How to survive your first ten days at Westminster

This page last updated: 26 April 2011

  • Introduction
  • Day One – getting connected
  • Day Two – getting to know the Palace
  • Day Three- become a virtual explorer
  • Day Four – meet the locals
  • Day Five – food
  • Day Six – sources of information
  • Day Seven – a day at your desk
  • Day Eight – being the boss
  • Day Nine – the other office
  • Day Ten – being sociable
  • In conclusion

 

Introduction

Congratulations! Some people try for years to get a job with an MP and here you are.

You have entered the office for the first time, the phones are ringing, the second delivery of post has just arrived and an inexplicably grating bell is beginning to give you a migraine. Perhaps your MP is there, oblivious to the fact that you don’t know where to start and waiting for you to make all the confusion go away.

Don’t panic. I know it’s easier said than done, but really, don’t.

The most useful piece of information that you will get from this guide comes now… (brace yourself…) you might not know what you’re doing, but no-one else does either!

No matter how long you work in parliament, or how brilliant you are, you are unlikely to remember absolutely every detail of your MP’s diary, know the progress of every bill going through the House, or recall the name of that lovely man she/he met three months ago, you know, the one with the bald head?

Don’t worry. The greatest skill you will learn in this job is to keep calm, and bear in mind that rarely are things as world-shatteringly important as they are presented.

In your first ten days though, you’ll be doing a lot of fire fighting – reacting to events and circumstances that seem strange to you but everyone else seems to be taking in their stride. The aim of this guide is to suggest a few things that you can do in those first ten days that will make all the days after that run a little more smoothly.

The guide is aimed primarily at staff working in Westminster, however there’s a specific guide for constituency staff elsewhere – check the index page. It’s probably a good idea to read both when you have chance; you’ll be working with them every day, it helps to know what they do!

If you are super-organised enough to be reading this before you start your new job you can get a head start by applying for your security pass now. If not, don’t worry, but make sure it’s priority on your first day.

Applying for a Security Pass

When working in the Palace, one of the things you immediately notice is the number of overtly armed Police. Of course they are there to protect you, but it can be a little alarming on your first day to have to walk past police with machine guns!

Before you get your pass you will need to ensure that you are accompanied by a pass-holder whenever you leave the office. This is a bit of a pain, but not as much as being escorted out of the building and having to call your MP to let you back in. That’s not a good start to your first week!

Security clearance can take a long time. As soon as you are offered a job in parliament it is advisable to get hold of an application form and get it signed and submitted by your MP. Your predecessor or MP will easily be able to get you one of these from the Pass Administration Office (1 Canon Row or Black Rod’s Garden Pass Office); alternatively ring x5920 (or x4760 for Black Rod’s Garden). You can also download one from:  http://intranet.parliament.uk/access-security/passes. This is the first of several links to the intranet which will only work once your account is established – see Day One below.

Your MP’s office will be notified when clearance is granted.

Once your pass has arrived, you will need to take your passport, photo driving licence or birth certificate plus a proof of your address (e.g. utility bill or bank statement) when you go to collect it. NB: The address on this document must be the same as the one you put on your pass application form!

The pass-office staff will explain to you how to use your pass, but if you have any questions you can call them on x5920 or consult the intranet page mentioned above. There is a guide to Parliamentary security, and what to do if you lose your pass, on the W4MP website:  Security at Westminster and in Constituency Officers

  • Tip One: Before they remember your name, everyone you meet will be discreetly attempting to read it from your pass – if your first name is Jacqueline or Michael but everyone calls you “Jackie” or “Mike”, ask the Pass Office to put your preferred name on the Pass.
  • Tip Two: When you go to collect your pass they will take a photograph of you. This photo will hang around your neck every working day for as long as you are in Parliament; make sure you’re not too noticeably hungover/unshaven/dishevelled!

Things to get hold of at the start:

The Members’ Handbook

This is a guide to all the services provided by Departments of the House of Commons and includes lots of essential telephone numbers. Learn more about it here The Members’ Handbook or get a copy from the vote office (see Day Four).

