Pubs, floods and schools: One civil servant’s experience shadowing an MP
Insolvency Service investigator Claire Entwistle recounts the impressions and insights she picked up while shadowing Louise Haigh MP
This piece includes only some of the themes, debates and insights that I learnt last year when I shadowed Louise Haigh MP, as part of the Parliamentary Attachment Scheme run by the Industry and Parliament Trust. The IPT aims to raise awareness about parliament and the impact it has on the civil service while providing civil servants with a glimpse of life as an MP.
The placement began with a one day visit to parliament: a tour, talks by the Caroline Spelman MP on being an MP and Baroness Garden of Frognal on being a working peer, and sessions on the legislative process. My overriding impression, after getting over the magnificence of the surroundings, was that an MP’s job is a lot of hard work, often spilling late into the night.
I was paired with Louise Haigh MP, shadow cabinet minister and the youngest Labour MP, elected to the Sheffield Heeley constituency in 2015. I reported to Portcullis House early on a Tuesday morning and was met by Louise’s London-based researcher Danny, who for the next two days made sure I was where I needed to be, and collected, fed and watered at the appropriate time. The day was varied – a meeting on a potential digital project and event tapping into Louise’s digital responsibilities, Treasury Questions (much less combative that Prime Minister’s Questions), and a conference call catch-up with the Sheffield staff. Finally, there was an All Party Yorkshire Devolution meeting with Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Humberside MPs and local authority leaders, all of whom agreed on the need for local powers in Yorkshire – but not necessarily which parts and what powers. This was fascinating for me as I live in Yorkshire and wasn’t aware that this was a real possibility.
The second day was just as diverse, and, although I started at a leisurely 9am, Danny and Louise had already been hard at work for hours drafting questions on the overnight failure of the voter registration system, which occurred shortly before the deadline to register to vote in the EU referendum. I began my day at the Joint Business Innovations and Skills and Work & Pensions Select Committee on BHS, something I have a particular interest in with my role as lead investigator at the Insolvency Service. I then went to a Westminster Hall debate on whether the Fire Service should get a statutory duty for floods (when the tunnel from Portcullis House across to Westminster flooded later that day, I did wonder whether that might influence the debate!).
Then there was Prime Minister’s Questions: a packed house with lots of familiar faces, jostling, and rhetoric. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Save our Pubs was next, which, in contrast to PMQs, was a collaborative, polite and supportive group of cross-party MPs working together to try and ensure the longevity of pubs and that regulation in this area is up to scratch.
After a day back at my own office, I went on Friday morning to Sheffield to shadow Louise in her constituency of Heeley. The day started with a team meeting with Kat, her office manager, and two additional staff who focus on case work and communications. This made me realise the variety and volume of issues with which Louise has to contend. I sat in on a meeting in the constituency office and accompanied Louise to two primary schools in her constituency, both very different but equally inspiring in the way they create a positive learning environment for their diverse pupils. One school had 28 languages spoken in it. Shortly after this I headed home, but Louise still had an RSPC meeting (in a dog-friendly pub), a welcome speech to write for a Saturday event involving young people, and business and campaigning for the EU referendum.
My initial impression – that MPs work extremely hard – proved to be correct. Throughout my placement, we went from meeting to debate to meeting and in the constituency there was not even time for lunch. I did ask Louise if she got any time off and she said Sundays, except when there is a faith or other event in the constituency.
MPs, like civil servants, need a good team around them. They cannot do their job without one. Louise takes time to ensure the London and Sheffield staff are all on the same page at all times. She even makes sure that Danny, who is London-based, gets to the constituency so he understands the people and place, which are very different from the Westminster bubble. With 300+ emails a day and more post in a week than I see in a couple of months, MPs need someone who can prioritise their time and the myriad of issues that come across their desk.
An MP needs an agile brain and strong interpersonal skills. There is no training course on how to be an MP – you just have to get on with it. You have to grasp a wide range of subjects and relate to a wide range of people. Yes, Louise had read the Ofsted reports for the schools she visited so she could talk to the head teachers about the schools’ successes as well as their challenges, but she also had to answer questions from 7-11 year-olds, which apparently is more nerve wracking than being on Question Time.
What will I take away from this experience?
The primary lesson for me is that those constituency letters matter. Louise was driven by a desire to help – that public service ethos – which both good politicians and civil servants share, so it was a back-to-basics “why we’re here” moment for me. Louise was born and raised in Sheffield, which drives a lot of what she does in Westminster, and clearly everything she does locally. It was brought home to me in a case where a constituent wanted help, and although Louise didn’t want to intervene if it was a criminal matter, she still tried to see if she could speed up the decision, and thereby do something positive for that constituent. So I think I’ll look at those letters differently, and try to be more positive about what we as civil servants can do or say.
I would like to thank Louise, Kat and Danny for their time and honesty, and the Industry and Parliamentary Trust for organising the attachment that bridges the gap between civil service and parliamentarians. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the insights that it gave me.
The IPT is an independent, non-lobbying charity that provides a trusted platform of engagement between parliament, UK business and the civil service. For more information on the IPT’s Civil Service Attachment Scheme, please contact MarkPerry@IPT.org.uk
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