How the struggles of MPs’ caseworkers have intensified during the pandemic

Elliot Chappell

MPs have a team of people who support them in their work – usually no more than four or five paid staff. One of those roles is a caseworker. Whenever a resident has a problem, on almost any issue you can imagine, this is who does the leg work. Outside of Covid, the questions they receive from residents range from the trivial to the devastating to the downright bizarre. And the weight of enquiries can be unmanageable even in normal times.

Parliamentary caseworker is not a job that people generally know about. It often entails gruelling work and long hours, but it’s also very rewarding. I know because I used to be one. ‘Go work for an MP,’ they said. ‘It’ll be fun,’ they said… Well, alright, nobody said that. But if you are lucky enough to bag a job with an MP as their caseworker, diving into the role can be a bit of a shock.

It is very much a train-on-the-job situation, and you’re immediately presented with an impossibly broad range of issues: finding someone a place to sleep that night; helping a community group make an application for funding; challenging the rejection of a visa or benefits claim. You have what feels like a never-ending caseload, while at the same time you’re faced with a phone that rarely stops ringing. You’re buried under a ton of emails, letters, calls and drop-ins from the many thousands of residents who live in the constituency.

It can feel like a tough and thankless task at times. The pay is low, and abuse is common. You’re the go-to person when it comes to a problem or complaint. Caseworkers are the faceless people behind that great local constituency MP you know. Without them, it wouldn’t be possible for your representative in parliament to have an effective and positive local presence. And the work is a great opportunity to learn, to work with people from all sorts of backgrounds and to help those in need.

During a pandemic, casework will undoubtedly have become much harder. To find out what that has been like over the last five months, I spoke to caseworkers in Labour MPs’ offices, as well as some who were seconded from their usual duties to cover what quickly became a mountain of casework. This is what they told me.

When the UK went into lockdown…

“Initially, when Covid hit, it was uncontrollable the amounts of emails and calls we were getting… It was literally one after the other, after the other.” One Labour MP’s caseworker tells me that the number of cases they were handling increased dramatically as the country entered lockdown.

They pick up urgent casework and emails over weekends anyway, but that became much more difficult. “The amount of urgent cases that were coming through throughout Covid – they were all urgent. Everyone was an emergency.” Normally everyone tells her their case is urgent, and it always is to them, but the difference during Covid is that they were genuinely all urgent.

“It’s been the greatest number of cases that we’ve ever had,” another says. “The hours I worked as a caseworker just went crazy. Ordinarily you work way over what you’re contracted to work,” he tells me. “But I was working really ridiculous hours. Because what do you do when someone rings you up and says ‘I’ve got no food in the fridge and my normal carer is sheltering’? Of course you’re going to stay late.”

The constantly shifting guidance didn’t help: “Everything was changing every day. It was just a nightmare.” The residents were confused about the rules – whether to go to work, who should be shielding, etc – and it was just as difficult for MPs’ staff to keep up. “We were demanding answers from government ministers and obviously they didn’t have or know the answer to give,” one says.

“Firefighting.” That’s how one Labour staffer describes casework in the pandemic. “It felt like just pointing the hose at various fires and just trying to put them out as quickly as possible before moving onto the next one.” Another reports having received between 500 and 1,500 emails a week relating exclusively to small businesses – enquiries about rateable values and furlough support, from employers and employees. “That is completely separate to benefits, welfare, immigration,” she explains. It wasn’t even the issue on which they received the most casework.

Staffing in the crisis…

MPs run with a budget of £166,930 for staff in London offices and £155,930 for those outside of the capital. It’s typical for there to be one or two caseworkers in a team. The staff I’m speaking to paint a varied picture of how they’ve coped with the dramatic increase in work, but it’s clear for many that – as one puts it – “the roles definitely got blurred”.

One Labour staffer who usually focuses on parliamentary work tells me that she was probably spending between 30% and 40% of her time on casework because it was “by far the worst” they’d ever seen it. Another tells me that all of the MP’s employees were focused only on casework for a time: “For two weeks, four of us worked every minute to clear the backlog.”

