I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the Second Report of the Speaker’s Conference on the employment conditions of Members’ staff (HC 1714 of Session 2022–23), endorses its recommendations, recognises Members’ responsibilities as employers and the need to improve the working lives of Members’ staff and accordingly calls on the House of Commons Commission, IPSA and the political parties to address and implement the recommendations from the Speaker’s Conference.
I move this motion on behalf of my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker. He is at the funeral of Andrew Lee, who was a long-time Conservative party agent and activist. He was held in very high regard and had been an agent for many Members of this House. He was one of those characters we all know in our respective parties. He was the life and soul of our party, and our democracy is built on the shoulders of such people. They often do not get any focus or plaudits, but they do a huge amount to facilitate democracy in this country. My hon. Friend sends his apologies for not being here in person.
The second report of the Speaker’s Conference makes a series of recommendations designed to improve the working lives of Members’ staff and provide better support to Members as employers. The staff who work for us, as individual Members of Parliament, play a huge and valuable role not only in supporting our work here in Westminster but in working tirelessly for our constituents, often in very stressful situations.
The employment arrangements of Members’ staff are not a matter for the Government, but I welcome the conclusion that Members of this House should continue to employ their own staff directly. It is for each Member to determine how best to carry out their role, and the current employment model provides an important element of flexibility to Members to arrange their staff in the way that best suits each individual Member.
I am supportive of what the Leader of the House is bringing forward, but I must ask the following question. Many MPs do not have the training as employers to answer many questions and the staff development she is referring to is not natural to those of us who are not from that background. Does she agree that greater support to allow us to aid our staff development is imperative? That will allow staff to feel that there is a route to take to greater advancement. Does she agree that funding for that should be provided centrally, so that staff do not feel they are being scrutinised by the public for taking beneficial yet costly development courses?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. He will know that the report makes reference to ensuring that proper support, training and services are provided to enable individual Members to be the best employers they can be. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, whose name is also on this motion and who would be moving it were he here, has also done a huge amount of work to ensure that Members in future will be able to undertake training and get qualifications, which is tremendously important. It will help them in their work here and enable them to continue their career when they leave this place. It is a good use of budget, to enable us to be the best Members of Parliament that we can be.
I also welcome the recommendations on providing further help and support to Members and their staff in relation to employment matters. We need to ensure that all who work in Parliament are treated properly and fairly, and the package of measures announced in this report will deliver significant improvements. I particularly welcome the recommendations on improved mental health support for Members and their staff, and I know that colleagues in all parts of the House will do the same.
The report also makes a series of recommendations about the role of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA is rightly independent from both the Government and Parliament, but I note the constructive engagement that has taken place between the Speaker’s Conference and IPSA, and the formal response published by IPSA earlier this week, which sets out how it aims to address some of the challenges identified by the Conference that fall within its areas of responsibility. I am pleased to see progress on entitlements to sickness and parental leave for staff who move between Members, and I look forward to seeing proposals on greater support for Members and staff in relation to constituency offices in due course.
I think the recommendations on continuity of service are important, having seen the injustice in that area in respect of one of my members of staff. Will the Leader of the House advise on whether those measures will apply retrospectively to existing staff?
I am proposing this on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, but I shall certainly make sure that I can get the precise details to the hon. Gentleman. Much would depend on what is in an individual’s contract, as those will vary substantially depending on how they had worked here. I will endeavour to get an answer to him on that.
Finally, I would like to endorse the report’s conclusions about the valuable work of the Members’ Services Team. It provides expert advice and support to colleagues on a range of matters, but in particular it is a vital source of support on employment issues. The report rightly recognises the value of that support and highlights the importance of colleagues’ engaging with the team on any staffing issues that arise. I encourage any colleague with concerns about an employment issue to contact the team at the earliest opportunity, and I welcome the report’s recommendations to create a system of account managers to provide more direct support to Members in this area.
I particularly wish to thank Chris Sear, the director of the Members’ Services Team, who is retiring at the end of this month, after a long career in the House. The work that Chris has done to expand the services that provide assistance to Members of this House has been hugely welcome. He was instrumental and very helpful in conducting the largest Members’ survey ever done, which took place this year and was about what kinds of services and support people needed. I want to place on record the gratitude that colleagues have for him and his team.
I hope these measures carry the support of Members and I commend the motion to the House.
