3.1 Casework including immigration and asylum issues
- Is this your constituent?
- Should you be responding to every request?
- Is this one for the MP?
- Getting the information you need
- Forwarding constituents’ problems for attention
- MPs’ Hotlines
- Immigration and Asylum work
- “Invaluable Things I’ve Found”
- A Final Thought – or two
3.2 The Diary
3.3 Filing and Dealing with Incoming Post
3.4 Sending post (Stationery and Mail: post-paid envelopes, post office, etc)
3.5 Keeping Accounts
3.6 Media Relations
3.7 Research (including brief for a speech)
3.8 Standard Letters
3.9 Running Advice Surgeries
3.10 Booking Tours (Line-of-Route, Guides, Big Ben, Number 10) – revised 14 July 2003
3.11 Booking Gallery Tickets and Public Access
3.12 Booking Rooms in all parts of the Parliamentary Estate
3.13 Dealing with Petitions
Update 10 October 2003.
This Guide has been replaced by our new Guides page. However, much of the material here is still useful so we are leaving it in place for the time being.
Meanwhile if you have any comments (amendments, omissions, corrections, suggestions, etc) we would like to hear from you. Please use the website’s Feedback Form.
3.1 Casework including immigration and asylum issues
Your MP is faced with a very wide range of requests, from the trivial (e.g. request for an autograph) to the life-and-death (e.g. constituent facing the death penalty abroad). Your job is not to try and provide solutions for every problem but to decide how they should best be handled.
Dealing with casework consumes a great deal of MPs’ staff time and every office handles it differently. There’s no one correct way to do things and what follows is offered as a starter; let us have your views on the website’s Feedback Form and please offer your own alternatives. We can try and agree on “best practice” but this needs to be defined broadly and be capable of adjusting for a particular office. So, for instance, the standard letters and other items referred to in this section (see the standard letters and forms pages for full copies) are suggested as examples; feel free to modify them to suit your own style.
- Is this your constituent?
There is an oft-quoted “strict parliamentary protocol” that MPs do not pursue issues raised by or about constituents of other MPs. In the absence of any very clear definition of this protocol, you should use common sense and refer any matter concerning someone who is not your constituent to his or her own MP.
The above paragraph is quoted in a very helpful Standard Note updated in January 2003 by the Commons Library: “Members and Constituency Etiquette”. You should read it and can do so on the Parliamentary Intranet.
To find the MP for any address in the UK, use the effective website at writetothem.com – all you need is the postcode. Or the House of Commons Information line on 0800 112 4272 will give you the same information. Both of these resources are publicly available.
There is an example of an out-of-constituency standard letter on the standard letters and forms page, which you are welcome to modify. Keep handy the addresses and telephone numbers (both at the House of Commons and in the constituency) of other nearby MPs.
- Should you be responding to every request?
You are under no obligation to respond to every single letter/email, particularly when it is clearly a ‘round robin’ to many or all MPs. If a neighbour, friend or relative writes on behalf of a constituent, ask to see written permission from the constituent. There’s an example of a permission form on the standard letters and forms page. Be careful how you try to intervene on behalf of constituents who are aggrieved at NHS waiting list delays. It’s fine to check directly with the hospital whether the delay is caused by administrative or communication problems but if a constituent’s situation needs a clinical reassessment, refer them back to their GP.
- Is this one for the MP?
Much casework is more appropriately referred to a local Councillor or to another helping agency (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau, Independent Advice Centre, Immigration Advisory Service, Solicitor, etc). Remember that planning and legal matters in particular are not usually ones which MPs can take up. Develop a working relationship with other agencies which relies on them handling the detailed advice and casework wherever possible, inviting them to come back to you when all else fails. You don’t have the time, resources or expertise to get involved in great detail, unless all other avenues have failed.
A letter to, or an advice surgery appointment with, an MP is often a last resort after months of frustration. It may be that a letter to a local or national agency or a call to their MPs’ Hotline can unlock the problem and get things moving. But don’t discount the value of a response from an agency/department which merely clarifies the existing situation; constituents will very often respect a clear “that’s-the-end-of-the-line” statement when it is has been channelled through an MP’s office. Of course, many don’t and you have to be prepared to tell them when you can do no more.
