Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
Having been a member of the Conference, I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. The Conference has done some important work. We all know that this is a highly individual workplace, and that brings pressures, close and intense working, and a daily range of issues that are varied and challenging. We all know of personnel cases where things have gone wrong, so it was a very good idea to create the Speaker’s Conference, and all its members set off on our work knowing there was a problem to solve: that the working conditions of our teams, Members’ staff, could and must be improved.
We have had a very good process, and I thank the House staff for all that they did. In particular, I thank them for their research and for drawing interesting parallels between other Parliaments around the world. It is clear that some of these Parliaments have been on similar journeys to ourselves. It is hard enough to organise things on a national parliamentary basis, but to do so on an international parliamentary basis is particularly challenging.
I think back to a joint meeting with representatives from the Bundestag. The organisation was good: we had to fit in with multiple participants, co-ordinate between sittings and ensure good translation services. I know more about that meeting because I chaired it, but there were many other meetings as well. The way in which House Officers carried out their background research was particularly helpful. For example, there was a visit to my constituency office—among a number of other such visits—to see what happens in the more distant part of the parliamentary estate. We had a visit from the Director of Members’ Services, Mr Chris Sear. When he joined us in Harrogate, I made myself scarce by visiting some constituents, so he could talk to the team and find out what they were doing and all that they do to support people on a daily basis.
Throughout this process, I was aware that there had been some difficulty with gathering information. There was plenty of anecdotal information, but problems have been hard to quantify. That difficulty with information meant that, to keep perspective and proportionality in all that we did, we had to constantly remind those involved that the vast majority of MPs are good employers.
There was a focus on three areas: culture, community and behaviour. I will comment, if I may, on a couple of the more important decisions. The first was to keep MPs as employers of their teams and as the deciders of who is in their team. That is a very good thing. Any changes to that would have been difficult to implement and would, I am sure, have met significant resistance. It also became clear very quickly that the way that support is provided or accessed by Members’ staff is slightly haphazard, and that that could be improved.
Members’ staff can sometimes feel like second-class citizens—for example, when everyone else on the parliamentary estate are eligible for a flu jab, they are not. Listing Members’ staff as expenses is demeaning; they are not expenses, they do valuable work. Members’ staff could join parliamentary networks.
The transfer of employment rights for staff when they change from working for one MP to another is critical. Effectively, a member of staff has to start all over again when a Member retires or loses their seat, or when a constituency boundary is abolished. That member of staff may have worked here for many years, but they would not have any employment rights. Clearly, that is wrong. As a result of the Conference, that will change, and that transfer of rights was a very early decision.
A further point is the Member Services Team, with a recommendation for significantly greater HR support. Basically, this is about moving everything to a far more professional and standard working arrangement. One area where more is to be done concerns those who are working away from the estate. It is hard to see what is going on in constituency offices—there are 650 or so in diverse locations around our nation—and I was sure that further work was needed. The parliamentary authorities should work together, alongside the political parties, to identify early where risk may be developing—for example, staff turnover rates could be considered, or basic personnel admin, such as leave records.
During the Conference’s work, we spent some time discussing the structure of MPs’ offices—possibly because I spent a large amount of time ensuring that we did so. Some are better than others, but how a colleague sets up their office is their business, not mine.