By Dan Whittle
Today the union branch that represents 400 staff of MPs made their submission to the the Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry into MPs’ Expenses.
The submission includes the recent LabourList article by Kathryn White, who is one of those providing leadership on expenses amongst the Labour community.
It calls for a properly resourced, transparent system for staffing MPs’ offices.
The Unite Staff Branch has been in the business of campaigning to reform MPs’ expenses for the last 25 years. Over that time there have been major improvements: a staffing allowance, contracts, payscales, job descriptions – improvements that have not only benefitted staff but have aided transparency.
There are still problems though, and the Standards in Public Life inquiry is an opportunity to put forward ideas for a better system that will benefit MPs’ service to their constituents.
The demands on an MP’s office are growing beyond the resources available, as concluded by the 2007 SSRB review: “the volume of casework appears to be growing inexorably”. Casework involves immigration, housing and tax credit problems, and people in desperate need of help.
A 2008 MPs’ staff survey showed around half of caseworkers are dealing with between 10 and 30 new individual cases per day, and around 70% of all MPs’ staff suffer from stress. The strain is often felt most by staff, and this may be part of the reason for the results of an APPG Mental Health survey which found 45% had personal experience of a mental health problem compared to 19% of MPs.
The branch submission to the Standards in Public Life inquiry expresses concern that many staff do not have contracts, that some staff are paid below official pay scales (Though average staff pay is around £20,000, 9.6% of staff responding to a survey in 2008 said they received below the minimum wage) and over 20% of staff did not get a pay rise last year.
The submission makes the point that the Department for Resources has not done enough to enforce the rules, and to support MPs to be good managers. MPs may want to be good bosses – but the system makes that very difficult.
Currently decisions about staff standard contracts and payscales are made by the Committee on Members Allowances, which sits in private. Decisions are then interpreted behind closed doors by the Department of Resources.
In January this system led to a rise in the maximum weekly hours on the standard contract from 37.5 to 42. Bill Etherington wrote in the House Magazine: “It’s the sort of thing I would expect from an old cotton mill or coalmine-owner”.
The staff union, because it isn’t recognised by the House of Commons, doesn’t have an official voice in these decisions, but is working to change that.
Parliament’s most recent move on this has been to vote to centralise staff, to make them employed directly by the House of Commons, a process that will not start until October at the earliest. But it is not a panacea for these issues because it could, in its most basic form, just involve moving staff pay from one balance sheet (the Members Estimate) to another (the Administration Estimate).
Changes in accounting are not enough. Because of its secrecy and unfairness the system will need root and branch reform to command confidence from MPs, their staff and most importantly the public.