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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1022 i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
First Weeks at Westminster
Monday 18 March 2013
Rt Hon Peter Riddell CBE and Zoe Gruhn
Max Freedman, Lauren Edwards, Lisa Townsend and Georgina Kester
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 29
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Taken before the Administration Committee
on Monday 18 March 2013
Mr John Spellar (Chair)
Mr Desmond Swayne
Mr Dave Watts
In the absence of the Chair, Mr John Spellar was called to the Chair
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Peter Riddell CBE, Director, and Zoe Gruhn, Director of Learning and Development, Institute for Government, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Colleagues, Peter and Zoe, thank you very much for coming in. We have your paper before us, and I wondered if you wanted to say anything by way of introduction before I ask my colleagues to ask questions on this.
Peter Riddell: I have a couple of points if I might. This reflects our joint experience, both the Institute for Government and also the Hansard Society, which I chaired until last year, so there was a double-banking of experience before the 2010 election. There are two main points I want to make. One is that we are essentially about experience of government, not as politicians. The last thing anyone outside can teach you lot, if I might respectfully call you that, is how to be politicians, because you get yourselves elected, you know your constituency links and all that. It is all about the scrutiny role and also some aspects of government. One thing I learnt from my long experience as a journalist here, and my time with the Hansard Society and more recently the IFG, is that a lot of MPs arrive at Westminster not knowing very much about government. They know an awful lot about politics and their constituencies, but not about government. The trouble is that in the rush of arrival at Westminster, some of the information about how effectively to scrutinise government does not get done because there are plenty of other things to happen.
The second point I would make is that when looking at the arrival of new Members, it should not just be the first few days or even weeks. It needs to be over a much more extended period.
Zoe Gruhn: I ditto what Peter has to say. The work we have already done in 2010 as part of the induction of new MPs was very much helping them to understand the process of Whitehall and its relationship with Westminster and also making sure that people understood what their role was in relation to Parliament. Our focus, though, was much more so around the WhitehallWestminster relationship.
Q2 Chair: Peter, in a sense at the outset you outlined that part of the difficulty here is that the sole qualification for being a Member of Parliament is the fact that one has been elected with more votes than anybody else in that particular constituency. Therefore, people come with a wide range of experience and expectations, and at the time that they are going to be able and ready to take up such experience there is too often too much focus on initial training when there is just a huge quantity of it-it is a complete change of people’s way of life and even the location of where they live. Suddenly, they are picking up a huge wodge of constituency work, unless they have had a fairly seamless transition, but particularly if they have won a seat from an incumbent Member. Therefore, any idea that they are going to be able to take on board some of the wider aspects of relationships between Parliament and the Executive in its two manifestations, as Ministers and Whitehall, I just think is not likely. Therefore, something that is available later on in their career is probably better. What are your feelings on that?
Peter Riddell: Absolutely. If I might, there are two aspects of that. We will see how the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act works over the long term, but given the expectation that there will be an election in May 2015, it is possible to do something-it would make sense to do it either just before or after the summer recess-particularly related to Select Committees, because a very high proportion of the people elected to Select Committees under the new procedures were new Members. Some of them immediately dropped off when they were appointed as PPSs or part of shadow teams. There is a time to do it then, because I think that a lot of people who have been involved in Select Committees would say that a lot of new Members arrive unfamiliar, and why should they be familiar with the process of Select Committees? That is one time to do it.
Another aspect is our work with Ministers, which Zoe organised. Often, six, 12 or 18 months in is quite a useful time to get people round-in a group like this-to compare experiences. I really do stress that this is not a matter of outsiders telling you what to do. It is convening a discussion. I will give you examples of two things at the last election that were in concept right but where the timing was wrong. It is exactly in line with your point. The Hansard Society had a session with the then new Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and the then Clerk Assistant, Robert Rogers, before his elevation. It was actually high-quality stuff from the two of them on how to make the best of scrutiny opportunities and so on, but it was at the wrong time. There were not enough of them, but the people who were there actually came away saying, "This is really interesting. I didn’t know anything about that."
Then we organised something at the Institute, when we got one of your colleagues, Charles Walker, Chairman of the Procedure Committee, talking about his experience. He had been on the Public Administration Committee. Again, it was very good. It was them coming in, and I would add to that now something about how government works and so on, because I think it would be quite useful to do that. Certainly, though, assuming that timetable, you would want to delay these sessions until either just before or probably after the recess because people are pretty tired after running for election, the first few weeks at Westminster and all that. You would probably want to do it in early autumn or something like that. Also, you should come back to it at a later stage to compare experiences. We have found that to be extremely valuable when we have done it with Ministers, because quite often people do not swap experiences because you all lead such busy lives.
