Setting up the Office
2.1 Choosing the right office(s)
2.2 Furniture, Equipment and Stationery
2.5 Data Registration
2.7 Involving Volunteers, Work Experience Students, Interns
2.8 Registering Interests
2.9 Health and Safety Policy for constituency offices
2.1 Choosing the right office(s)
The tasks performed by MPs’ staff include: research, providing briefings; drafting speeches and articles; casework, including handling letters, emails and calls; press and political work; diary and engagements; and keeping accounts. Alright, so you do 101 other things as well, but the functions listed above, and who does them, will have a strong bearing on where any MP decides to locate his/her staff.
The choice is clearly between basing the office in Westminster or in the constituency – or a mixture of the two – and there are examples of every permutation. Given the flexible tools of information technology, there are many tasks which could as well be done up a mountain as at Westminster, but the overriding considerations will be convenience and accessibility. For example, having access to all the resources at Westminster and also having a visible presence in the constituency.
Here are some questions MPs will wish to answer before choosing the location(s) of their office(s):
- Do you want constituents to have walk-in access to your staff? (NB: please consider the security of you and your staff – see our brief comments on security in Section 3.9 on Advice Surgeries in our Everyday Tasks Guide)
- Do you want to locate your staff in the office of your local constituency party?
- Do you want to share with a neighbouring MP?
- Is it most convenient to have a researcher at Westminster? What happens to this role during parliamentary recesses?
- Can all press contacts be adequately handled in the constituency?
- Where is the most efficient place to locate your diary-keeper?
- Is it possible to handle casework satisfactorily at Westminster?
In your office on the Parliamentary estate at Westminster, phone calls, rent, furniture, cleaning, photocopying costs are not charged to your Office Costs Allowance (OCA); but you will have to pay for them all (and more) in your constituency office.
New MPs are entitled to a start-up budget, to enable them, amongst other things, to set up a constituency office.
Before you can claim any costs associated with your constituency office, including rent, you must register that property with IPSA. Further details can be found in the ‘Guidance for MPs’ Business Costs and Expenses’, the latest version of which can be found on the IPSA website.
2.2 Furniture and Equipment and Stationery
At Westminster, standard furniture is provided at no cost. In the constituency, however, you will have to buy it, although you can use the start-up budget for this.
The biggest items of expense will probably be those unlovely objects, filing cabinets. Filing is dealt with in more detail further on, but do try to resist the temptation to provide a home for every single scrap of paper that enters your office on the grounds that it-might-come-in-useful-one-day. With all the information available online now, and the wonderful backup from the Commons Library, you can confidently consign 99% of all that bumph to your paper re-cycling box. So buy as few good quality filing cabinets as possible and consider looking for bargains in second-hand furniture warehouses.
Desks, chairs, lamps, phones, fax machines, filing trays, shelving, and all the other bits and pieces you will need can also be found in second-hand places but it’s worth comparing prices with those in the House of Commons preferred stationery supplier’s catalogue which you should have already, or can be found online here: http://www.bbanner.co.uk/ Your Member should have been sent login details already. If not, please give their helpdesk a call. Most items are delivered next-day.
USE OF HOUSE STATIONERY AND POST PAID ENVELOPES (Serjeant at Arms)
Members are reminded that for the purposes of the regulations the following are considered as circulars:
- a letter sent in identical or near identical form to a number of addressees (whether or not it is individually signed and addressed) if it is unsolicited, i.e. if it is not sent in reply to queries or correspondence from the addressees
- common-form coming-of-age greetings cards or letters, or equivalent communications sent to new constituents
- a letter sent in identical or near identical form to a number of addressees acknowledging replies to any letter questionnaire or survey that itself was unsolicited
The effect of a letter being classified as a circular is that post-paid envelopes may not be used and original House stationery can only be used if purchased at the Members’ own expense. Such circulars may not be used for party fund raising or supporting the return of any person to public office, or for communications of a business, commercial or personal nature.
Each Member is entitled to loan computers, laptops, mobile devices and printers from Parliament. The catalogue can be found on the intranet, or you can ask for advice by ringing the Parliamentary Digital Service helpdesk on x2001.
Please note that computers supplied by Parliament are only accessible by people who have security clearance. Without it, you cannot even log onto a machine. Therefore, it is very important that new staff apply for their security clearance as soon as possible, in order to avoid delays in getting network access.