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which manages MPs’ expenses, budgets and pay, released extra funding to help the offices. But it came too late. One staffer, who had a team member off sick with Covid, tells me that offering additional funding after the peak of cases was “a bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, because you can’t just magic someone up immediately”.

“I saw in a few places ‘if you’re stressed, then call this number’, but it’s not exactly practical help. Because what are they going to say? Be less stressed, don’t do as much work. And when you’ve got a staff budget that’s spent, you can’t do less work.” IPSA could have done – and could be doing – much more, says an experienced caseworker who was signed off with stress for a period during the pandemic.

Jobs and business…

“It’s just redundancy after redundancy. It’s entire business parks closing,” one staffer in South Wales tells me. On the specifics of her constituency, she explains that “there have been horrible economic shocks like that in economic memory”, referring to the pit closures. “The same people who are having their jobs taken away now are the same people who had to go through this on such a large scale 30-40 years ago.”

She has spent much of her time negotiating with businesses, and describes how “it’s been a lot of trying to get people to maintain furlough”. In one example, the MP’s office has been working with local unions to persuade a company to maintain a site in the constituency. “It didn’t go our way,” she says. The company will be cutting jobs down from 90 to 13.

Another tells me she has had to deal with issues around furlough, rates relief and grants from the government. She describes the experience as a “bit of a learning curve” and says she has had to become “almost an HMRC expert”. Again, it didn’t help that the guidance kept changing and MPs’ offices weren’t briefed on the changes as they happened. She tells me that the WhatsApp groups with other caseworkers have been the biggest source of support: “We’re all sort of trying to figure it out together.”

Falling through the cracks…

This lack of clarity on changing rules, support and guidance has led to some residents falling through the cracks. One caseworker recounts her experience with vulnerable residents shielding in the pandemic. She explains her frustration as she couldn’t get a ministerial response on anything to do with getting the vulnerable food or priority shopping. “I was taking all these cases and not seeing a result – and I was getting more and more frustrated, and the MP was emailing and calling people, I was doing the same, and it was getting ridiculous.”

She describes one case where a woman with a disabled child was being turned away from supermarkets that said she was not on the national database for those shielding. It turned out that a specific notation was required from GPs, but this had not been explained to MPs’ caseworkers. Even more incredibly, she explains that many of the staff in GP surgeries were also unaware. And the caseworker says, with not a little exasperation, that this only came to light after “days and days of going mad in circles”.

“Covid has really shone a light on the cracks and the weaknesses in these systems,” another attests. Because government departments weren’t functioning properly in normal times, “it just seems that they’ve completely crumbled”. Residents who were already waiting to have claims or applications processed by government departments being set back even further by the pandemic. She mentions a number of refugees waiting for an interview with the Home Office – for nine months already – being told that they must continue waiting in limbo. It feels like the department has used the pandemic “as an excuse to fob things off”, she says.

The pandemic has made it logistically more difficult to help vulnerable constituents, the caseworkers tell me. Working from home like everyone else, their constituency offices have been closed. Many MPs see locals drop into the office in person, particularly those unable or less suited to accessing help remotely. This can range from the elderly to those with mental health issues to others for whom English is not their first language. “It is tougher to access those who usually fall through the cracks because they haven’t got an email,” one caseworker explains as an example, adding: “We’ve just had to try to be as accessible as possible.”

A home in the pandemic…

One caseworker tells me about a personally difficult case she dealt with. A Palestinian couple with a young baby were placed in temporary accommodation by outsourcing company Serco, and the MP’s office had flagged it as inappropriate. “There’s no way for them to socially distance in this accommodation,” she explains, because the family had to share space with other residents. The MP’s office told Serco they were worried about the welfare of the child and requested a transfer, but she says the company told her: “We aren’t doing any moves at the minute. We are not moving people who we recognise are in unsuitable accommodation – we aren’t moving them because of Covid.”

The caseworker goes on to describe how the baby started showing symptoms of Covid and was later hospitalised. “The mother just had a complete breakdown, couldn’t cope. We had to get her more holistic support from community organisations and from the city council.” The child has now recovered, she explains, but the family is still in the same flat. “And we know that that’s just one family in the country in unsuitable accommodation.”