Zoe Gruhn: The other point to make is not to feel a sense of shame about doing it. I have heard some politicians say to me, "Well, it is a sign of weakness if I’m seen to be attending training." That is probably an unhelpful way to think about it. Obviously, you are elected into the role, but as Peter said you are not familiar with the role, and so there is something about there being things to learn. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, as we discovered in the 2010 election, a lot of stuff happened right at the beginning and then nothing. That is a pity because people got fatigue from induction: there is a lot to take in, including finding out where you are going to have an office and so on. Actually, it is better to do it over a period over time. On the point made earlier about the scrutiny role, how can you get better and be as effective as possible as part of the Select Committee process in getting the most information you can from people who are giving evidence?
Q3 Mr Watts: I have just two points. There is a need for a general induction, and that is what we concentrated on a few years ago when I was involved in some discussion about the training side. Then, short, repeated sessions where people can dip in and out are something that is useful. People will want to know some of this the longer they are there-the first week, first month or first year. The second thing that I thought was very useful is the idea of, for want of a better term, a mentor-someone else who will support that MP for the first six months they are there and whom they know they can go back and dip into if they need any help or assistance. Is that something you are looking at in some detail?
Zoe Gruhn: Yes, definitely. The role of mentor is hugely valuable. Obviously, some people do it independently and privately themselves. They seek out people whom they have respected over time and want to get their views. I do think it is an ongoing process; it is about continuous professional development. Every occupation I have been involved with or sector I have worked in, both public and private, does it. It is not shameful. People who become chief execs do it. It is just a normal part of good practice in terms of making sure you are being as effective as possible. A dripdrip process is far better than simply starting it and stopping it right at the beginning of taking on the role.
Q4 John Penrose: Just very quickly, I completely take your point that people turn up with different levels of expertise, a wide variety of backgrounds and encounter different issues at different points, and they therefore need things in a variety of ways. The conversation so far has sounded as though we are talking about one principal method of delivery, which is wholeclass teaching, where everyone turns up in a room at the same time for either a discussion or someone offers an exposition followed by some kind of conversation afterwards. Can you just clarify that for me? I am presuming that is an accident of the way we have been discussing it and that you are also talking about briefings, online materials and all those other things. If Members are not, for example, put on a Select Committee on day two of arriving here, but are put on something six months later because someone has become PPS and they are the only person, they need to be able to have the same level of training. There have to be some materials available that they are made aware of as they arrive. Presumably, we should be couching this entire conversation in those terms in a variety of different delivery methods.
Peter Riddell: Very much so-absolutely. For obvious reasons, there is naturally a focus on the beginning of a Parliament, but I agree with you entirely on that. If you look at the turnover on Select Committees, it certainly underlines that process. Equally, and I know this has happened on a small scale, there was a group of new Members arriving in the autumn because there was a clutch of byelections. The House authorities did organise a mini-induction on that, partly to test out some ideas. It has to be adaptable.
The key point about it is that people should not feel afraid to ask questions. I remember, after one of the sessions we did, a couple of your newly elected colleagues came up to me and said, "Can you tell me what actually happens on Budget day"? The 2010 Budget was going to happen two days later. I am of course rather familiar with that from having spent a lot of time here as a journalist, but it is almost at that level and having the right material. However, I could not agree with you more that it has to be flexible. It has to be flexible and accessible, so that people feel that would be helpful to do.
On Select Committees, Zoe has been involved a bit in trying to improve effectiveness. There is an assumption that, if someone goes on a Select Committee, it is often dominated by two, three or four people who have been on it before or are strong personalities, even though it is now the elected system. Some new Members can feel slightly, "What’s my role?" without help, guidance and so on. We have to maximise their effectiveness and satisfaction from the role.
Zoe Gruhn: Also, it is absolutely about being flexible. "Just in time" is a good way of describing it: as and when the person feels that they really need it, there is material and access to learning.
Q5 John Penrose: Therefore, if there is some genius piece of commentary by Charles Walker on whatever it was, it is making that available on the web to watch on video rather than having to wait until the next time he feels like turning up to a session or whatever it might be.
Peter Riddell: That would be a good idea. What we can do at the outset is quite modest because of resources and so on, although we have discussed this with the Clerks department and with the information department to offer to help them. We can do certain things independently that are obviously more difficult for them to do inhouse.
Q6 Graham Evans: On my first day here-I had never set foot in the place; I was not expected to win-walking through these doors, the policeman had a lot of fun with me. He is there, armed with a gun, he does not know me from Adam and I have no pass, so that was not a great introduction to this place. I would say there are four areas: PAS, PICT, IPSA and Whips. Is it possible to have an induction pact that those four areas actually talk to each other? The new MP has no office, a stack of unanswered mail, no staff, constituency work and parliamentary work, which you have alluded to. Is it not possible to have long-standing MPs as mentors, so you could say, "Are you a regional MP? Are you a London MP? Are you a South West MP?" So you have people who have been there and done it, and when new colleagues join, they are not left, as I was, for six weeks without an office and searching around for staff. A lot of colleagues made a big mistake with their staff, and it caused you a lot of grief further down the line. There are a lot of pitfalls that could have been avoided if somebody had held their hands. Perhaps allocate new Members to an existing Member of Parliament and they could be in contact.
