How Westminster Works: What Do MPs Actually Do For You?
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Every year MPs and their staff receive thousands of requests for help from the people they are elected to represent – ranging from everyday problems about bin collections and parking spaces, to highly sensitive pleas about immigration, medical care and crime.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and dedicated caseworkers discussed with PoliticsHome the vital work their staff in offices across the length and breadth of the country do.
Farron is the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a relatively rural constituency in Cumbria with a population of around 84,000.
When he spoke to PoliticsHome he was celebrating his team’s achievement of completing their 10,000th piece of casework in just 12 months, and despite much of his time in Westminster being taken up with making speeches in Commons debates, attending meetings and voting on legislation, he still views casework as one of his top priorities.
“I think it probably differs from MP to MP,” he explained. “To me, it's probably the number one issue or certainly is in my top two or three, because I think serving your community is the main calling from my perspective of a Member of Parliament.
“And that means being their advocate, their voice, using the resources and the access that you've got to get outcomes for people that are good, so a large chunk of this morning was taken up supporting one young homeless person with multiple needs.
“And here we are on the brink of a bank holiday, and trying to get through to services that are largely closed, so it takes an awful lot of time.
“Also on a personal level it’s the most rewarding thing, and when you're dealing with casework, and you're dealing with individual experiences, that gives you a kind of authenticity when you then go to Parliament, and you talk about the making of laws, and you feed into departmental questions.
“These are no longer issues of policy and opinion. They're based upon experience of what works, what doesn't work, and how we can make things better.”
Like many MPs, Farron has held national party roles in addition to being his constituent’s representative in Parliament, but whether you’re a minister, party leader, or even the Prime Minister, your constituents are still going to expect you to be there for them, and those seen as neglecting their own patch risk the wrath of voters at the ballot box.
“I guess most of the time I’ve been around I've had some additional roles of some kind or another,” he said, but adding “that doesn't mean that you love your constituency any less”.
He said he would "run myself ragged by making sure I was in my patch at least four days a week even when I was leader, and, and put extra resources into staffing to make sure we did casework”.
But while MPs may try their best to get personally involved in helping as many constituents as possible, much of the heavy lifting is done by a team, usually four or five strong, who work in either of an MP’s two offices -one in their constituency, and one in Westminster.
It’s a unique role, and unlike civil servants, staff are hired and managed directly by the MP, leading to suggestions the operations are equivalent to 650 small businesses operating all over the country.
Charlotte Blegay works as a caseworker in the inner-London constituency of Southwark, and is the first person that those seeking help with a problem will encounter when they phone, email or visit the office of their local MP.
Despite the complexity of the role, there is no clear path for those who want to become a caseworker to follow and very little formal training for those who take up the role. Part social worker, and part therapist, the job attracts people from a broad range of backgrounds, and although it is not political, most MPs request their staff share a sympathy with the broad views of their party.
As a result, the job can be a springboard for those with bigger political ambitions, while others relish the chance to work on the frontline in their communities.
Whatever their motivation, there is a consensus over the skills you need to be an effective caseworker.
“One thing I learned from being a caseworker is, a lot of people come into the office, and they don't really have major expectations for what they're going to get out of it.” Blegay said.
“Most of the time, it just requires a lot of listening. So really kind of really showing that you're understanding and being empathetic to people's problems.
“Because it may seem very small to you listening in comparison to many other problems that might come into the office, but to that individual to that person, it could be massive, it could literally be the thing that is disrupting their everyday life.”
Most MPs arrive in Parliament after being elected for the first time with a mountain of casework already waiting for them, despite having no formal training in how to deal with it.
There is a common joke among new MPs about the inevitable congratulation email they receive within seconds of them finishing at the polling station, which begins: “Very well done on your result, now about my bins…”
But sometimes, confusion between party politics and the role of an MP as the representative of all their constituents in Westminster can bring its own challenges, with many people hesitant to approach their local MP for support if they feel there may be party political interference - something which all MPs strongly avoid.
Farron says he hopes to have “encouraged and built a culture here in Cumbria, where people know, they don't need to agree with me, or to have voted for me to get in touch with me”.
He adds: “I absolutely try and keep my casework operation and my approach to casework very separate from any kind of party politics, I wouldn't want anyone to think that they have to vote me because I come in."
Sometimes, those who arrive at the office believe the opposite, as Blegay explains: “One of the key things that we get a lot at the door is people that say ‘I've been a Labour supporter’, or ‘I've been voting for you for years’, and they think that by saying that somehow that will get us to help them more, but it's not party driven.
“At the end of the day, that MP is there to represent everyone within their constituency. And so I do think that there are a lot of people who don't necessarily see that their MP is just a voice for them or an advocate for them.
“I think it takes them coming into the office and speaking to someone within the office to realise it doesn't really matter how big or small their issue is, and regardless of whoever it is that they follow politically, their MP is there to help them."
While the skills required for the job might be the same across the country, the kind of casework that arrives in each office can vary drastically, with some offices dominated by immigration problems, while others may be more focussed on fly-tipping and bus services.
Especially in urban areas, immigration can be a dominating issue - one which requires an intricate understanding of the law, and a lot of patience for those dealing with an over-stretched Home Office to resolve complex cases.
In Farron's patch, the work is significantly different, but no less challenging, and with various communities - from small towns to rural farms - they all bring their own unique challenges which must be understood and addressed by the small team that work in his office.
But being accessible and having a presence in the community is vital to the work, but sadly, brings its risks to both MPs and their staff. The murders of Conservative MP David Amess this year, and Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, has shown the very real dangers those on the frontline can be exposed to.
Their deaths, alongside a surge in abuse aimed at parliamentarians, has triggered numerous discussions about whether extra protections are necessary to protect them while working in their communities.
But the consensus continues to be that keeping that access open, without security scanners and police guards, is a vital part of maintaining a deep connection to their community.
“To be honest, I never really thought about safety up until the more recent events just because you never assume that if someone is coming into the office for help that they would want to hurt you,” Blegay said.
“I think that's maybe that's my naivety in thinking that way. But most of the time when people come in, you know, they come in because they they require something from the office, they need some support.”
She said security measures have always been in place, but it hadn’t been at the forefront of her mind until recently, however now the team “would be more on edge”, adding: “Everything feels a lot more volatile at the moment."
No matter what the reason for a constituent’s attending, caseworkers and MPs provide a vital service to those who come to see them - whether that is sorting a frustrating local issue, or transforming someones life by helping them access public services or sorting a complex immigration case.
It's why so many caseworkers find themselves sticking with the role - often on low pay and with long hours - for many years.
Blegay explains why: “It's definitely rewarding. When someone comes in to the office for the first time, and they genuinely look like the whole world is on their shoulders.
“And after you've helped them with something, they seem a lot lighter.”
- This episode was written by John Johnston, the editor was Laura Silver, to listen please subscribe to the PoliticsHome podcast here
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