This is an important debate about the culture and working conditions in Parliament. As Members of this House and as employers of staff, we should ensure that all staff feel valued and respected, regardless of whether they are employed by Members directly or by the House authorities, in the Palace or in our constituency offices. Staff working across Parliament and the country are the backbone of our democracy and I give my personal thanks for their dedication. I am sure that sentiment is echoed across all Benches.
The issues of pay, recognition and ensuring a safe and respectful workplace are not new. They are long-standing issues on which we should always work hard, but it is important to recognise how much progress has been made. Thanks are due, in no small part, to the work of the parliamentary trade unions and the House authorities.
We support the recommendations outlined in the Speaker’s Conference report, which are a welcome step in the right direction. Crucially, there will be changes for Members’ staff concerning continuity of service that will mean improved maternity and paternity rights, enhanced rights regarding sick pay and better redundancy arrangements. Also, it is right that our HR functions, support and advice are available to our staff as well as to Members. That will enable staff to make informed choices about their employment.
On balance, the report concluded that MPs’ staff should remain under the direct employment of Members, complemented by the new HR service. It will also be good to reclassify staff training and costs to support the widest participation in career development. Together, these are good steps in the right direction and should help improve the working culture of our House.
The report’s primary purpose was not to focus on the conduct of Members and possible ways of redress, but that issue was partially covered. I welcome the role of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme in dealing with incidents of poor behaviour by Members. The process appears to be improving and timescales to complete cases are said to be coming down, but will the Leader of the House address the following questions: will recommendations concerning HR and continuity of service be finalised by the general election? Are there plans to look further at the role of the ICGS and its processes? Is a future assessment point planned to monitor progress of the report?
As I have set out, we welcome the recommendations of the report and thank the Speaker and the members of the Speaker’s Conference for their diligence. Working together, we need to stick with this important task. Finally, if approved by Members today, I hope the report’s recommendations will be implemented as soon as possible.
I had not planned to speak in the debate, but as a member of the Speaker’s Conference I thought, at the last minute, it was important to come to the House to recognise the work of everyone involved in putting together the report. As the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, acknowledged, we relied on many of the Speaker’s staff and other staff in the House of Commons to put the report together.
The report is an important piece of work, which I welcome and hope will be approved today. While we are making progress, it is important that we continue to look at our organisation and ways in which we can improve. The relationship between staff and employers is at the heart of what this place is about in delivering democracy and legislating for the benefit of the country.
To change a culture takes time, and to implement that change takes time, but I think that this is an important and fundamental step forward. There has been progress, but there is always more to do. Let us continue to do it. This is the second report. I put on the record, as a member of the Conference, my thanks to the Members’ Services Team and to Chris Sear, who was stalwart in supporting us. I, like many others I am sure, wish him well in his retirement.
The SNP of course welcomes any proposals that aim to ensure best employment practice, and in this case to ensure that staff are part of an inclusive, respectful and fair working environment. I pay tribute to the work of the Speaker’s Conference and commend its recommendations. The high-profile incidents that in part sparked the report laid bare aspects of an inappropriate and unacceptable workplace culture that has run through this place, so with a renewed urgency the report undertook to ensure that current working practices and conditions of staff are fit for purpose, and that everyone who works in the parliamentary community feels supported and has uninhibited access to that support.
The contribution of MPs’ staff to this place is enormous—we all know that—and all too often it goes unseen. As part of its inquiry into culture, the report spoke of a “collective failure” of the House to recognise and reward hard-working staff. Constituency staff in particular were singled out as feeling neglected and detached from Westminster, going without much of the support and additional services made available to those working on the estate. That is unacceptable and must, and I hope will, change. We welcome the report’s recommendation to champion the work of MPs’ staff—that is, the work of those who enable everyone here to do their job. We wholeheartedly support the aims of the report to ensure parity of employment conditions and a more rewarding work culture across the wider parliamentary community.
We are also very much in favour of the proposed expansion of the Members’ Services Team, which over such a short time has already come to provide an invaluable and highly professional service. Having had to call on their help in the past, I know just how highly professional, helpful and sensitive to the issues they are. The recommendation of that team’s evolution to a Members and Members’ staff service is commendable. As small employers, MPs should of course have access to better human resources support, but staff should also have access to guidance and advice independent of their employing MP.