Have a look at House of Commons information leaflet: “You and Your MP”: http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/publications1/you-and-your-mp/ (revised September 2016)
- Getting the information you need.
Whenever possible, ask constituents to write down an account of their problem. Encourage them “to put it in their own words” or “jot it down” (including all essential information such as reference numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, etc); and explain that you will send a copy of their letter to whichever agency is dealing with it. You don’t have time to paraphrase letters or take detailed case notes in most cases and, for many people, the process of their writing it down helps to focus the problem.
MPs’ advice surgeries can get very busy so, for constituents who phone with a problem, try and channel them into writing a letter where possible or bringing a written account to an advice surgery session. Of course, there will be constituents who can’t or won’t write so you need to make time for them by taking down the information over the phone or by seeing them in the office or making an appointment for them to see the MP at an advice surgery.
Queries or complaints received by email can be very helpful as they allow you simply to forward a printed copy of the email with one of the standard House of Commons referral slips (see the standard letters and forms pages) or to copy and paste the text of the email into your own letter to the appropriate agency.
- Forwarding constituents’ problems for attention
This section is in referrals to a) local, and b) national agencies/departments/individuals.
Local. As a very basic minimum, you need to have the names, addresses and telephone numbers of elected representatives and Chief Officers of the appropriate local City, County, Metropolitan …. etc Councils, who have responsibility for the area in which your constituents live. Also local Police, Benefits Agency, schools, colleges, housing societies, etc. Over time, try to develop a good relationship with their secretaries and personal assistants. Check if your Local Authority has a list of who’s-responsible-for-what e.g. graffiti, dogs fouling, footpaths, street lighting etc.)
National. Again, you need to keep an updated list of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of Government Departments and individual Ministers within them. If you haven’t already got one, you must have a copy of the List of Ministerial Responsibilities. This is quite indispensable as it lists all the government departments and shows the responsibilities of each Minister together with telephone and fax numbers. You cannot do without it! A version is available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/government-ministers-and-responsibilities but, sadly, it hasn’t been updated since October 2019, and so, although it is still useful for departmental telephone numbers and addresses, many of the names of the Ministers are incorrect, so you will have to compare them with the names on the list on the Ministers’ Page.
The w4mp Hotlines List gives details of many of the most-used national agencies and the names of their Chief Executives or equivalent. For example: Benefits Agency, War Pensions Agency, Child Support Agency, the various Regulators, the Charity Commission, Customs and Excise, Immigration and Nationality Directorate etc. The list now runs to over 100 pages of information.
Always correspond with the senior person at any level in an organisation (Minister/Chief Executive/Head of Department/Regional Officer) even if you know it will be dealt with lower down. However, it is both courteous and good sense to try and get a problem resolved/clarified at a local level before pursuing it further up the organisation. The CSA provides a good example of working upwards: first contact the Regional Office (see hotlines list for staff of MPs) then, if you are not satisfied with the response, take it to the Chief Executive of the CSA (Doug Smith in late 2001). If this fails to produce the goods you have two further levels: the Independent Case Examiner (Mrs Jodi Berg in later 2001) and, failing that, the Parliamentary Ombudsman (Michael Buckley in late 2001).
Since you will usually be asking all these agencies and departments to investigate complaints, queries and requests for help, you will find it useful to have a basic standard referral letter (see standard letters and forms pages). Alternatively, use the House of Commons referral slips (also in the standard letters and forms pages). Try and develop a working relationship with a named individual in agencies you are having to contact often. To save yourself unnecessary work, have a standard response letter for constituents (again, in the standard letters and forms pages) which allows you to streamline the process of handling casework. Always spell out for your constituent exactly what action you are taking but don’t be afraid to use a standard format which is brief. Provided you tailor your responses to their request/complaint, your constituents will be more impressed with your speed, efficiency and reliability rather than a lengthy response.
Where you haven’t got a constituent’s letter to forward, it’s worth looking into making referrals by email, particularly with local agencies. You will probably want the agency’s full response to come on official headed paper but your request to them and their acknowledgement can be done more economically by email. And if you have a scanner…well that’s another story!
When you get the response, you can save yourself a lot of time by forwarding it with a House of Commons compliments slip or, better, with one of the House of Commons “I took up .…” slips (see the standard letters and forms pages for both). Some MPs’ offices prefer always to send covering letters. It’s your choice.