The vast majority of MPs’ correspondence comes in by email, and you may be surprised at just how many emails arrive every day – it can often be in the hundreds, so it is important that you agree with your Member how you are going to deal with them. Some MPs give their staff ‘delegated access’ to their inboxes, which allows staff to monitor and respond to emails on their behalf. Some MPs have two mailboxes, one of which is accessible by their staff, and one which remains private. Having a second mailbox can be very useful, for example, if you want to use one specifically for casework. It is very easy to drag and drop emails between the two mailboxes, if required.
Many Government departments and agencies also have special MP ‘hotline’ email addresses, which are extremely useful. There is a list of hotlines on the Parliamentary intranet.
2.5 Data Protection Registration
The Data Protection Act 1998 came into force on 1 March 2000 and all MPs’ offices have to register. It is quite a straightforward process and the people who deal with enquiries at the Information Commissioner’s office are very helpful. You can ring their Information Line on 0303 123 1113 (local rate) or 01625 545 745 (national rate). You can register online or email them for further information. Their postal address is Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF. Further information can be found on the Information Commissioner’s website at: https://ico.org.uk/ and there is specific guidance for Constituency casework of Members of Parliament and the processing of sensitive personal data.
Importantly, the ICO’s guidance includes information on whether or not the constituent’s consent is required for them to act. It says:
“For non-sensitive personal data, Members can usually rely on the implied consent of the constituent as providing the necessary condition.
For sensitive personal data, members can usually rely on the The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data)(Elected Representatives) Order 2002, which also covers the disclosure of such data by organisations responding to Members.”
The House of Commons has published a guide on the process: “Guidance for Members and their staff“. It is on the Parliamentary Intranet (under the letter ‘D’ on the Site Index) or you can get further information from Guy Turner (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Heather Wood (email@example.com) in the Finance and Administration Department. General Advice and Guidance is available from Edward Wood in the Library on 020 7219 6108. The booklet has the following sections:
- Key facts about the Data Protection Act 1998
- Summary of action required
- General background on the Act and timetable for implementation
- Notification to the Information Commissioner
- Procedures for handling personal information within Members’ offices
- Constituency casework
- Handling information on employees
- Parliamentary privilege
- Sources of further information
There was also a very useful Question and Answer guide, published by the Fees Office in July 2001, entitled “The Data Protection Act 1998 – A guide for Members’ staff”. It used to be on the parliamentary intranet (under ‘D’ on the Site Index) but isn’t any longer. However, you can see a copy by clicking here.
Working for an MP involves daily access to confidential information, both political and private. It should be treated as such and protected from unauthorised disclosure. Your constituents expect you to deal sensitively and appropriately with any personal information they give you. Being given confidential information about a constituent can sometimes put you in a tricky situation. Let’s look at three examples.
A constituent has asked you to contact the Foreign Office to speed up an application for his wife to join him in this country. After interminable and inexplicable delays, an Immigration Officer reveals to you over the phone that the reason for the delay is that the wife is being investigated for deception. This will involve an investigative trip to a remote part of her home country and there will be further delays; he asks you not to reveal this to your constituent. Meanwhile, your constituent is ringing you three times a week to check progress.
Another example: your MP has written to Social Services on behalf of constituents who say they are being unfairly prevented from having reasonable access to their children who are in a foster home at present. You receive two replies: one repeating the line that there is an agreement, made in court, that access is only allowed in tightly supervised conditions. The other reply, marked “Confidential”, informs you that the children have made allegations of sexual abuse against one of their parents, which are currently being investigated.
A third example: you receive an anonymous email (so you can reply to it but you have no idea of the name or postal address of the sender) claiming that a named person is defrauding the Benefits Agency and asking you to pass on this information.
You need to discuss with your MP how you deal with these situations. It is also important that, despite the pressures on your time, you read all letters from constituents and replies from agencies carefully before forwarding them. Sometimes you will get what appears to be a very forthright or stark response for forwarding to a constituent. Don’t underestimate the value of your role in achieving clarity (light but not sweetness, perhaps) for constituents; the unvarnished truth can sometimes help them to move on.
Only in exceptional circumstances should you pursue an issue for a constituent if it has been brought to your attention by someone else: a neighbour or a relative, for example. Always get the permission (preferably in writing) of the person whose problem you are being asked to help resolve. Here’s an example of a permission form.
NAME [Please print]________________________________________________________
National Insurance No: _____________________________________________________
I have instructed my Member of Parliament [NAME] to act on my behalf in this matter and would be grateful if any correspondence or documents could be sent to the address of my MP.
I confirm that I have given my MP permission to pursue these matters and to use all information I have provided, whether written or spoken, and including sensitive personal information.
I understand that this will be done in line with the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998.
