The cost of working for an MP

Written by Louise Haigh is branch secretary of Unite the Union’s Parliamentary Staff Branch on 11 November 2011 in Diary
Diary
Unite's Louise Haigh explains why she is no longer surprised by 'shoddy' employment practices in some MPs' offices

This week, the cost to the taxpayer of pay-outs to MPs’ staff on winning tribunal claims was revealed.  The figure, £350,000 over the past five years, made headlines. But as a union rep for MPs’ staff I was surprised it wasn’t higher.

The negative associations that the public have with MPs and politics in general are often projected onto those working for parliamentarians, sometimes not unjustly. Yet I cannot imagine many who have not directly-experienced working for an MP who have the first idea of the shoddy employment practices that pervade within the very walls where these standards are set.

Firstly, it’s important to point out that MPs’ offices operate as separate entities. The House of Commons is effectively made up of 650 small businesses, with MPs receiving staffing budgets from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and allocating them as they see fit. 

Contracts are between the staff and the MP and, although some MPs will employ an office manager, in the majority of cases the MP serves as both employer and line manager. This is obviously problematic if the working relationship is anything less than perfect. If a grievance or disciplinary is brought, it is the MP that hears it and chooses whether to progress or dismiss. Similarly with the appeal. 

It would not be unreasonable to assume that most MPs dismiss the grievances that are brought against them and progress the disciplinary action they bring against their staff.

Beyond the appeal stage, few options are available for staff but some cases end up at employment tribunals. The most notable cases of late were those concerning MPs disgraced by the expenses scandal who, as well as cheating the public purse, treated their staff in the most appalling manner. 

Staff were left with no option other than to drag their erstwhile employers through the courts and rightly received settlement figures.

But the majority of cases don’t make it to tribunal. Hence the £350,000 figure is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.

Staff don’t want to deal with the stress of going through the courts. They may feel a sense of, in my view, misguided loyalty towards their MP and almost certainly the political party they represent.  And, perhaps most importantly, for those who want to be employed in politics again, the stigma they would carry for taking industrial action against their employer would almost certainly bar them from much prospective employment. 

Compounding this is the fact that IPSA refuse to recognise a trade union for MPs’ staff.  Despite the fact MPs act as the employer, there are standard contracts, terms and conditions and pay scales that are set centrally and a union should be involved in negotiating these. 

As a result of Unite’s non-recognition, changes to staff pensions, pay structures, working hours and job descriptions have been imposed unilaterally on staff with no prior consultation.  Staff who have a query relating to their contract or any aspect of their employment relationship are referred to union reps, who do not receive time off for trade union activity or any kind of remuneration for their work, but manage to do a sterling job in providing advice and representing them. 

MPs on the other hand, have an entire HR department dedicated to them, receive funding for solicitors or HR firms that they may want to draft in to help them get rid of their staff and have their employers’ insurance paid for. 

Now, I’m under no illusion that MPs’ staff are at the coalface, but particularly for those in constituency offices, they are frontline staff.  The recent example of Stephen Timms’ stabbing demonstrates the unsafe conditions they often work in and it is mostly for relatively low pay, long hours, working evenings and weekends, with no overtime or time off in lieu. 

I have represented staff who have been sacked for taking sick leave, whose replacements have been advertised for while they’ve been on holiday, who have had gross misconduct charges brought because they arrived at 9.02am rather than 9am, who have had office items hurled at them and who have been sacked by a post-it note. 

This is without touching on the widespread and illegal use of unpaid interns, which has been highlighted in the media recently.

Such abuse is present across the political spectrum. MPs of all political colours have been guilty of such malpractice but I’m no longer surprised by it. 

Many MPs have never line managed before entering Parliament, let alone employed someone and they are given no training or support on entering Parliament.  IPSA has failed MPs’ staff in failing to take a more active role in upholding employment standards in Parliament but MPs must not be let off the hook. 

The public demands a certain standard from MPs in both their public and private lives. It’s about time this extended to their offices as well.

Louise Haigh is branch secretary of Unite the Union’s Parliamentary Staff Branch

Tags: Employment tribunals, IPSA, MPs' staff, Unite

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