July 2001 Update: The Guardian Unlimited web pages now include a facility, aimed at the general public, but of great usefulness to caseworkers and others: It’s called “MP’s Surgery” and you can access it at:
Dealing with concerns and problems raised by constituents involves issues of good practice as well as legal requirements. There are few hard and fast rules on how to act in every situation. However, as an MP’s office, you are obliged to comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1988 which came into force on 1 March 2000 and you will find more details of this in our Guide, Setting up the Office, under “Data Registration”. The process of registration is quite straightforward and the Registrar’s staff are very helpful.
Examples of the sort of dilemmas you can face when handling constituency casework are also given in our Guide, Setting up the Office, under “Confidentiality” and you would do well to discuss these with your MP. 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. Have a look at the “Permission Form” in the standard letters and forms pages and feel free to adapt it as you wish.
Make sure that anyone working in your office as a volunteer understands that these rules apply to them as well and ask them to sign a Confidentiality Agreement. A sample agreement is included under the section on “Volunteers” in our Guide, Setting up the Office, (there’s also a copy amongst the standard letters and forms). You are welcome to adapt it for your own use.
Remember that many of the individuals seeking help from an MP are reasonable people at the end of their tether, having failed to get the result they want through other means. You can also expect to see many people with mental health problems or those for whom hostile contact with an MP’s office is an attraction in its own right. Be patient but set limits!
- MPs’ Hotlines
It is often a sign that an agency is under exceptional pressure when it sets up a hotline for the use of MPs and MEPs and their staff. By the time the hotline appears you will probably be glad that it has as you will, by then, have begun to notice that a lot of people are tearing their hair out in frustration at their inability to get a proper response from that particular agency. Provided you work for an MP or MEP, you can access the hotline numbers by clicking here.
Use hotlines to the advantage of your constituents. Some are more reliable/effective than others but most will get you results quicker than the usual process. Be sure you have all the information in front of you before you ring them. Usually you have to do all the negotiating with the hotline direct and you cannot give out the number to a constituent. In exceptional cases they have been known to talk direct to a constituent. That will save you time acting as a “middleman” so don’t be afraid to ask the hotline caseworker if this is an option.
Some national organisations also have a “Parliamentary Liaison Unit” or “Government Affairs Department” and it is worth keeping a note of these as they can often get to the heart of a problem much quicker than going through the usual complaints procedure.
- Immigration and Asylum work
Constituencies vary hugely in this work and you must tailor your service to the local picture. You can’t be expected to know all the legal complications, so this means finding out who can help and support you locally. Does the Citizens Advice Bureau have a specialist worker dealing with immigration issues? Which local solicitors specialise in such work? Which are the rogue agencies claiming to help people with immigration and asylum problems.
MPs and their staff are not legally permitted to give immigration advice unless they are registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC), an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Home Office. To give immigration advice when you are not registered with the OISC is a criminal offence. The OISC website lists approved Immigration Advisers and has a number of useful links to other organisations providing immigration advice. If you wish to check out if an Adviser is bona fide and properly registered with OISC, look for the OISC number on our list of MPs’ Hotlines numbers.
You need, at the very least, to keep up to date with the basics of procedure in such cases; you never know when you are going to get a frantic call from your constituent who has gone to meet a relative at an airport to find that the Immigration Officer has refused them entry and has set removal directions for 7am next morning. Before you ring a hotline or Immigration Officer, have all the necessary information in front of you: names, addresses, dates of birth, reference numbers, recorded delivery numbers etc. Use or adapt the two information forms which you will find in the standard letters and forms pages.
Discussing a case with an Immigration Officer, after listening to a constituent protesting the genuineness of their visitor’s intentions, can be extremely tricky. It’s largely a matter of personal style whether you opt to act as advocate for your constituent or whether you try more of a “look-I’m-in-your-hands-but-this- appears-genuine” approach. The cards are all in the hands of the Immigration Officer. Often, the best you can achieve is a few days of temporary admission and it can be a good tactic to ask for removal directions to be temporarily deferred to allow the visitor and the constituent time to come and meet the MP so s/he can make representations to a Senior Immigration Officer.