Peter Riddell: The answer is obviously yes, but the key point there is the various different groups that can help. Some can help formally, such as the House authorities. Dare I say it, IPSA can help. The party Whips can help and the parliamentary grouping the Member is from. They are all helping at different levels and different degrees, because the relationship any MP has is a whole series of different points of authority.
Q7 Graham Evans: Peter, I agree with that in theory, but there are flaws in all of those departments-within IPSA, within PAS and within PICT. There is nothing quite like a seasoned MP who has been through the mill. These guys are good to a certain extent, but you cannot quite beat that person who has been there, done it, been through the mill and knows the flaws in well-meaning institutions and people. I do feel that it can be vastly improved.
Zoe Gruhn: The Whips’ office, for example, could organise a network of potential mentors. It just needs coordinating in that kind of way so you know who to contact, unless you have already identified someone. I would have thought that would be hugely valuable, because otherwise you can waste an awful lot of time trying to work it out yourself when actually there are a lot of people around who already have that experience. The other thing as well with that Charles Walker session is that there were some people there, and he was very good about how he put it across. He worked out where everyone’s constituencies were and was also quite sympathetic to those who had a marginal majority, because that is going to change where their focus lies in the whole issue around casework as being a quite critical area. This is not our particular area, but there were people talking about areas of concern within their constituency and how they manage that. There was someone who was taking on a mentoring role, which was very useful.
Q8 Thomas Docherty: Are you aware of what training Congress provides to new Members?
Peter Riddell: Only with envy from your point of view, if I might put it like that. Remember, they have a great advantage in Congress. They elect them on the first Tuesday in November and they do not take their seats until the beginning of January, either in the midterm or when there is a presidential election, so there are two months. They have very formal processes of handover and induction. They have the time to do it and they spend many days doing it. There are very elaborately worked out procedures fulfilling all the criteria Mr Evans raised: mentoring, explaining resources, hiring staff-there are of course many more staff than any of you would have-explaining Committees and so on. It is very much more extensive because you have time.
There was an advantage at the last election. It was a double thing because of what happened with the formation of the coalition. The election of the Speaker was a week later than normal and so there was more time to do it, even though I do not think it felt like it for any of you at the time. Of course, in Congress, though, you have that period of nearly two months, and that gives them much longer to do it. It is very much more worked out, and 20 years ago or more I worked in Washington. I remember talking to people about it-then, I was detached from it-and it is very impressive what they do there. They have the resources to do it and, above all, they have the time to do it.
Q9 Thomas Docherty: On the practicalities, if we assume that the coalition is going to go its full term, we have a fixed election date of the first Thursday of May 2015. Newly elected Back Benchers are unlikely to be asked by the Prime Minister to become a Minister on the first day. Given that we pretty much know now when the general election is going to be and that things do not really get started for the House for 10 or 12 days afterwards, notwithstanding coalitions or a straight victory, how practical would it be to do a mini version of what Congress provides for MPs?
Peter Riddell: We are in a transition at present. What happened last time was better than what happened in 2005, which was better than what happened in 2001. It is steadily improving. All the actors are improving: the parties are improving what they are doing; the House authorities are improving. Of course, IPSA only existed in 2010; it did not occur. It is more practical, provided you have that gap between the election date and when the House meets to elect a Speaker. It is crucial to have that gap because you need a good 10 days. Normally, the House would meet for the first time on the Tuesday or Wednesday after an election. The advantage of doing it the following week is it gives you 10 days to do it. The answer is you would be able to do it in those 10 days before the Speaker is elected.
Q10 Thomas Docherty: Forgive me for being slightly slow. Why is the date of the election of the Speaker so critical? From memory, we have the election of the Speaker and there is then the Queen’s Speech debate a week later. Surely it is crucial that we get these things done before elections to the Select Committees and before we really get started.
Peter Riddell: It comes back to the Chairman’s initial point, which I think was a good one. It depends what you are talking about. You want to hit pretty soon the really practical things like getting your pass, sorting out money and sorting out communications, which I gather was not entirely satisfactory last time, let alone an office. Even with the best will in the world, that is going to take quite a long time. You have a series of objectives over a period of time to do, rather than doing the whole package. That is what we are saying. There are some absolutely vital things you need as a constituency MP so you can talk to your constituents. You need to do that very quickly.
I take your point on that, but I think there is a period of maximum tension where you are not just getting on with your normal job, and it is probably not much longer than a week before all the pulls of constituency and other obligations here are coming on you. It might be two weeks if the Queen’s Speech is a bit delayed, and there is no reason why it cannot be. It is good for Government if they have a slightly delayed Queen’s Speech; they are probably going to get it right or a bit better if they have longer to reflect on it. You can use that period and it would be possible to organise it better, but the key point I am making is do not do everything at once; do the essentials then come back to some of the other matters later. The problem always is getting MPs to turn up to things later on, because their diaries fill up.