The report described Members’ staff as “uniquely vulnerable” and the current Members’ Services Team was found to be under-resourced. The report’s plan to incorporate a new restorative practice for workplace dispute resolution is a welcome recommendation that would help to create uniform procedures for MPs’ staff across this House. Inadequate provision of employee support, employer guidance and qualified HR experts directly impacts the experience of staff, so we are very supportive of the report’s recommendations to improve that, and to improve on the great work of the current team.
Since the Members’ expenses scandal that led to its creation, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has rightfully provided the public with much greater accountability and transparency on MPs’ spending; however, the report highlighted some key challenges arising from IPSA’s dual responsibilities as a service regulator and a service provider. We support the report’s recommendations for IPSA to make changes to the scheme of business costs and expenses, particularly on continuity of employment should staff move between Members’ offices. Statutory entitlements such as family leave and redundancy accrued while in the employ of one Member should not evaporate due to a change of Member. It is important that we recognise the previous service of staff, and ensure the continuance of their employment conditions.
Simply put, staff should not be treated as a cost moving between accounts. I note that the report also recommends that the role of staff should be classified as essential supporting work, not merely included on the expense tab of a Member. That alone would go a long way to shift the perception of Members’ staff and the hard work that they do supporting both constituents and their employing MP.
We also support the report’s recommendations for a working group to be set up in collaboration with IPSA to review the provision of accommodation and to improve the working environment of staff members.
The Speaker’s Conference proposals are a welcome set of recommendations that will undeniably improve the culture and working conditions of staff. Across constituency offices, research teams, House and Members’ employees, we must ensure that this somewhat atypical structure has typical employment conditions that are both predictable and fair. I certainly hope that Members across the House will support these recommendations.
Having been a member of the Conference, I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. The Conference has done some important work. We all know that this is a highly individual workplace, and that brings pressures, close and intense working, and a daily range of issues that are varied and challenging. We all know of personnel cases where things have gone wrong, so it was a very good idea to create the Speaker’s Conference, and all its members set off on our work knowing there was a problem to solve: that the working conditions of our teams, Members’ staff, could and must be improved.
We have had a very good process, and I thank the House staff for all that they did. In particular, I thank them for their research and for drawing interesting parallels between other Parliaments around the world. It is clear that some of these Parliaments have been on similar journeys to ourselves. It is hard enough to organise things on a national parliamentary basis, but to do so on an international parliamentary basis is particularly challenging.
I think back to a joint meeting with representatives from the Bundestag. The organisation was good: we had to fit in with multiple participants, co-ordinate between sittings and ensure good translation services. I know more about that meeting because I chaired it, but there were many other meetings as well. The way in which House Officers carried out their background research was particularly helpful. For example, there was a visit to my constituency office—among a number of other such visits—to see what happens in the more distant part of the parliamentary estate. We had a visit from the Director of Members’ Services, Mr Chris Sear. When he joined us in Harrogate, I made myself scarce by visiting some constituents, so he could talk to the team and find out what they were doing and all that they do to support people on a daily basis.
Throughout this process, I was aware that there had been some difficulty with gathering information. There was plenty of anecdotal information, but problems have been hard to quantify. That difficulty with information meant that, to keep perspective and proportionality in all that we did, we had to constantly remind those involved that the vast majority of MPs are good employers.
There was a focus on three areas: culture, community and behaviour. I will comment, if I may, on a couple of the more important decisions. The first was to keep MPs as employers of their teams and as the deciders of who is in their team. That is a very good thing. Any changes to that would have been difficult to implement and would, I am sure, have met significant resistance. It also became clear very quickly that the way that support is provided or accessed by Members’ staff is slightly haphazard, and that that could be improved.
Members’ staff can sometimes feel like second-class citizens—for example, when everyone else on the parliamentary estate are eligible for a flu jab, they are not. Listing Members’ staff as expenses is demeaning; they are not expenses, they do valuable work. Members’ staff could join parliamentary networks.
The transfer of employment rights for staff when they change from working for one MP to another is critical. Effectively, a member of staff has to start all over again when a Member retires or loses their seat, or when a constituency boundary is abolished. That member of staff may have worked here for many years, but they would not have any employment rights. Clearly, that is wrong. As a result of the Conference, that will change, and that transfer of rights was a very early decision.