Personal protective equipment and care homes…

Unsurprisingly, the majority of caseworkers I speak to mention the lack of protective equipment for care workers. One says they had lots of employees in care homes getting in touch to blow the whistle. “The MP contacted all the care homes and made sure the staff were OK with PPE, that they had everything they needed.” Another describes a marked difference between what care home managers were saying about PPE and what workers were telling them. “If it wasn’t family telling us in care homes what was happening, it was whistleblowers as staff themselves.” She is interested to see what comes out in any inquiry.

Problems in care homes weren’t limited to PPE either, another makes clear. “It was things you don’t normally think about – like access to IT for people who are dying. We had to sort that out.” Her MP tried to ensure that there was good enough internet and equipment for people to have a last Zoom call with their relatives. Another recalls being pressed by a resident to push for her to be able to visit her terminally ill sister in a care home, and having to speak to that constituent again when staff advised that it simply wasn’t possible.

Another caseworker tells me of a Black resident, a professor in tropical medicine, who had got in touch with her office during the Black Lives Matter protests. He reported being stopped and searched by police – who were not wearing PPE. She recounts how at the same time as he contacted the office, the constituency saw a large increase in cases in BAME communities in the constituency. “It just seemed like everything was coming together – that police had been stopping people from those communities and there had been a spike,” she tells me.

Solidarity, local government and resident volunteers…

Boroughs and constituencies don’t match geographically with parliamentary constituencies, which means caseworkers often have more than one borough in their patch. One describes the challenge: “That’s two leaders; two borough commanders; one Tory council, one Labour council, so they have different ways of running.” But the sense I get from the caseworkers is that local authorities have generally responded well to the challenges of Covid.

Local councils have been stretched more than ever in the crisis, of course. One speaks of how they’ve had staff off work, just like any other large organisation in the pandemic. And many other organisations and services in the borough have had to close their doors, meaning specialist support has been unavailable. “Whilst I’m a caseworker, I’m not a trained talking counsellor,” one points out. “And that’s really difficult because the people who constituents would normally go to for extra support, those services might not be running in the community. So they come back to us.”

MPs’ teams had varied dealings with mutual aid and other volunteer residents’ groups. One tells me her MP called a “virtual roundtable discussion” early on and “has been at the middle of that since”. Others describe how the mutual aid groups and community organisations took up a lot of the work, often in partnership with local councils, in getting residents food and medicine. Others say how helpful they’ve been in alerting them to particularly vulnerable residents who need support. One speaks of difficulties with misinformation being spread between the groups, but explains that it was largely a positive force for reaching out to residents: “The community response has been amazing.”

“To be fair to the council, I think they were very good at getting out how people could get involved helping out with mutual aid,” another explains. But he adds that it was a shame watching the treatment of local authorities by central government. “One of my frustrations was that a lot of the government’s response was so centralised, rather than understanding that councils probably know their areas better than they do.” Again, though, he comes back to community volunteers. Councils are now in a tough position, he says, but it would be even worse “if there hadn’t been an army of volunteers ready to go… It was quite amazing really”.

The personal toll…

One thing that strikes me as I talk to the caseworkers is the personal toll they describe – not just for the many residents facing all these issues, but for themselves. On a daily basis, they have been trying to support people in some of the worst situations, in the middle of a crisis unparalleled by anything this country has seen in generations. And yet they are not complaining for themselves.

When I ask one about the emotional stress the work brings, he says: “Well, that stuff is traumatic. You know, in casework you come across bereavements – it’s part of the job – but I’ve never come across anything close to the rate of this. We’re talking about helping people through bereavements several times a day.

“No-one was able to go see their family and mourn their relatives, or have a funeral. And I think that you’re really, as a caseworker, on the frontline. It’s difficult having to explain to the council that someone has died in their home overnight – it’s just really emotionally traumatising. And having to deal with stuff like that every single day, day in, day out. It’s tough. Really, really tough.”

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