Q11 Mark Tami: Things have improved a bit since I was elected in 2001, but I still think there is this assumption that you come here and somehow know everything anyway. Although things have got a bit better, I still think there is a big gap there. For some people who perhaps do not know anybody here, it can be quite a lonely place. I know people might think that is a strange comment, but without naming any names I think across all parties at all times there are people who have not really fitted in and have tended to withdraw a bit from the whole process. I think we have let them down early on. I know it is difficult to address that because everyone is different, but do you have any views on it?
Zoe Gruhn: Yes. I think there are already some of the things we have said. There is partly the mentoring role, so you will get some sort of private onetoone sessions with those individuals, but I also think it is about having regular reviews. Groups do meet up on an informal basis, and that is actually quite helpful as part of the whole induction process; being connected with a network is important too. It is also that point that it is not just at the beginning; it is a process that goes on throughout the duration of the term. People feel that once they get stuck in, with their constituency work in particular, they just do not have the time. It is about finding the time and seeing it as a priority in terms of what you do.
Peter Riddell: If I can draw a parallel, before the last election Zoe organised a session with a number of members of the then Labour Government. Many of them had been in office for several years. They were at the Minister of State level and a few Parliamentary Secretaries. Virtually none of them had had a collective discussion before of the experience of being a Minister and the problems. It was quite extraordinary. It was quite telling, actually. We have done the same with coalition Ministers, and when I say coalition Ministers, we had Tories and Lib Dems in the same room discussing their issues about being a Minister. They found it quite satisfying in a way to have the opportunity to discuss, highlight things and so on, because there are a lot of common problems. On the whole, they have not normally discussed them, because, as you say, people are individuals. You are all individuals here by definition under a constituency system. That is one of the great virtues of it.
Chair: Tony Blair did actually set up a committee of Ministers of State chaired by Gus Macdonald to try to look at some of the crosscutting experiences and procedural issues within Government. It did actually have some quite interesting discussions. I am not sure it fed through much into the practice of Government, but it was quite well done. Does anyone else have any questions on that? Thank you very much, Peter. This is work in progress, and we may well want to revert to you after we have talked to some other people to get some further ideas out of you. Thank you very much for coming here today.
Peter Riddell: Absolutely, a pleasure.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Max Freedman, Parliamentary Branch Chair, Unite, Lauren Edwards, Unite, Lisa Townsend, Branch Chair, MAPSA, and Georgina Kester, MAPSA, gave evidence.
Q12 Chair: Welcome. We have your written evidence to us. Firstly, is there anything you want to say by way of introduction to that?
Lisa Townsend: First of all, we want to say thank you for inviting MAPSA. We have only in the recent few months or last couple of years come to the attention of the House authorities, although MAPSA has actually been running since 1974 in the form of the Secretaries and Assistants Council. Most people do not really know about us, so we are always grateful to be invited. We are very proud of our relationship with the House authorities. We have a memorandum of understanding with the House authorities and we are crossparty. We are not a union; Unite fulfil that role, and they fulfil it very well. We do not do that; we are not political and we have members from across the political parties, and across the House and the House of Lords. That is the first thing I wanted to say.
The other thing is that we canvassed our members in terms of their feedback on the first few weeks, and it was overwhelmingly positive, particularly with regard to IT and particularly with regard to the Committee Room set-up and how that worked. There was some negative feedback, but generally speaking it has been overwhelmingly positive. We, as MAPSA, and our members are very aware of the fact that the House, for various reasons, was dealing with a very large intake and had an awful lot to deal with. There was also the fact that they had the Coalition Agreement time in which to deal with it. That may or may not happen again, and so that has to be taken into consideration as well.
Q13 Chair: Obviously those were slightly extraordinary times, firstly, because the arrangements, for example, for those Members of the Liberal Democrats were going to be quite different depending on whether they were in government or opposition. As Mark Tami will know, though, some of them wanted to hold on to their offices as Front-Bench opposition spokesmen, and this became an issue of contention. You are absolutely right that was an abnormal circumstance and also, apart from ’97, an unprecedented level of turnover. I am not sure there is anything that can be done in that context, particularly given the very short time we have before Parliament comes back again. In the interim arrangements, though, are there things that staff have said to you that the House authorities and the Whips’ offices responsible for the parties could do more efficiently and effectively to enable what is inevitably going to be a transition period? Part of the length of time will depend on the level of turnover, but are there physical provisions they could make that would make that much easier, particularly with the influx of letters and information coming through, and also in some cases new staff coming in?
Lisa Townsend: Yes, very much so. One of the things that seemed to come up time and again is that, of course, as we know, with 600odd small businesses, everybody will employ staff at a different rate. Some people came with their new Member because they knew their new Member was about to be elected or they had a very good idea they were, so staff were in place. Other Members did not hire for several weeks or even in some cases a couple of months. There were comments made that there should or could have been better provision made for those Members who came with new staff and that those staff could have been included in any training or briefings that were happening. Maybe that is something that actually could be changed. Georgina in particular had that experience.