Facilities and Services for Members’ staff

Have look at this document at on parliament.uk here.

The Palace of Westminster Telephone Directory

If there isn’t a copy in your office, ring x5270 for one. This is not publicly available and the contents should be treated as confidential. There is an electronic version, which is updated more regularly, on the intranet at: http://intranet.parliament.uk/intranet/offices-departments/assets/pow-telephone-directory.pdf.

 

Day One – Getting Connected

It’s likely that today will be a bit of a blur, but there are a few things that you can do to make the rest of the week run as smoothly as possible.

Without your telephone and email account you will be pretty much stranded, so get this set up as soon as possible. Telephone the Parliamentary Digital Service on x2001.  The staff will guide you through exactly what you have to do.  They are invaluable and you will find you are calling their help-desk (x2001) whenever you have a problem. If by some miracle you already have access to the intranet, try this: http://intranet.parliament.uk/computers-equipment/computer-services/.

The Digital  Service offers a wide range of services to Members and their staff, principally within the Palace of Westminster, but also in constituency offices. Digital Support Online is the first point of contact for all your technology support needs. Digital Support Online enables you to:

  • Log a request / report an issue
  •  Check the progress of your calls
  • View the live status of services
  • Search Knowledge Articles for help and advice.

To access Digital Support Online, click on the icon on your parliamentary supplied computer desktop. There is also a help-desk in the Members Centre in Portcullis House, so you can always pop down and talk to someone in person if being left on hold on the phone just gets a bit too much! The main number for the Members’ Centre is x3070.

Getting onto the Parliamentary Network

You can only gain access to the Parliamentary Network once you have a security pass. Call the Parliamentary Digital Service on x2001 to get your account set up, this can take up to five days to process.

Armed with a username and password you will have your own email address; you have to admit that bloggsj@parliament.uk has a certain ring to it!

If you’re the sort of person who likes to take your work home with you then make you sure you ask PICT for a copy of Citrix. This little program means you can access the Intranet and your e-mail from any computer you install it on. Which means that you can legitimately spend time ‘working from home’ in your slippers! Your MP will have to pay for you to get this, so make sure you check with them first.

PICT will also help you out with telephones, voicemail, printers and fax machines.

Now is also the time to work out how to use the voicemail, divert the phone, and record a new voicemail message. Having your predecessor’s name and message on the voicemail for the first month is an easy mistake to make, but looks very unprofessional! If you have more than one telephone extension to your office, bear in mind that each will probably need its voicemail message changed individually.

http://intranet.parliament.uk/computers-equipment is the starting point for more information about the central provision of IT equipment.

At the end of each day this week, try to fit in a bit of bedtime reading. Aim to scan through most of the Members’ Handbook – it will prove invaluable.

 

Day Two – Getting to know the Palace

Today will probably still be dictated largely by your MP/predecessor, and they may want you to get to work straight away helping constituents, saving the world etc. But if you do get some time to yourself, there are a couple of things you should make sure you fit in:

1.  Explore!

Hopefully you will now have your pass. If so, it’s time to go and explore! Where you are and aren’t allowed to go in the Palace can be pretty difficult to remember, and to be honest, the best way to learn is by trial and error.

When exploring the palace, see how many of these places you can find; they will all be useful later on. (Obviously the bars’ ‘importance’ will be up to you to decide…!)

  • The vote offices (there are five: see Day Four)
  • The post offices (again, there are two…)
  • The travel office
  • The Table Office (Not actually an office that supplies tables… find out more here: Servants of the House
  • The admissions order office
  • The Hairdresser
  • Central lobby
  • The committee corridors in the Palace
  • Your party’s whips office
  • The florist (“I don’t do bunches, I do arrangements”)
  • The Sports and Social Bar
  • The House of Lords bar
  • The Terrace cafeteria
  • The ‘debate’ (not what it sounds like…!)
  • The gym (this is a tricky one to find, which is a legitimate reason for future lack of gym attendance)

If you have a bit of spare time when exploring, ask the police at the top of the stairs in Westminster Hall if they will show you St Mary’s Undercroft – this stunning chapel is one of the hidden gems of parliament, and not on the official tour. You can impress your family in the future by taking them in, and make sure you get in the broom cupboard behind the organ, on the back of the door is a unique piece of history…!