A further point is the Member Services Team, with a recommendation for significantly greater HR support. Basically, this is about moving everything to a far more professional and standard working arrangement. One area where more is to be done concerns those who are working away from the estate. It is hard to see what is going on in constituency offices—there are 650 or so in diverse locations around our nation—and I was sure that further work was needed. The parliamentary authorities should work together, alongside the political parties, to identify early where risk may be developing—for example, staff turnover rates could be considered, or basic personnel admin, such as leave records.
During the Conference’s work, we spent some time discussing the structure of MPs’ offices—possibly because I spent a large amount of time ensuring that we did so. Some are better than others, but how a colleague sets up their office is their business, not mine.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Both he and I are pretty experienced in the private sector in managing people; not everyone has that experience, but I believe that the HR services available to Members are excellent. Will he consider in a future Conference making it a requirement that Members undertake an HR exercise before they are allowed to recruit staff, who will be paid for by the taxpayer?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely interesting point. The challenge is that when a Member starts here, the work starts immediately, and the period between an election and the workload starting is very brief. What she suggests could be practically difficult, but she is quite correct about possible lack of experience and how standard practices, although they may be difficult to deliver, are clearly the right thing to do. My right hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, which should be considered, because I do not think that this is the end of the process.
Members structure their officers differently. All my team have always been based in Harrogate and Knaresborough; I have never had a team member based in Westminster. London MPs have different needs, probably basing their teams on the parliamentary estate. Most Members will split their teams. A result of our work will be the creation of a series of templates to show new Members what success might look like—not to impose, but to guide—and the provision of more training when they arrive and are setting up their offices.
The absence of imposition is important, because we are all individuals with different needs and different backgrounds, so the political parties have a role to play in the training of new MPs, some of whom as my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey says, may have very limited experience, or even none, of being an employer. It is true that this is an individual workplace, but that has sometimes been used as an excuse for not looking hard enough at what happens here, or as a get-out-of-jail card for poor practice. That is not acceptable. We have a set of recommendations; we worked to make sure that they are practical, and there are many of them.
It was a great call by Mr Speaker to create the Conference. I again thank the House team for all their work to support us; they did a very good job. I can confirm to colleagues that, throughout, the Conference’s work was done in a constructive, collegiate, cross-party way. Our task now is to implement the findings of the Conference, but I do not think that this work, while positive, should be the only part of an initiative to improve standards in our public life and politics.
Since I became a Member of Parliament, eight current or former Labour MPs have been given custodial sentences, two Conservatives, one Liberal Democrat and one Scottish Nationalist. We have had by-elections caused by poor behaviour by colleagues from all parts of the House, and there have been cases of bad practice. A series of processes have been introduced in good faith to address problems, but I think it has become apparent that the House needs to do more work to both simplify and speed up the processes. Who is responsible for what? What happens when people are being investigated, and how does that work align with the Recall of MPs Act 2015? It is also for the political parties to recognise problems and act, though.
It is easy to say, “The other lot are corrupt.” We hear that all the time. My point is that the problems are wider and deeper. That is a broader issue than the Speaker’s Conference dealt with. I think our work in this Conference will improve a sizeable part of our political system. It should be supported and implemented as soon as possible.
It is a pleasure to follow Andrew Jones. I too took part in the Speaker’s Conference, and I echo his thanks to the Speaker for setting up the conference, because as we got into our work, it became apparent to us that there was a great deal that needed looking into. I think we went wider than the initial envisaged scope for the conference in many of the things we dealt with.
It is an important step forward, particularly for our staff and the independence of the process, that staff can initiate the process if they feel that they are not being treated in the way they have every right to expect to be by their employer. When we set off, there was quite a strong feeling that we should be employing staff centrally, either under IPSA or some other body set up by the House. However, that idea was quickly dispensed with as it became apparent that, because of the diversity in the way MPs approached doing their jobs, they had to remain the employers and the people who selected those who work in their offices.
There is a very personal relationship and there must be a great deal of trust between MPs and the staff in their offices. It is a particularly close relationship, at times dealing with sensitive and political issues. It is impossible to have an arrangement whereby staff are not directly employed by and responsible to that Member of Parliament. However, that places a great deal of responsibility on us regarding how we go about doing our jobs and ensure that we are good employers. There are good recommendations in this report in relation to that.
I think there will be a working group on MPs’ offices; it is an area where one size does not fit all, and MPs must be allowed flexibility in how they set up offices in their constituency, and whether they do so at all. As has been said, some MPs may just have their staff in Westminster, while others may be hybrid with both a constituency office and people here. That is where I am at the moment, although until covid, all my staff had been placed in my constituency. I welcome the recommendation for further work relating to offices.