Georgina Kester: Yes, I arrived with my Member. I had worked for him in a previous role, so when I arrived straight in with him, obviously the induction process for the Members is very comprehensive, but it focuses quite a lot on activity in the Chamber and those sorts of issues. They seemed a little bit overwhelmed at times by issues involving PICT. It would have been great if we had been recognised as new staff members right from the start and involved in all the briefings on IT issues, accommodation and those sorts of matters. But as I say, overall it worked very efficiently.
Q14 Thomas Docherty: This is not at all having a go at your employers’ hiring arrangements, but it strikes me sometimes that Members are hiring without knowing what they want. Is it your experience that that causes a problem?
Lisa Townsend: That has been an experience. I now work for a new Member, but I have actually worked in the House for almost eight years. No disrespect to Georgina, who had worked for her Member before, but I have seen an awful lot, and I am still seeing a little bit, of the blind leading the blind in the first few months. I was hired specifically because I had worked here before and my Member had no particular experience of having worked in Westminster at all. There was a little bit of that. I think that is inevitable to a point and I think we probably need to work better together.
Q15 Thomas Docherty: Why is it inevitable?
Lisa Townsend: Because when I think of those new Members coming in who hired people who were fresh out of university, those people had maybe worked very hard on campaigns with them, so there was a certain element of, "I know this person. They know me. I can trust them." They are going into a situation, usually miles from home, and an environment they do not know and they are a little bit scared of, if they are honest. They have been working for years and years to get into this place and they want somebody with them they can trust and they know. Often, that person will be somebody they have known for a little while and has maybe helped them get elected. There was an awful lot of that, and I can absolutely see the reason why. Maybe what we need to do, both in terms of the House and as MAPSA-we have a role here-is support those staffers and those Members in doing that.
Q16 Keith Vaz: The problem I have seen, especially with the turnover at the time of an election, is basically the lack of career structure for the staff of Members of Parliament. You sink or swim with your Member. If your Member stays, you stay. Otherwise, that is it. After two years, I find that there is a turnover. People want to go out of the House for alternative careers because the pay structure is so bad. You cannot promote people and keep them. At the time of a general election, a lot of the senior people might have left, so there is no one to turn to. Whereas under the American system, which we have just heard about, you have staffers who are recognised as being part of a career structure in the US Congress. Do you think that would help deal with the kind of issues that you have raised-the senior people? You cannot go to your Member because your Member is very busy finding out how to be a Member. There is a lack of senior people in the House you can go to in order to be trained.
Lisa Townsend: You are absolutely right and this is something we have raised with IPSA, although there is not that much they can do about it. We have raised it with IPSA in terms of the pay scales, obviously. We have had that conversation and we continue to have that conversation with them. You are absolutely right; having been here for eight years, I am very aware that I cannot go above my salary or job description. I am stuck in that regard, so the answer for me was to go and work for a new Member because there are new challenges there and a lot that comes with that.
One of the things that MAPSA is trying to do is set up, for want of a better word, a buddy system. We are starting to trial it now ahead of the 2015 general election, so that when people come in, we can say, "I’ve been here for eight years; Georgina has been here for three years. Here is somebody you can talk to and of whom you can ask what seem like the stupid questions, like, ‘Where is the Vote Office? What do they do? Where is the library? Can somebody explain the sitting times? How does that actually work?’" There are all those questions. However, if we are going to do it properly, we need the support of the House. We really do need the support, because we do not have access to the information of who is new coming in. There is this problem of, "They’re new. They don’t know we exist. We’re here and want to help, but we don’t know they exist." With a little bit of help, I think we can hopefully start to address that issue.
Q17 Graham Evans: What is your view on some form of agency? Recruiting staff in any business is a potential nightmare, and in the real world you can go to an agency that specialises in that field or that industry, broadly speaking. You can say, "I need an experienced engineer," or, "I need an experienced office manager." We do not have that here. When I joined, there was something that was going to be started, but then it disappeared rapidly because of IPSA. It disappeared. I remember saying, "That’s just what I’m looking for," just as it disappeared into a puff of smoke. I am not saying it should be an independent or private venture-it could be an internal venture-but do you think there could be some facility like that, where you could go as a new or existing Member looking for new staff?
Lisa Townsend: I do. As you said, this was something that was talked about an awful lot before the last election. IPSA made it very difficult. There were quite a few of us pre2015, those who knew their Members were leaving or who just wanted to go on to something else, who said, "Put us into a pool and let us come and do that." IPSA, for various reasons, made that very difficult. I used to do a certain amount of that because I used to freelance, effectively. IPSA made that a very difficult thing to do. I would get called on, for example, when a Member had somebody going off on longterm sick leave or maternity leave. That is a very difficult thing to do. If there is a way of the House authorities finding a way to help that-I suspect you would have to do it with the Whips’ offices-it would help Members, particularly new Members who often hire without really knowing what they are doing. Of course, a lot of Members come down with no clue as to whom to hire-not a clue.
Graham Evans: Absolutely-me.
Lisa Townsend: You have had great staff, though.