To help you find your way around, have a look at the maps we have provided – check the index page. There are a lot more maps on the intranet.

2.  Book an official tour

Whilst exploring will probably be the best way to learn your way around, going on an official tour will be very useful, not least for when your MP asks you to take their nephew/local councillor/party of 50 school children on last-minute tours. Don’t panic if this happens – see the tour script at http://intranet.parliament.uk/intranet/exhibitions-tours/assets/ToursScript.doc, and if you can’t remember the historical facts, most constituents will be just as happy to hear your tales of what it’s like to work here!

To book yourself on an official tour, call x 3003.

 

Day Three – Become a virtual explorer…

The Parliamentary Intranet

After wandering around the buildings on Day Two, today you need to find your way around the Parliamentary Intranet (http://intranet.parliament.uk/) and the public Parliamentary website (www.parliament.uk). There is an enormous amount of information available and, like the Palace, the best way of getting familiar with it is to explore.

Here’s a list of things to find – Good luck!

  • Factiva – press database
  • Hansard Search
  • Parliament and the Constitution Alerting Service
  • Progress of Bills
  • Early Day Motions
  • Library Research Papers
  • Room Bookings
  • Select Committees
  • The Question Book
  • Upcoming business in the House of Commons and Lords (as well as adjournment debates)
  • Cafeteria Menus
  • The List of Library Subject Specialists and their phone numbers

Clue: If you can’t find something, try the helpful A-Z index. There are two versions:

 

Day Four – Meet the Locals

Some people in some Departments of the House have a reputation for being a little less than helpful to the staff of MPs. But the truth is that there are lots of very helpful people at Westminster whose purpose is to make your life easier. Top of the list is the Library – but they are not alone.

People to Meet

Almost certainly, you will have met some of these already, but here’s a list of key people and places you should locate early on.

Whips’ Offices

The Government, Opposition and Liberal Democrat Whips’ offices are located off the Members’ Lobby. It is very useful to introduce yourself to the staff who run the whips office; you will be in contact with them a great deal.

Vote Office

This is the name given to the places where you can pick up copies of the mountains of bumph generated by both Houses of Parliament: Hansard, Order Papers, Bills, Government publications, select committee reports – the list is endless. The main office has a window in the Members’ Lobby but also with access from the Lower Ground Floor so you can get to it when the Members’ Lobby is off-limits for you. Other Vote Offices are in 7 Millbank, 1 Parliament Street, Norman Shaw North and Portcullis House. The main phone number for ordering items is: x3631. The staff in the vote office are always very helpful – pop into your nearest one and introduce yourself when you start!

Admissions Order Office

Despite the confusing name, this is predominantly just a ticket office for the public gallery to the House of Commons. It’s just off the Central Lobby, to the left of the reception desk. You can call them on x3700 to reserve gallery tickets.

Tours Office

Ring x3003 to organise tours for constituents. There’s comprehensive information about visiting parliament on the public website at:  http://www.parliament.uk/visiting

Nurse

Just like being back at school, the Palace has its own nurse. She’s based in the Medical Room, which is at the North West corner of the Lower Waiting Hall (go to central lobby and ask at the reception desk if you can’t find it). You don’t need to make an appointment, and any member of staff or MP can go. Tel: x5103.

Department of Facilities

This Department is responsible for many activities you’ll need to know about so they are worth getting to know. They have several different numbers for specific functions most of which are part of the Events Team on x 3090. Here are a few you will need:

  • Booking rooms
  • Permission for filming and/or photography
  • Exhibitions
  • Accommodation (x3080)

You’ll find them down steps beyond the Admission Order Office.

 

Day Five – Food

Hopefully you haven’t tried to make it to day five without food, but now is the time to take a few minutes to learn about all the places you can go!

