What is it like to work for an MP?

For the last two-and-a-half years, I've been a caseworker for Tristram Hunt, the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Phil Burton-Cartledge blogs at A Very Public Sociologist

For the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been a caseworker for Tristram Hunt, the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. As today is my last day before I take up a post in the Ivory Tower, to mark the occasion here’s a sense impression in blog form of what it’s like to work for an MP.

First thing – an MP is never an individual. Behind them are people who arrange the meetings, do the casework, make representations to various authorities, research, and organises events. The MP is the figure that makes the interventions in the House and gets their name in the paper, but they stand at the head of a small division of labour.

Tristram for his part employs two workers at Portcullis House, mainly for research and parliamentary briefings, article writing and handling correspondence. And in Stoke-on-Trent, there are four of us. Each of us have a title and are theoretically work in a hierarchy, in practice we all do a little bit of each other’s jobs. For instance, the most junior worker can find himself tackling tricky immigration cases, while the manager folds and stuffs envelopes.

Each of us have a specialism, and my forte is social security, specifically Employment and Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance.

This has meant I’ve witnessed in direct and visceral ways the consequences of the government’s reforms. The survivor of child sex abuse who’s had Carers’ Allowance removed because the criteria’s changed, not because her mental health improved. The man with no legs and one arm informed he had to attend a Work Capability Assessment to keep his payments. The woman who was told on appeal she was fit for work and then died shortly afterwards.

When you show ministers the damage caused by their policies, it is angering and frustrating to receive a bland reply asserting the government’s position before subtly suggesting that they cannot quite believe anyone is suffering in the manner you’ve described to them. Take it from me, “out-of-touch” is more than a soundbite.

The same is true of the bedroom tax. One constituent had to scrabble around down the back of his sofa to make up his housing benefit shortfall for *three weeks* until his daughter reached the age of eligibility for her own bedroom. What exactly did that achieve? Time and again ministers say constituents should “get a job”. There is zero awareness that there are not enough jobs to go around.

Sometimes dealing with one awful set of problems after another can get to you, especially when nothing can be done. Well known to caring professions, case hardening can be a danger. In spite of yourself, you can quickly jump to conclusions about a case and especially so where, for whatever reason, early action not taken by a constituent could have avoided present difficulties. Everyone has to have their own set of strategies to mitigate it.

I think an ethic of public service – of doing right by everyone who required help – got me through the cases I had uncharitable thoughts about. Yet there are upsides, and that is when a case is successfully concluded. The one I’ll bore friends and future students about for years to come will be a heavily indebted family who came to us as a last resort. Their plight had left them at their wits’ end – the teenage daughters on anti-depressants, and both parents had stress-related mental health problems.

Without going into the specifics, a letter to the debtors – the DWP and the City Council – was all it took to have a combined bill of £70k deemed unrecoverable and written off. I checked and double-checked. And I will never forget the emails and letters of gratitude that came in full of thanks from each family member. For six years, the oppressive debt that had menaced their lives was literally lifted overnight. Moments like that made up for all the darker ones.

There was light relief from the more unusual cases we took in. Was Tristram aware CJD was caused by Thatcher’s victims ending up in the food chain? And a recent favourite of mine. Querying a UFO sighting over Stoke-on-Trent, the MOD reply snootily informed us that “it does not provide an aerial identification service for members of the public”. Priceless.

One aspect of my job I enjoyed most was holding ministers and council officers to account. Unfortunately, as past masters of linguistic verisimilitude the civil servants who write for ministers are very good at providing non-answers. Not so the overpaid managers at the local authority. When, I’m afraid to say, only a minority of councillors are good at questioning officers and holding them to account for decisions made, such work is absolutely vital for effective and responsive local governance.

Anyway, that’s what my experience of working for a MP was like. Challenging, definitely. In my more honest moments I might say coarsening, unfortunately. Yet it was very satisfying too. The best moments can resemble an episode of The Thick of It, and the worst moments can play out like an episode of The Thick of It.

It has easily been the best job I’ve had, and I commend it to whoever ends up occupying my space in the constituency office. If I haven’t put you off this is the place you need to go, and if you fancy working for Tristram, keep an eye out for the advert.

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