Q18 Mr Watts: I read in the report that you think MPs can badger IPSA. Many of us try, but we do not often succeed in that challenge. Do you think there is scope for actually explaining to Members about career grades-as you said, you cannot have a career here, but you can have scales that go up-and also about opportunities for training? I think we probably need some sort of guidance about how you get through the bureaucracy of IPSA now. Do you think that would be useful?
Lisa Townsend: Those were not my words, but I think that that would be incredibly useful. Of course, IPSA was very new. We work very closely with IPSA and they have undoubtedly ironed out a lot of the problems they had. Undoubtedly, they are a much better organisation in a lot of ways than they were three years ago. In terms of advising Members, some of the feedback we had, which will not be included in the evidence there because it has come in since then, was people saying-particularly in the constituency offices, which is a separate issue, again, almost-they had no idea there was training available. Their Member had no idea of his or her HR obligations, data protection obligations, or health and safety obligations. There is a huge vacuum there that needs to be filled.
Within MAPSA, we try very hard to work with constituency offices particularly because they often feel isolated. The staff there often feel like they have no recourse to IPSA. We actually had a staffer based in Scotland-she works for a Scottish MP-come to us last week. She said to IPSA, "I’d really like training on this and this, because I’ve taken over as the proxy," and IPSA said, "Great. Next time you’re in London, come down." She said, "I don’t come to London. I’m based in Scotland and I have no need at all to come to London. It would be a waste of taxpayers’ money for the taxpayer to pay for me to get a train down to London. Can you do this on the web? Can we have a conversation on the phone?" "No. You have to come to our offices in London." These are things that we are constantly trying to address with IPSA to just make it a little bit friendlier.
Q19 Chair: The usual cooperative attitude. Would our colleagues from Unite like to join us? I will ask Unite if they want to say anything and then pose a question that can be taken by any or all of them. I am just mindful of the time; we will lose our quorum at 6 o’clock. Colleagues, thank you very much. We have your paper here. Is there anything that you want to say to supplement it?
Max Freedman: Nothing in detail. Just to introduce ourselves, I am Max Freedman, Chair of the Unite branch that represents staff of MPs. We have just short of 500 members, fully crossparty, and obviously we try to be as constructive as we can. This is Lauren Edwards, Secretary of the branch.
Chair: That is absolutely fine. The reason I asked you to join up here is because I am mindful that we will lose a quorum at 6 o’clock for the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Therefore, we will take questions.
Q20 Graham Evans: I was just going to pick up on what Dave was saying about the issue that I just alluded to and constituency offices, because there are those two things: first of all, you know nothing about what goes on here, and then there are your obligations to staff in constituency offices. There was a freedom of information request we have just had about MPs and when they get a loan. If you have a new office as a new MP, in the constituency you have fire regulations, health and safety and security issues-alarms, panic alarms and the like. That all costs money. The point I am making is that IPSA is setting us up for a fall on that because you go along with your obligations, there is a cost to that, it goes into your expenses and then journalists say, "What are you doing spending thousands of pounds on health and safety?" and so on and so forth. I just think it is something we should be aware of moving forward-that IPSA is actually setting us up for a fall for doing the right thing.
Max Freedman: There are now some specific budgets that IPSA does have, for example, for improving security measures in constituency offices. Hopefully, because those are discrete budgets, it is easier to make the explanation that measures paid for out of those budgets are specifically for that purpose. Hopefully, the press and other people can appreciate that more simply.
Graham Evans: One hopes.
Q21 Thomas Docherty: I do not know who wrote the paper, but one of the points you make under point 3 is that you favour mandatory training for all new MPs. How would you make it mandatory?
Max Freedman: I wrote some of that paper. One thing I think I mentioned in one of the bullet points is when I started here, which was the beginning of 2005, it was an odd situation where you were not entitled to get an email address until you had done an afternoon of training on how to use the internet. Most people found that not the best use of time in any case, but it was a hurdle that you had to jump over before you were given access to that facility. If that could be done for an email address that does not cost the public purse anything, then I would have thought it would be not unreasonable to say that an MP should have an hour of training or the opportunity to discuss these matters before they were given access to a budget for staff of over £130,000 a year.
Q22 Thomas Docherty: There are those who argue, and I do this neutrally, that the electorate have elected a Member of Parliament. If I understand you correctly, Max, what you would then do is say that you could not start carrying out your functions until you had gone on a training course. Knowing the House authorities, that could take quite a while, so how would that work?
Max Freedman: Obviously, we do not want to make things too onerous, but as I think I also alluded to in that paper, MPs can come from anywhere. You have all had different experiences before being elected. The nature of being elected, though, has nothing to do with an experience of managerial skills or experience of employment. The skill you need is the skill to be selected in a seat where you can win and persuade the public to vote for you, essentially. People get elected from every walk of life, as is right, but to then employ members of staff and to have a productive office, which is what we all want for constituents, you want an office where the relationship between the employer and the employee is understood-how you can get on together and how you can actually get things achieved.
