Casework in a crisis
Across the country MPs’ staffers are delivering crucial support to constituents during the coronavirus crisis. Some have seen their workload increase threefold. But are they getting the support they need? Georgina Bailey reports
After three years of Brexit debates, two snap general elections and a prorogation, many of those who work for MPs were looking to 2020 as the year when things “went back to normal”.
“All of those other events, while bizarre in their own ways, were bizarre in the Westminster bubble,” one parliamentary staffer explains. “They obviously had an impact on the ‘real’ world but people still went about their daily lives. Coronavirus has just completely shut everything down.”
Like the majority of the country, MPs’ staff are now working at home. At the same moment their workload has, according to one caseworker, “gone through the roof”. “We would normally get about 1,000 emails per day, we are currently receiving around 3,000-5,000,” they say.
Every office runs differently, with most MPs employing between two to five staffers. The staff tend to be divided between the constituency office and Westminster, covering casework, diary and office management, and parliamentary research and communications. Due to the volume of enquiries coming in, the majority of staff are now having to cover casework. Software for some MPs is showing increases in the amount of cases by 250-300% since the start of the outbreak.
We’re expected to become experts in things that have just been announced and haven’t been fleshed out. Sometimes you don’t have answers
The cases include clarification on Government social distancing advice; local healthcare workers worried about PPE; employees with questions about furlough; small businesses at risk of going under; and constituents who are stuck abroad. “What’s difficult about the casework coming in now is if you say the wrong thing and you advise someone in the wrong way, it’s going to have massive repercussions,” says one experienced Conservative staffer.
As they are relying on the same publicly-available government information, caseworkers are finding that they often don’t have the answers. “Most MPs’ offices were treated like a Citizens’ Advice centre anyway but we're at the stage now where Citizens’ Advice are literally sending people to us because they're either at capacity or don't have the answers,” a Tory parliamentary assistant explains. “The unknown is a massive challenge.”
While the parties have been providing much-welcomed support with information packs for casework responses and briefings for caseworkers, the frustration at the situation is palpable. “We don’t know anything that isn’t being posted online,” says one Labour staffer. “[We’re] expected to become experts in things that have just been announced and haven’t been fleshed out. Sometimes you don’t have answers.”
Though some Whitehall departments have come in for praise, many staffers have expressed dismay at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in light of responses to enquiries about constituents stitch abroad, particularly at the start of the crisis.
“The Foreign Office has not been very forthcoming with information,” a Labour caseworker with at least 72 constituents stuck in Pakistan tells me. “We’re telling constituents [stuck abroad] to look at consulates’ Twitter for updates.”
One Conservative staffer brands the “incompetence” of the Foreign Office as “quite staggering”. “It’s been directing us to phone lines that aren’t answered, or email addresses that you email for a couple of days and then it’s ‘we’ve set up a new email address, this is the one you want to contact’,” they say.
A Labour researcher explains: “The communication has just been so lacking, given the seriousness of some of the situations that some of our constituents are in.” They add: “I think everyone is worried about their constituents who are stranded abroad because it’s just not clear what’s going to happen to them.”
A spokesperson for the FCO said the department “recognised British tourists abroad are finding it difficult to return to the UK because of the unprecedented international travel and domestic restrictions… [The Government will] continue working around the clock to bring people home.”
For some staffers, the relentless nature of the casework they’re dealing with is having an effect on their wellbeing. One caseworker describes the experience as “intense, exhausting and fundamentally unrewarding”, likening it to being “on a hamster wheel every day, running and running, and literally not getting anywhere.”
Like other office workers suddenly based from home, it can be hard to draw a line between the professional and the personal. “My work is literally from when I wake up doing emails, through to when I go to bed at 10/11pm at night,” explains a Conservative parliamentary assistant. “You’re never off the clock now that we’re working from home”.
We’re not therapists, we’re not trained to deal with this shit, but we constantly have to
Nearly every staffer The House spoke to is working at least some additional hours, even if they’re told by their MP not to. Staffers report that they are increasingly worrying about constituents in their free time, and even dreaming about casework. Parliament does offer a confidential helpline through an Employee Assistance Programme for MPs’ staff, and a Parliamentary Health & Wellbeing Service with “responsibility for training and promoting health and wellbeing across the parliamentary estate”, promoted via the parliamentary intranet and updates to staff.
But awareness about the help available is mixed. Those usually based in constituency offices were less likely to know about the schemes than their Westminster-based colleagues. Some would like to see more support offered. “We need to acknowledge that a lot of caseworkers are 18, 19, in their early twenties,” says one Conservative parliamentary assistant who has previously worked for several MPs. “[They are] young people who are not equipped to deal with people saying they’re going to kill themselves because their business [has gone under]. So, if there is anything that can be done to help that, and a wider recognition that we’re not therapists, we’re not trained to deal with this shit, but we constantly have to.”
Staffers have welcomed the additional £10,000 of expenses being made available by IPSA to support homeworking, as well as flexibility on administrative deadlines. The allowance has meant offices can order the equipment essential for conducting casework such as laptops, keypads, printers and scanners, and the increase in communication from the Speaker’s office and House Authorities has also been appreciated.
Even as some MPs return to Westminster this week, staff expect to remain working from home for the foreseeable future. For all the challenges, there are significant rewards too, with some being moved to tears by the messages they’ve received from grateful constituents. “I know we’re not key workers or working for the NHS, but it’s nice to know we are at least helping in this time, directing people to things that can help them,” says one caseworker. A parliamentary assistant summarises: “We’re not special. We are like the millions of others in this country just doing our best during difficult times.”