The catering facilities for Members’ staff are good and relatively cheap. There’s a wide choice and it is available somewhere at almost any time of day (except in recess, when the mentality seems to be that because MPs aren’t in Westminster, staff don’t really need to eat very often…)

It seems that MPs have special eating habits which lesser mortals might find upsetting, so provision has been made for them to eat in segregated areas into which you may not go…not unless one of them invites you, that is.

A Note About Smoking

Disappointment for all smokers – there are very few places to smoke in. You’ll just have to take it outside; information about smoking around the Palace is available on the intranet.

Places to Eat

You can find online menus, opening hours and locations of all the many catering outlets.  There’s a useful page on the intranet (http://intranet.parliament.uk/catering-outlets/commons-restaurants/) listing all bars and restaurants, in both the Commons and the Lords, and explaining what each provides as well as clarifying who can use each and when.  Here’s a few of the best:

  • The Terrace Cafeteria (also known as the Strangers’ Cafeteria).
    Located on the Ground Floor of the Palace (next to the Terrace – where you can only go during recess, unless taken by an MP), it is much used by House staff and Members’ staff as well as by MPs, who eat in a slightly bizarre segregated area, as mentioned earlier. Don’t forget to check out the adjacent Souvenir Shop while you’re there.
  • The River Restaurant (also known as the Lords’ restaurant)
    Located on the Ground Floor of the Palace but at the other end of the Banqueting Corridor to the Terrace Cafeteria. This turns into a bar in the evenings, and sometimes serves a small amount of bar food.
  • Bellamy’s Cafeteria.
    This is on the first floor of 1 Parliament Street and is often used by Members’ staff. Bellamy’s serves a good ‘traditionally modern’ range of meals, snacks and, most importantly, hot desserts.
  • The Debate.
    This is a self-service restaurant in Portcullis House. It serves a range of hot mains, pasta, jacket potatoes, soups, sandwiches, salads and a selection of hot and chilled drinks, as well as some pretty good bacon sandwiches in the mornings.

 

Day Six – Sources of Information

The Library

The House of Commons Library is your friend, the staff there are among the most helpful and professional you will ever meet.

In case you haven’t realised yet, this is not a book-based library like your local public library. The House of Commons Library is more about the people than the books. The library staff research and write briefing notes and papers on all bills and big topical issues as they come up. They will also undertake specific pieces of research that you need on request. (Amazing!)

When your MP gives you three hours to write a speech on “Retentions in the Construction Industry” or something else slightly outside the field of your expertise, it is the Library that will make you look like a star. The Main Information Point for Staff is x3666. There is also an extensive site on the intranet:  http://intranet.parliament.uk/people-offices/offices-departments/commons-departments/commons-information-services/commons-library/.

It’s also possible to book a short tour of the library by ringing x3666.

Guides to the Library

Have a look at these two brief excellent sources of information:

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

This essential book lists all Government Ministers, details of the areas for which they are responsible, phone numbers, etc. You can collect copies from one of the Vote Offices on the parliamentary estate or phone x 3631 for a copy to be sent to your constituency office. You cannot do without it! It is also available online, which has the advantage of being updated regularly to reflect Ministerial changes, linked from here: www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/government-ministers-and-responsibilities.

Hotlines

Just because you are so special and important, MPs’ staff get access to a number of hotlines to Government departments, organisations and businesses. They’re very useful to avoid being left on hold for days, or having to go through a switchboard! The list is maintained by W4MP and is located on the intranet but more information is available on our Hotlines page.  Make sure you never give these numbers out to the public or they will be withdrawn.

Data Protection

All offices must comply with the Data Protection Act.  The first data protection obligation which must be met is registering with the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Liaise with your colleagues in the constituency to do this as soon as possible.  A booklet which explains this, as well as two other key data protection obligations and a variety of good office practice suggestions to assist in compliance, can be found through the Freedom of Information and Data Protection guidance section.

 

Day Seven – A Day at your Desk

Getting Paid

All this hard work and not a mention of any rewards. Well, while you’re at your desk, it’s finally time to look at your pay. You should have been told what your salary will be when you were offered the job. If not, then ask, now!

