Mon, 23 May 2022

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The Secret Caseworker: "My pay has not increased in line with my workload"

The Secret Caseworker: 'My pay has not increased in line with my workload'
6 min read

As the first port of call for constituency matters somewhere in the south of England, the Secret Caseworker takes us through a typically gruelling day

It’s 8.45am and I’m logging on. My work hours are technically 9am to 5.30pm, but I can’t recall the last time I started at 9 or finished anywhere remotely around 5.30.

I am a parliamentary caseworker and the first point of contact with your local MP. Whether by email, call or letter, it’s most likely me – or someone like me – who responds when you get in touch with your representative, even if correspondence is signed by a much more notable name.

First, I scan over the emails sent to the MP, mentally prioritising and delegating the various tales of woe – deportations and evictions, alongside routine enquiries about potholes, bins and dog poo, plus endless stock emails from the online campaigning organisation 38 Degrees.

The office phone goes on at 10am, but even before then I have made several enquiries about delayed benefit payments, chasing up the progress of spouse visas and checking on delays to someone’s medication.

10:00

As soon as the clock strikes 10, the calls start flooding in, faster than I’m able to take them. 

A young woman and her four children are in temporary accommodation, miles away from her support networks and their schools. A father in tears reports that his son in prison is being assaulted and threatened by other inmates. A suicidal young man says he is desperate for help with his mental health but nobody is listening.

I am an untrained benefits specialist, immigration adviser, housing support worker, therapist. All from my kitchen table.

There is a short list of things we don’t provide – such as legal advice – but there is no rulebook for being a caseworker. Much like being an MP, the job is what you make of it. I’ve found the general rule of thumb is, if we can help, we will.

I’ve picked up a lot on the job. Before I worked here, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the EU Settlement Scheme, Section 21 notices, or cavity wall insulation. Now, I’m basically an industry expert. In the same breath, I can tell you which junior minister is most appropriate to write to about unsafe cladding, and which local council officer is best to contact about fly-tipping.

As the day goes on, I think about chasing up the Home Office for updates on the dozens of Ukraine asylum enquiries we’ve received. Colleagues in other offices have warned that waiting times today are over two hours. I dial with trepidation.

While on hold for two hours and 47 minutes exactly, I take calls from constituents. When I finally get through to the Home Office, they can tell me precisely nothing about the cases of those desperate women and children – many still in Ukraine – who we are trying to assist.

I feed back to our constituents. One, whose case I have failed to get an update on, takes out their frustrations on me. “I’m not having a go at you; I’m just frustrated at …” they tell me. But whoever they are truly angry with, it’s me on the other end of the line.

14:00

2pm. Hurriedly, I eat my lunch at my desk. A woman calls, and I answer, scoffing my sandwich between responses. She is thanking us for a big benefit repayment that we have been able to secure for her.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly do love my job. The wins and the sincere thanks we get from those we’ve been able to help keep me going. Even if the thanks are directed at your boss, who has had nothing to do with the case, there is a real sense of achievement and of a job well done.

“I am an untrained benefits specialist, immigration adviser, housing support worker, therapist”

The afternoon drags on. In amongst the desperation and heartache, there is also the mundane and horrible. A woman calls about kids playing too close to her house; a man calls to say my employer is a waste of space.

Being the first point of contact often means I am the one who receives the abuse or even threats directed towards the MP I work for. I am, unfortunately, far too familiar with the process of reporting direct threats to the police.

17:30

5.30pm eventually rolls around. “I’ll just do this one more thing,” I think. “Just draft one more reply.” Suddenly, it is 7pm.

19:00

Although I physically log off, my brain is whirring with thoughts about those who contacted us today. I feel selfish putting the TV on and relaxing when I’m so aware of just how many people are struggling and suffering right now that I can still hear their voices and see their faces.

20:30

At 8.30pm, I log back on. I need to find out if one constituent’s universal credit has been paid today as promised – she needs to pay her rent tomorrow, or she will be evicted. I chased this up several times today, but I need to hear it from her.

Phew, they have paid her. I log off again, a small weight lifted.

20:45

WhatsApp messages pop up on my phone as other caseworkers are still asking each other work questions. I know I’m not alone. My network of colleagues in other offices is invaluable, not only for help and advice but also informal pastoral care. There was a phase in lockdown where we all sent pictures of the (large) drinks we were having at the end of the day, or pictures of our pets, in a bid to boost morale.

Throughout the pandemic, the work of a caseworker has felt especially frustrating. The level of poverty in the area my boss represents has increased drastically. So, in turn, has our workload. I could now refer a desperate family to a foodbank and for fuel vouchers with my eyes closed, I’ve done it that many times.

My pay has not increased in line with my workload. Caseworkers are on one of the lowest rungs of the parliamentary pay scale. Despite the words of appreciation and support from my boss and colleagues (“I don’t know how you do it”), sometimes it feels that we are less valuable, less important than our colleagues in Westminster.

Just one last time before bed, I log back on.

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