Office politics: should Parliamentarians return to their desks or retain some elements of WFH?
Many have missed life in Westminster and are eager to get back into the old routine. But not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Commuting, childcare and accessibility issues have raised calls for remote working to form part of the new normal.
The thousands of people who work on the Parliamentary estate present a microcosm of the country when it comes to the challenges posed by working remotely during the pandemic. Like everyone else, they are also split on what getting “back to normal” might look like.
“I just cannot stand working from home,” says Hattie, a Conservative staffer who is now going into the office most days. “It’s really mentally not good for people. We don’t have the nicest office in Norman Shaw, but it’s that or sitting in my living room and almost losing it, so I’d much rather be in the office.”
Kieran, a Labour frontbench staffer, agrees: “I’ve been going into the office most days. I get tested twice a week, as per the guidance. The testing services are really good in Parliament. I feel much better having gone into work, seeing people in real life and being able to separate my home life and work life.”
For both Kieran and Hattie, a major issue has been the lack of space in their homes for working.
“A lot of staffers are 20-somethings who live in rental housing in London,” Kieran says. “And often that housing isn’t great; something we got when we assumed we’d be out all the time.
“Parliament is basically a home from home – all your friends are there, you work and play there because of all the bars. Then we all found ourselves thrust into the rental housing that was more intended to just be a base rather than actually a nice place to live. People are banging on the door to come back into the office.”
For many MPs and peers, there is a similar desire to return – albeit for different reasons. While there is widespread admiration for how the Parliamentary Digital Service got systems working, many express concern about the quality of debate and law-making in virtual proceedings.
“The government isn’t being challenged in the way that it should be – on all sides,” says Tory MP Bob Blackman, who will remain working from home until the planned end to social distancing on 21 June. As well as an inability to read the mood of the Chamber, some Parliamentarians complain of a lack of spontaneity, the increased ease with which they say ministers can dodge questions, and the loss of interventions.
“That is the way you hold the government to account – not the stage-managed whips’ questions that are handed out. [Ministers] need to be challenged, because that’s how government works best,” Blackman says.
The former Lord Speaker Baroness Hayman feels the same. “The show has gone on. But it’s been a pale imitation of Parliament at its best. Because it’s impossible to scrutinise ministers, to go through legislation really effectively when you have any of the constraints that we have at the moment. We’re doing a lot of reading speeches into the record, rather than debating.”
The show has gone on. But it’s been a pale imitation of Parliament at its best.
According to the current road map, all amendments to the standing orders which have allowed the Commons to function virtually will end on 21 June, along with all social distancing requirements across the estate. The House understands that conversations are ongoing about increasing the numbers currently allowed in the Commons Chamber, and that government is expecting a full audience of MPs for Prime Minister’s Questions on 23 June. The return of all passholders will be phased between June and September.
In the Lords, there is a debate planned for 20 May to allow peers to air their views on what, if any, elements of the hybrid Chamber should be retained, before final decisions are made.
Across all MPs and peers The House spoke to, there was support for maintaining virtual capacity at select committees to take evidence from witnesses (which was allowed pre-pandemic – just nobody did it). Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg also told The House that keeping pass readers in the Commons’ voting lobbies is also likely to remain.
However, some think other parts of pandemic working should remain too, including options to work from home at every level.
Jenny Symmons, chair of the GMB branch for Parliamentary staff, says the job of a Parliamentary researcher is primarily desk-based – and that MPs rarely work standard nine to five hours. “I really hope there’s a lot more scope for home working, flexible hours, and compressed hours.” However, this won’t happen without encouragement from the Speaker and House services, she says.
“People very much want a phased return, which is what I want – two or three days back in the office.” While Symmons says the estate does feel Covid-secure, she is worried about changing her routine and getting used to being around people all day. “That’s what a lot of people feel. Even if they’re not that nervous about how safe Parliament is, the mental readjusting of getting back into that working routine is something we’ll be looking to support people with.”
Currently, MPs are allowed to have up to two members of staff in their offices. However, office size and ventilation varies, and Symmons says she has seen cases of staff wanting to return to Westminster but MPs saying no – something she puts down to the administration required, with MPs having to conduct risk assessments and provide House authorities with a weekly register of staff going into the estate.
There is also some nervousness from both MPs and staff about commuting, and not everyone is diligent about wearing a mask on the estate. One office manager told The House that while they have opened up their constituency office for staff, they will not be doing so with their Westminster office yet, as they are concerned about the additional pressure on the Parliamentary catering and security staff.
Some Parliamentarians also want their ability to work remotely to be retained for travel, childcare and accessibility reasons. Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP from Na h-Eileanan an Iar, says it takes a quarter tonne of CO2 for him to travel to and from Westminster each week – reducing the need to travel from far-flung constituencies would dramatically cut Parliament’s carbon footprint.
Baroness Campbell of Surbiton is one of those who says she would benefit from an element of continued remote working – although she wants to be present in the Lords most of the time, the ability to contribute to debates or vote remotely could actually preserve her health and elongate her life, she says. “I have found virtual working to be really, really accessible to me as a disabled person.”
Campbell has to leave the estate by early evening in order to use her ventilator, meaning she often missed late votes and debates in pre-pandemic times. “I’m like Cinderella; I have to leave by 8.30pm at the latest, otherwise I will stop breathing and I don’t really think anyone wants me to capitulate in the middle of a speech,” she says.
Remote working is the thing of the future. If we don’t modernise, we will seem even more archaic than we already are.
“It’s not an easy place to work at times,” she adds. “In the winter, if you have temperature control problems, you almost get hypothermia. I’ve often come home with chills and not feeling well because I just stayed too long in the Chamber.”
Both Campbell and MacNeil hark back to previous arguments about Parliament “leading by example” in the pandemic. Campbell says: “Remote working is the thing of the future. And if we don’t modernise and we’re not progressive, then we will seem even more archaic than we already are.”
While the current temporary standing orders will end on 21 June, this doesn’t preclude future virtual participation options – particularly with the upcoming restoration and renewal programme posing a costly challenge as to where parliamentarians will meet if some or all are forced to leave the building. The Commons Procedure Committee has also said that it will consider “whether, and how, eligibility for proxy voting might be extended to other categories of absent Member” after the pandemic, if Members desires it to.
There are unifiers across all sides of the debate: people are missing the politics of Parliament – the gossip, the cross-party working, the casual conversations, the plotting.
“It is good for us to be together, to have contact with people from other parties as well. You do have to blend the two – there is a serious human thing about getting together and seeing the humanity in political opponents, it’s in everybody,” MacNeil says.
As Hayman puts it: “The business of politics can’t be done remotely.”