Unfortunately it is well known that parliamentary researcher jobs are not well paid. However, you should not be being paid less than the approved payscales. If you think you are being short-changed, make sure you raise it with your Member. More information available:

You can read our more detailed advice on pay and other staff rights elsewhere – check the index page.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA)

IPSA is the independent body created by the Parliamentary Standards Act (PSA) in 2009. It has set out a new system for MPs’ expenses, including staffing allowances, pensions and office running costs and pays the salaries of MPs and MPs’ staff. You can view the new scheme online on their website (www.theipsa.org.uk).  If you need to discuss anything related to expenses and salaries they are probably your best initial port of call. You can email them at info@theipsa.org.uk or call their helpline on 0207 811 6400.

Pensions

As a member of staff, you are entitled to a 10% non-contributory pension. Start by looking at the IPSA website (as above); the information on pensions is in sections 8.9 to 8.11. Sadly, some staff don’t bother to sign up for their pension; don’t be one of these – no matter how young you are, you’re not likely to look back and regret organising your pension!

Commons Departments

The Department of Resources (DR), which was responsible for paying salaries, expenses etc in the last parliament, will continue to provide their Personnel Advice Service. They, like other House departments (Department of Chamber and Committee Services – DCCS, Department of Facilities – DF, Department of Information Services – DIS and Office of the Chief Executive – OCE), have a section on the intranet which you need to spend time browsing as soon as possible.  Lots of helpful information there.

Expenses

You are not entitled to many expenses, but if you are incurring travel costs in connection with your job, make sure you know how to claim. Your MP also has an annual allocation of return trips by staff from the constituency to Westminster which you are entitled to use.

Declaration of Interests

When you apply for a parliamentary pass you will be given a declaration form to complete by the Pass Office. As staff of Members, you have to register: (1) any relevant paid employment you are engaged in outside Parliament and (2) gifts or other benefits which relate to your work in Parliament of a value greater than £328. There’s full information on the public parliament website: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmsecret/memi01.htm.

The Office of the Commissioner for Standards administers Registers of Interest and advice can be obtained on x0401 or by emailing standardscommissioner@parliament.uk.

Unions

The most active Union for MPs’ staff with cross-party membership is Unite and you can contact them by ringing Louise Haigh (Secretary) x5074 or Max Freedman on x5989. Their new (Feb 2011) website is: http://unitepsbranch.org/. .

The Members and Peers’ Staff Association (MAPSA), again with cross-party membership, seeks to represent the concerns of MPs’ staff. Contact Jemima Warren (membership secretary) on x 8903.

Most of the political parties have staff support networks (ask your party support office) and the Interns’ Network is also active.

 

Day Eight – Being the boss…

The majority of MPs offices have an intern working for them, and it’s usually the researcher’s job to recruit, train and manage them. If you don’t have an intern then you can skip ahead to tomorrow’s guide! However, you might want to think about asking your MP whether you can recruit one; it offers a great experience for someone to find out about parliament first hand, and can be a real help in the office!

However, if you are going to take on an intern, make sure you’ve thought about it carefully.

Do you have enough office space, and enough interesting work for them to do?

Do you have enough money to pay them?

Or at the absolute minimum, to pay their travel and lunch expenses?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then perhaps your office isn’t the ideal home for an intern. Remember they are not just there to help you out; it needs to be a mutually beneficial experience.

If you do have an intern though, now is the time to put some real thought into running the internship. Have a chat with them and find out what they’ve been doing so far, what they’ve enjoyed, what’s been a real pain, and where their passions and strengths lie; if you try to focus their work around these you’ll find it’s more beneficial for both of you.

Have a read through our more comprehensive guide to managing an intern.

At the start you might find it hard to keep on top of everything that you’re supposed to be doing as well as managing someone else’s work. But over time you’ll find them invaluable; not only for help around the office, but also in many cases as a friend – someone to moan to when your MP looses his/her mobile for the fifth time, or neglects to read the briefing you so painstakingly prepared for them.

