We are determined to learn the lessons of the Gemma White report, and support all MPs and their staff through Covid and beyond
These difficult times may continue for some time, but we will continue to strive to make sure Members and their staff feel supported no matter what challenges arise.
In 2019 Gemma White’s report into bullying and harassment in Parliament sent shockwaves through the institution and made improving its culture a priority. In early 2020 the Members’ Services Team was created to provide more support for MPs and staff, to begin this journey.
I have worked in Parliament for more than 34 years, much of which was spent in the House of Commons Library before taking on a more corporate role with the Customer Programme in 2017. I moved to the Members’ Services team in February, and was honoured to take on the role of Director of the Members’ Services Team (MST), late last year when my predecessor, Lee Bridges, moved to IPSA on a secondment.
In an unprecedented year, when many have felt isolated or forced to adjust to home working, making Members and MPs’ staff feel supported, has perhaps never been more important.
Amid the pandemic, Members and MPs’ staff adjusted to new ways of working, and amongst other pressures, dealt with a massively increased caseload.
Our first task as a team was to strengthen the HR support available
MPs are the employers of their staff, and Gemma White acknowledged that many MPs are excellent employers. However, she felt they needed more support to stop problems arising within MPs’ offices.
Therefore, our first task as a team was to strengthen the HR support available. Although the Members’ HR Advisory team had been in existence for some time, it only consisted of two staff. One of Gemma White’s recommendations was to provide enhanced HR support to Members and put in place policies to engage with and support MPs’ staff. We have taken this on board and there are now ten of us in the team to support these recommendations.
We offer professional HR advice to Members to help them in their role as employers, and proactively publish HR Best Practice guides. Our first guide on recruitment was published in November. We will publish further guides on probation and fixed-term contracts, with more to come.
Even before the pandemic, Gemma White identified that many MPs’ staff feel isolated from what goes on in Parliament. To combat this, our two Members’ staff advisers proactively contact all new MPs’ staff in the week of their IT accounts being set up. This is followed with a phone call two weeks later, and a monthly networking event that is well attended. We help signpost MPs’ staff to pastoral support, such as the employee assistance programme run by Health Assured. We also run an all-MPs’ staff phone-in; the most recent focused on wellbeing.
We are supported by colleagues in many other teams and participate in events such as inductions for MPs’ staff and regional constituency events; both run virtually. We take part in a weekly MPs’ office manager phone in, chaired by a colleague from the Parliamentary Security Department, at which office managers can raise any questions, and we can pass on key messages. We regularly engage with 100 MPs’ office managers on these calls.
Central to our role is understanding the importance of working closely with MPs. We regularly meet the Whips and attend the Administration Committee. We liaise with the Members and Peers’ Staff Association, and MPs’ staff unions, to gain their views on how we can improve House services, and have been working with the new MPs staff wellness working group to develop better support for both MPs and their staff. We also have close links with IPSA which enables us to pass feedback to them.
Our team has never met together in person, though we meet virtually every day, so it has been incredibly rewarding to us to put support and engagement at the heart of everything we are doing. These difficult times may continue for some time, but we will continue to strive to make sure Members and their staff feel supported no matter what challenges arise.
Chris Sear is the director of Members’ Services Team, HR & Diversity for the House of Commons.