It will not surprise anyone who was on the Conference that the main thing I want to speak about is the dreaded IPSA. It is far from my view that the public money I spend on running my office should not be in the public domain. I stand by the fact that transparency is important in that regard and that I should be accountable for what I do with taxpayers’ money to represent my constituency. I have no problem with that whatsoever. However, IPSA was set up in haste and, were we starting again today, it would not be created. There is no question about that. It cannot perform the dual role of regulator and service provider, and it has not done so very well. I welcome the recommendation from the Conference that IPSA at least takes a good look at itself and tries to separate those roles within its organisation. We need to scrutinise that very closely, because I do not think IPSA is capable of fulfilling both the customer service and regulatory roles.
We went to the Scottish Parliament and looked at the way it arranges its scrutiny of finances and provision of support to Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have to say that the Scottish approach impressed me no end. The people there understood that they were there to assist the MSPs in their role, but none the less there was a set of rules that MSPs had to adhere to. We need to move to a system similar to that. I urge the Speaker or the Leader of the House to continue to scrutinise what IPSA does in response to this report, particularly in separating its customer service and regulatory roles, because that is crucial to improving the way it deals with Members of Parliament.
I will just give one example: the dreaded IPSA web portal. When we asked questions about it, IPSA staff admitted that they had never even thought about the fact that MPs would need to use it when they set it up. You couldn’t make it up. It was like a question and answer session from “The Thick of It”. It is unbelievable that IPSA could have set up a system that was designed for MPs to use and not consider how we might access and use it. The web portal was designed for access by accountants, rather than Members of Parliament. IPSA accepts that it is not an easily usable or accessible system, but it has done very little to improve it—and it does require improvement. That it has taken so long to happen underlines the fact that IPSA has, for far too long, been running a “take it or leave it” service, because it has the regulatory power. It is time that was separated off. My one request in this debate is that we continue to scrutinise that area and that recommendation to make sure that it is implemented properly.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate, and in particular all Members who took part in the Speaker’s Conference and facilitated its work. I think we have had a welcome and thoughtful debate.
I will briefly answer four points raised. I was asked about the retrospective nature of some of the proposals in the report. Provisions on continuity of service are a matter for IPSA, and although it is unlikely that measures would be applied retrospectively, that will depend on individual circumstances. If people have questions, IPSA is the body to go to for answers.
A couple of hon. Members raised the important matter of training. The Speaker’s Conference looked at various carrots and sticks that could be deployed to ensure that people underwent training—sticks such as not allowing Members access to publicly funded salaries or insurance schemes. However, it decided that it was in no one’s interests for somebody to be unable to access such things, and that that was therefore probably not a stick that could be used.
The House authorities have given a great deal of thought to the question of Members undergoing training. When we arrive in this place, we are very busy, especially in the first few weeks, if we are new Members. Prospective parliamentary candidates are more likely to be keen to undergo training before they get here, so as we approach a general election, the House is considering an enhanced package of training on HR responsibilities, or security matters that Members should be apprised of before they arrive here. Clive Efford talked about IPSA, and there is ongoing work there. I know that all interested parties will continue to scrutinise the work of IPSA and encourage its improvement.
My hon. Friend Andrew Jones raised a very important point about standards and the duty of care that we all have to one another, not just with regard to our own behaviour, but when we see behaviour from other Members, or from members of staff, that falls short of what should be expected in this place. This is a particularly complicated issue for us here. Members of the public might scratch their head and wonder why, but the fact is that we are not one organisation; we are about 700 organisations of individual offices and employers. We have our political parties and our Whip structures, and we also have our responsibilities under the ministerial code.
That is a very good reason why the Standards Committee is looking at the whole landscape of standards. For my money, I think the answer lies in our all having a clear understanding of our duty of care to one another. No complicated rulebook can ever operate well without an understanding and buy-in from all parties about what a good duty of care to one another looks like.
Finally, on behalf of us all, may I thank all our staff for the tremendous work they do, often in very stressful situations? For example, many offices did incredible work during Op Pitting, which I know was traumatic for a lot of parliamentary staff, who sometimes had to make life and death decisions on behalf of others. I thank again the Speaker’s Conference. I hope that all Members will support the motion, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.