I am not just going to sit here and say that, within the first 48 hours after election, you need to have done that, but the nature of first emerging in this place I imagine is one that takes you by shock a bit and it takes a bit of time to set up an office, as we know. If within that period you have an hour in which you are told what your responsibilities are towards staff and how they recommend that relationship should operate, I suspect that the MP and the staff will be set up for a more productive partnership than otherwise.
Q23 Chair: That may be true, but the underlying difficulty, which is behind Thomas’s question, is that we allow people to employ staff without even taking their seats in Parliament. The facts of the matter are that essentially there is no way you can deny staff to someone who is elected. That is just a statement of fact. It might be desirable and it may be that there are various group pressures-we have seen this in areas before-where an initial request followed by Whips in various parties talking to people has actually managed to move people around. Ultimately, what slightly worries people is that once you say this is mandatory, you are setting yourself up for a fall, because there will always be the person who will say, "No, and what are you going to do about it?" You cannot say, "We are not going to provide you with staff to service your constituents because you will not turn up to a course." This will not look good in the end.
Max Freedman: I am not going to argue for a right of recall for someone simply because they have not done an hour of training. We have existed as a branch for 30 years now, and all I can plead is that over the years we have dealt with a huge number of grievance situations in that time. It seems to us that many of those could have been averted if there were better relationships initially.
Q24 Chair: Part of it is there has just been a substantial change, not least in the numbers of people. Whereas before, if you went back a number of years, it was very much a secretarycumPAcumresearcher, you are now looking at a situation where people are running an office as an organisational unit as opposed to someone ancillary to them. I fully take on board the change that has taken place and the need to catch up, but I think it is just terminology.
Lauren Edwards: Just getting away from the use of the term "mandatory", we think it is feasible; in the first couple of weeks that you are in here, you could hire a big Committee Room, or a couple per party, and you could have your MPs in there. In terms of mandatory, we want people to be strongly encouraged to come by the Whips’ office and the people who are mentoring them, because I know that happens in the early stage: "You need to come along to this so that you understand your obligations." We need the help of the political parties and the party leaders in doing that. I think it is quite feasible to have a couple of meetings, or however many you need, in the first couple of weeks, whether it is an hour or half an hour, and then for there to be an additional dropin service. If you are having problems managing your staff or you need information, the Personnel Advisory Service at the moment runs regular dropin sessions. You could do a version of that in the first month or so of people being elected.
Q25 Thomas Docherty: That is very different from mandatory. You are going to, "We could do more dropins." Take the Shinners, for example: there is a debate about Shinners’ money, but if you go down the mandatory route, you are saying Shinners cannot get their money until they have come to a course, which they are not going to do because it is London. What you are talking about, Lauren, is an added mentoring system, which is significantly different. It is a bit like a Royal Charter and statutory underpinning.
Lauren Edwards: It is not so much a mentoring system as having MPs in a room so they understand the basic obligations they have as employers. It can be done en masse in a big meeting or it could be done in oneonone sessions for people who need additional support.
Q26 Thomas Docherty: What would you do in the extreme with Sinn Fein, who say, "We’re not coming to London. We’re not taking our oaths or any of this stuff, but we’d like our £100,000 please."?
Lauren Edwards: I do not think we ever put in our submission that we would want MPs not to be taking their money without having this training. Maybe the use of the term "mandatory" was a bit strong, but we think it is a basic expectation for MPs, if they are going to take up their seat and they are going to employ staff, that they understand their responsibilities as employers and that they get some training so they can manage their staff properly so we do not have to come in when there are problems and have protracted dealings with them and their staff.
Mr Swayne: I am not sure whether we would want to make it mandatory, but I think it is worth considering. I do not think there is that great difference in principle and that this would be some great new innovation. After all, the Shinners cannot participate in the Chamber because they have not taken their oath. We impose that mandatory condition. You cannot get anything out of IPSA unless you use their online system; it is mandatory. It seems to me that it would be perfectly possible in principle to say that, after the first couple of months, you will not be able to continue to access your staff budget unless you can tick this box. I am not saying that we would want to do it, but it is certainly something we could possibly do without any great leap in terms of principle beyond what we have already established.
Graham Evans: Just alluding to the point I raised earlier and the point you have just made, Chairman, the fact is you have become a Member of Parliament having campaigned for several years as an advocate for this great constituency. When you get down here, you have this lot telling you, "Before you do anything, you have to make sure you do this and this," and you are an employer in a small business. As I mentioned earlier, I just think when you become a new MP you do need some handholding, to a lesser or greater degree, against these good people who are out to get you. Wannabe MPs need to be aware of what is involved in becoming an MP. That is the point I am making, because you are quite right that nobody wants to employ somebody for the wrong reasons and for it to go pearshaped. You know it is a complete failure when you guys are involved. On the question I mentioned earlier, it is about employing the right people for the right position and treating them correctly. It is common sense, and the last thing we want is to have the problems you alluded to.