2.7 Involving Volunteers, Work Experience Students and Interns
Given that anyone wishing to use a computer must have security clearance, this means that any short-term volunteers or work experience students may not be able to use them. You need to consider this requirement when agreeing to any such positions.
There may be problems about the use of volunteers in any office where paid staff are working, but most of us reckon that, despite some of the drawbacks, there’s a net gain from involving volunteers in our work.
For a handy guide from the Finance and Administration Department on how to best provide for work experience students in your office, click here or, if you have access to PDVN (the parliamentary Intranet), go straight to this page on the Parliamentary Intranet.
There are a host of jobs which suit the skills and time availability of volunteers. Bear in mind a few principles and the arrangement can be mutually beneficial.
- Manageable Tasks. Most volunteers come in for just a few hours a week so you need to give them manageable tasks which can be completed in that time. Although some jobs – like culling the archived case files – are endless, make sure that volunteers don’t bite off more than they can chew and leave stacks of un-shredded papers lying around when they go. You don’t want to have to finish the job when they’ve gone home.
- Check Reliability. Say, for example you have given your volunteer the job of opening and sorting the post. As you well know, it’s not just a simple job of opening envelopes and stamping the date received on it. Sheets need to be fastened together, replies must be linked to existing files, invitations checked against the diary, Order Papers checked for PQs tabled by your MP, stacks of unwanted bumph separated from letters you must answer, etc. That’s a skill it takes time to develop so it will pay you to tell them how you want it done and check it has been done correctly. Otherwise, their work will be a drain on your time rather than a bonus.
Make sure volunteers know that their time is valued and that you expect to rely on them being there when they said they would.
- Silence Please! Make it clear, right from the start, that there’s work to be done and you don’t have time to sit and chat. OK, be kind to yourself (and them) and do the chatting during a tea break!
- What’s in it for the Volunteer? Well, plenty actually. A sense of involvement, achievement or helping out; perhaps some experience to be included on their CV (so get them to keep a running list of the tasks they undertake in case you need to write a reference later); and, hopefully, some genuine appreciation from you!
- Confidentiality Agreement. However well known the volunteer may be to you, he or she should sign a confidentiality agreement before starting work in your office. It’s not just about guarding Party strategy. You will inevitably handle very sensitive material about constituents from time to time and anyone working in the office will fall under the provisions of Data Protection Act 1998. Here’s an example of a confidentiality agreement which you can use or adapt for your own office. Let us know if you have an alternative agreement: use the Feedback Form.
To be signed by all staff, volunteers, interns, secondees etc.
- Work undertaken in the office of _____________ MP involves access to information which is confidential. It should be treated as such and protected from unauthorised disclosure. It is an express condition of your relationship with ________________ MP that you should not divulge to any person outside the office of the MP any confidential information or aid the outward transmission of any such information or data.
- This undertaking continues after you cease to work for the MP.
- This undertaking applies to all material, including constituents’ casework, research, party political material, statistics, data, reports, etc.
- In the case of constituency casework, where it is necessary to relay information, letters, records of telephone conversations etc to third parties, this will always be done only in accordance with the interests of the constituent.
I have read this agreement and I understand and accept the above.
WITNESS * _____________________________________________________
* line manager
Internships: click here for all you need to know about a) becoming an Intern, and b) finding and looking after an Intern.
2.8 Registering Interests
When you first apply for a parliamentary pass, renew your pass, or change your sponsor you will be given a registration form to complete by the Pass Office. A Resolution of the House requires that you 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.
The Pass Office forwards the form to the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, where your details are added to the Register of Interests of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants. You will be sent a copy of your entry then and whenever the entry is subsequently amended. The Register is available for public inspection and is on the internet. Members’ staff who are not issued with a parliamentary pass are not included on the Register.
Members’ staff may also be asked to assist their sponsoring Member in completing and maintaining his or her correct and up-to-date entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and Registrar of Members’ Interests are available to offer advice to Members and their staff on any aspect of registering and declaring interests.
The relevant telephone numbers are as follows:
Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards: 020 7219 0320
(Personal Assistant): 020 7219 0311
Registrar of Members’ Interests: 020 7219 3277
Assistant Registrar (for Members’ staff): 020 7219 0401
2.9 Health and Safety policy for constituency offices
The Commons Department of Finance and Administration has a helpful and authoritative 24 page booklet – Guide to health and safety arrangements for Members and their staff (April 2001). The Guide applies to Members and their staff only while on the parliamentary estate and many of the details, as the guide itself recognises, “may not be directly relevant to constituency offices”.