The Unite Interns Agreement; sets out a basic standard for an internship and is designed to be signed by the MP and their intern. If your office doesn’t already sign up for this, you might want to consider it. See it here: www.w4mp.org/html/personnel/tgwu/Unite_Interns_Contract.pdf. If you’re lucky enough to be among the 1% of parliamentary interns who do get paid, you should complete a contract from IPSA. If you are unsure whether or not you have a contract, speak to your office manager or to IPSA.

 

Day Nine – The other office

You have probably realised by now, but your office is only half of this operation. If you hadn’t realised and were under the mistaken impression that your MP only works three days a week, think again.

The constituency office is like a foreign land, but one you will need to get to grips with if you want to really understand what an MP does. They even have their own language, discussing ‘hands’ and ‘ears’ (not the body parts…), ‘stuffers’, ‘deliverers’ and ‘organisers’ and when they talk about their agent, it’s (unfortunately) not quite the same as in The Matrix.

But you will need to learn to understand what they do, especially if you want your MP to get returned at the next election. Coordinating your Westminster and Constituency activity by getting both offices working closely together will be invaluable.

Today, phone up and introduce yourself. Try to speak to as many people in the office as possible, and make a note of who they are, and what their role is in the office. You will talk to them every day, so it’s best to make friends now!

As soon as is possible (perhaps in the next recess) it would be a good idea to arrange a visit to the constituency. If you can be spared for a few days it’s incredibly useful to spend a bit of time working in their office and learning the ropes.

Volunteering to help out next time there’s a by-election will undoubtedly get you in their good books for a long time, and go some way towards disproving the myth that Westminster staff are all about the ‘glamour’ (!) and easy life in the Palace, rather than being committed to real local politics.

Ultimately though, the constituency staff are your friends. You will rely on them, and they on you; managing a busy MP from two different parts of the country simultaneously can be a real challenge, and the better you get on, the easier it will be.

If you haven’t had a look yet at our survival guide for constituency-based staff, it will give you a valuable insight into how the other half live!

 

Day Ten – Being Sociable

The Monday Cartoon

Getting a Drink

OK, so chances are you cheated and read this on day one. Just for those (few) patient ones amongst you, here are the bars you can use within the Parliamentary Estate. The hours vary but, generally, they remain open while the House is sitting and at more restricted times during the Recess.

There are plenty of other pubs and bars around Westminster but you will, no doubt, discover those for yourself.

The Lords Bar

Coming from the Commons end of the Palace on the Ground Floor go past the Dining Rooms until you get to the Churchill Room; turn right, then left at the end of the white corridor. This is the cheapest bar in Parliament! (and probably London…) This bar tends to have slightly confusing opening hours, and generally closes by 8pm on a Friday night.

The Sports & Social Club

The Sports & Social Club is near the Peers’ Inner Court, it is also accessible through a door and down the stairs from the corner of Central Lobby to the right of St Andrew. Officially you need to be a member to drink here. Cost is £5 a year and, besides having a bar, they arrange various social events. Ring x3028. Watch out for the karaoke night on a Thursday, not something you want to end up in by mistake.

Other Useful Services

Cash machines

Run out of cash with all these new-found temptations? You can restock in three places: one is a few yards from the entrance to the Terrace Cafeteria, a second near the Lords Bar and a third next to the Post Office in Portcullis House.

Tights machine

No, really! This indispensable facility is available next to the cash machines by the Commons Terrace Cafeteria in the Clock Corridor. Next to this is the equally useful Photo booth.

 

In conclusion….

So that’s the end of your first ten days! Hopefully it’s been fun and you’re starting to feel at home in the Palace, so to speak. If you find yourself struggling in the coming weeks, don’t forget you can call any of the unions for a chat, but you will be fine. Working here is an experience you will never forget – go and enjoy it!

Need a lighter take on all of this helpful information? Have a look at the version by the wonderful ‘Dean Trench’; it’s in the Alt.Guides section of the W4MP website.

 

 

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