Q27 Keith Vaz: This arises out of Graham Evans’ question concerning an agency or someone to vet and make sure that people have reached a certain standard. I have just advertised for a parliamentary assistant. I have had 200 applicants and probably 150 journalists have applied. It would be great to have someone who is able to do some sifting before they came to me, because there would be a lot of people who apply to work for a lot of MPs. This is especially so at the start of a Parliament, when there are a lot of people looking for jobs and a lot of MPs looking for assistants. The first point is, what do you think of that?
Secondly, I put a point to Lisa Townsend and her colleague, Georgina, about the career structure. There is no career structure. I know you have been around a long time because I have seen you down that corridor over the last 15 years. People have to leave because they just cannot get enough money. They would love to stay. People have said to me, "We’d love to stay, but this is the limit that we can be paid, and we really can’t live in London on this kind of salary." What do we do about getting a career structure in there so that we have people with experience and knowledge who can stay on and make a career out of being staffers in Parliament as they do in America, and as we have with the Clerk system, for example. They can stay on, get promoted and get on to different grades. We just do not have the capacity to do this.
Max Freedman: You are right. In terms of finding the right people to employ when you are advertising, we all know that personal recommendations count for a lot in here, not least because one of the values most sought after is loyalty, and the ability to be discreet and other things like that. You cannot really tell that from a CV, but people can make recommendations to you that you can appreciate and you can trust. Certainly, I know in the last Parliament when an MP stepped down, died or whatever it might have been their staff had the opportunity to put their CVs in at the PLP office. It would then be available if an MP needed to recruit someone who already had some experience and had already demonstrated some of the skills that were required. That was somewhere to go and look. It is not an official pool of people, but that is a step beyond 200 unknown people throwing their hats in the ring.
In terms of career progression, I obviously completely agree with you. It is one of the reasons why we fought to improve redundancy pay, so that people were less likely to quit halfway through a Parliament or towards the end of a Parliament. You want to retain those skills, and if you can see that your boss is unlikely to retain their seat at the next election, where would the incentive be unless you could actually get a reasonable piece of redundancy at the end of it? I am glad to say we managed to get that improved, but you are still talking about pay scales that in London may not be what everyone is looking for. It is a different question in the constituencies. This place is set up with 650 MPs and constituencies of 100,000 people. You have to ask how many staff are required from that if you are not a Committee Chair and what skills they can bring along. People do improve their skills while working for an MP and become more valued because of that experience, but there is a clear ceiling in terms of salary that they reach. I have not given you any answers there, but I have just talked through it.
Q28 Nigel Mills: One potential answer would be to change the situation so an MP does not employ staff anymore and there is some kind of central employment, perhaps done by IPSA. That usually gets things thrown at you when you suggest it, but is it something you think would be a better way forward?
Max Freedman: There are mixed views on that. It was discussed at quite some length before the last general election and some decisions were taken in principle to do that. I can see arguments for and against, not least because the key relationship is the relationship between me and my boss-the loyalty and trust that has built up over years of doing that. I would not want to do anything to displace that, so I cannot imagine switching one week to someone else. At the same time, though, you would have more certainties simply because, as I mentioned earlier, you have a range of different employment styles, to put it mildly, in here, from people who are absolutely expert, terrific and very professional in the way they do things, to people who have had no training or experience in management and who are frankly slapdash at it. If it were all done centrally, then presumably we could improve questions such as grievance and disciplinary procedures, which I still think are inadequate in this place, and measures such as that, which hopefully would improve the overall standard of employment in here so things would be less likely to go wrong.
Lisa Townsend: I do not think that is the answer. I completely agree with Max that there is a lack of grievance procedure. We are speaking with the House at the moment about the Respect policy. I do not think the answer is a pool, and I argued that before the last election. I think it would fundamentally change the relationship between staffer and Member. In some cases, that might not be a bad thing, but I think overall it would change it for the bad. Also, the answer to one thing we agree on about grievance is providing some HR for staff. It does not exist. That is part of the reason Unite and MAPSA exist.
Max Freedman: We are the only thing that exists.
Lisa Townsend: Yes, exactly. We are it. This is it. We meet regularly with IPSA, and when we have raised the issue with IPSA they say, "HR is not our business. It wasn’t in our remit. It wasn’t what we were set up to do." MAPSA thinks IPSA is right. I do not think IPSA should take it on. I think we are all very quick to criticise to IPSA, so the argument that they should also take on HR when we are already criticising them for not doing a good enough job on other things does not work. I do think there is some room for the House, though, to provide HR. I think that is how we fix the grievance procedure, not through pooled staff.
Q29 Graham Evans: Isn’t PAS supposed to do that?
Lisa Townsend: No, it is not supposed to support us.
Max Freedman: No. PAS offers employment advice to Members, never to staff.
Graham Evans: All right. Can I just say they are not fit for purpose?
Chair: I am mindful that we are probably going to lose our quorum at this stage, with the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Can I thank you very much for that? This may be something on which we need to revert to you. Thank you for your contribution at this stage. Thank you, colleagues.