational nexus’. They present parliament to the world and they present the world back to parliament. When we talk about accessibility and diversity in the House of Commons or the Cabinet, we need to apply that same logic to those who work for MPs and support the valuable work that they do.

If some jobs, such as research roles based in Westminster, provide greater opportunities to gain experience and develop networks that are valuable for political career advancement, but exclude those in other roles, then we need to think carefully about how and why the characteristics of those working in these roles is so different. This is especially so given the prevailing informal hiring practices, which can make it difficult to understand who is employed in each role and why. We need to know more about how the process of hiring staff works, what experiences staff gain in their roles, and what their career progression is like. My staff survey goes a long way to shedding light on this. More information from the survey will be available shortly and published in future blog posts, as well as in a Constitution Unit report due in late autumn.

This blog post will be cross-posted with the Political Studies Association Parliaments Group. The content was also presented at the PSA Parliaments Group Conference, and is available to view.

This project is ongoing, so if you work for an MP, or have worked for an MP and would like to discuss the project or are available for interview please do get in touch using the contact information on this webpage.  The author would like to say a thank you to former and current staff who have assisted with this project, who have either discussed their experiences in person, completed the survey, offered advice or who have read over drafts. It is very much appreciated. This project is funded by the British Academy as part of a Postdoctoral Fellowship.

About the author

Dr Rebecca McKee is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit. Rebecca is researching representation and diversity in parliament and is currently running a project on MPs’ staff.