With the recent news that Unite MPs’ staff branch has begun the process to ballot for strike action, the bizarre contractual nether-zone Parliamentary staffers exist in has been brought into sharp focus. While it remains unclear whether a ballot will happen, or even be actionable, its consideration in the first place speaks volumes about the current morale of staffers.
You don’t have to be involved or around British politics particularly long to know that there is a constant low hum of discontent among Parliamentary staff. At the best of times in Westminster Parliamentary Assistants, often called researchers, work long unsociable hours on tight deadlines for comparatively poor pay. At the worst of times they have been subject to bullying, harassment and sexual violence at the hands of their employer or those they share the palace with, with 8% of staff reporting that they have experienced bullying firsthand. The Palace of Westminster itself is of course dilapidated as well, with falling masonry and ancient electronics accompanying the frequent rodent infestations.
While corporations comparable in size to the Westminster village would have entire divisions dedicated to human resources and safeguarding, for most staff the informal whisper networks of ‘so and so is a bully, y MP treated x like a dogsbody’ have to suffice.
The oft-ignored constituency office doesn’t fare much better, with most caseworkers bearing the brunt of abuse directed at MPs on salaries that would easily be beaten by most medium-sized charities. All the while facing the daily consequences of what 13 years of local government cuts and national austerity do to a country; dealing with the distressed, the unwell and desperate all without adequate training or support from Parliament.
Parliament does little to lighten this load. Naturally constituencies in denser population centres have a greater quantity of casework through the door and more complex needs. However, IPSA (the body that sets office budgets) doesn’t account for this outside of some consideration for London weighting. It should come as no surprise that many MPs have staff retention rates that would make some start-ups blush when the system, by design, means that staff are overworked, underpaid and uniquely vulnerable to abuse in the workplace from constituents and bosses alike.
The country’s legislature invariably functions as a result of the goodwill of staff, and the well of that goodwill for the Party or community can only run so deep.
It is unlikely that either of the two main trade unions operating within Parliament (Unite and GMB) will end up actually undertaking industrial action. While union members and staff alike are pretty unhappy at the pay banding news, it remains unclear legally and in-practice how strike action would even be balloted for, let alone undertaken.
Jenny Symmons, Chair of the GMB Branch for Members’ Staff commented:
GMB’s priority is ensuring the best possible deal for our members, whilst protecting them from retaliatory action from employers. We won’t recommend any action without a cast-iron guarantee our members’ jobs would be secure. We continue our campaign to reform the employment of MPs’ staff and bring us in-house, which would pave the way for legitimate strike action against an overall employer.
In essence, while Parliament pays the wages of staff, the employment contract entered into is actually with the individual MP. Even though there are Parliament-wide union branches, there are in essence 650 separate shop floors for Members’ staff. Which means, although most are unhappy with the banding decision, some will have better workloads and more generous pay packets than others. While the focus of much of the discussion concerns the GMB and Unite staffer membership, it’s also worth noting that other staff that work on the estate, cleaners, cooks, clerks, and many others are also employed by Parliament in a more conventional manner, which further complicates any potential for strike action to be undertaken.
It’s hard to see a way out of the current gridlock, Lindsay Hoyle, likely acting out of reflex in the wake of his predecessors rampant bullying, has previously called for a speakers conference to look at alternatives and backs the proposal of MPs not employing staff directly. Privately, there is some optimism about the prospect of this change occurring, it wouldn’t be a silver bullet by any means but would represent a marked shift in the balance of power between staffers and Members. But here it’s plain that MPs will still have an outsized say in proposals, with most I’ve spoken to about the issue being instinctively conservative about any prospect of change or seeking opt-outs for Members that are currently in office.
Structures need to change, but a cultural shift needs to occur in Parliament too. As MP offices are treated like small and medium sized enterprises, with the lack of oversight that typically accompanies them, very little equalities monitoring is undertaken when staff are hired. This means that the biases and prejudices of bosses tend to significantly shape the teams they put together. If it is unacceptable and backward for businesses to operate this way, it should be the same in Parliament too.
In an era when London rents are well and truly astronomical, paying people poorly doesn’t just increase staff attrition and discontent, but actively begins to price people out of working in Westminster in the first place too. There’s a bit of a myth that Parliament attracts some of the best and brightest, but if things continue the way they are, MPs of all parties will find they won’t be hiring the brilliant, merely those that can afford to work for them.
Unite Parliamentary Staff Branch were approached for comment.