The Parliamentary Learning Team offers free courses on Asylum and International Protection and Immigration Law , Immigration Law Northern Ireland. Some Independent organisations, such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), The Refugee Council and Refugee Action run courses for immigration caseworkers and have excellent published guides.
- “Invaluable Things I’ve Found”
This is just the start of a list of useful items that individuals have stumbled across and which make life easier. Here are a couple to start with, which have been suggested:
- Postal Address book of your area which shows all postcodes in the constituency
- Copies of the Electoral Register which help you sort out if “J. Jones” is James or Jemima
- July 2001 Update: The Guardian Unlimited web pages now include a facility, aimed at the general public, but of great usefulness to caseworkers and others: It’s called “MP’s Surgery” and you can access it at:
Now…..please add to the list. Use the website’s Feedback Form.
- A Final Thought….or two
Remember: although you may feel isolated, you are not alone in handling casework for an MP. Try not to “re-invent the wheel”. Ring up other MPs’ offices and pick their brains (you can find their contact details by using the ‘People’ App on Office 365) or seek advice from House of Commons staff. There are regular Induction Days for new staff of MPs – you cannot afford to miss this so click here for more information. Do also take advantage of induction courses run by the Commons Library (0207 219 3666) or the Parliamentary Digital Service (0207 219 2001). Best of all, let us have your ideas, using the website’s Feedback Form. This invitation is also issued to those of you who know a better – or different – way of doing things!
3.2 The Diary
This is all about making sure your MP is in the right place at the right time and, when necessary, suitably briefed. It’s also about you exercising your “gate-keeper” role effectively and making sure that priorities are established and invitations replied to. There are lots of ways you might manage the diary and, although you may get by with an increasingly dog-eared copy of one of the many free diaries which drop into your office around Christmas, don’t overlook the many electronic versions available.
Here’s a description of one system for managing the diary so both you and your MP are kept up-to-date. Apologies if this is all a bit excruciatingly detailed for you; and if you do it differently/better, then – as ever – let us know, using the website’s Feedback Form. There are four parts to this system:
- The Calendar section of Microsoft Outlook (or similar software) where diary dates are recorded and amended;
- A printed week-to-a-page version of M/S Outlook Calendar (regularly revised) for the next four months;
- Twelve differently coloured folders for holding the papers, in date order, for engagements for the next twelve months, plus one for the thirteenth and all subsequent months;
- A couple of open box files (“banker’s boxes”) for “Regrets” – again, in chronological order.
When invitations arrive in the post, highlight the key information (date, time, place) on each and arrange in date order. Check each new invitation against the diary and note, on each, prior engagements which will clash, or mark as “free”. Your MP can then see if s/he wishes to accept the invitation or, if already busy, consider making room for the new invitation.
When you get the pile back from your MP, you are ready to accept, refuse or ignore the invitation. A word first on ignoring invitations. Of course, being a thoroughly polite and considerate person yourself, your natural inclination is to respond properly to all invitations. If you insist on doing this, you will find yourself having little time for anything else. So, be realistic. If it’s a “regrets”, you are under no obligation to respond if the invitation:
- is not addressed personally to your MP
- actually says on it “acceptances only need reply” or similar.
If you do send “regrets” (by fax or email or phone), note – on the invitation – the date you responded. If you decide not to respond, just mark invitation with a cross. Then place all those invitations you have declined in your “Regrets” box in chronological order. As the date passes, bin those invitations. You may do things differently and think this is a waste of time and space, but there are, arguably, two reason for keeping “regrets”;
- in case someone rings (and it does happen often enough to make this worthwhile) and asks when you are going to reply; you have the evidence of when you responded or, if you didn’t, at least you know it’s been received
- in case an accepted engagement is cancelled and you want to reconsider those already declined for that date/time.
Once an invitation is accepted, the paperwork for each one needs to be filed – in date order – in the appropriate monthly folders and recorded on the Calendar week-to-a-page printout. On a regular basis you need to transfer the hand-written additions or changes which you have made to the printout into your M/S Outlook electronic version. And, of course, your MP needs to have access to an up-to-date version of the diary. If you work in the same office, or if your computers are networked, that’s easy but, if not, you are going to have to send them regular copies of the revised diary.
One further bit of advice: you need to develop the skill of hedging politely when an invitation is received by phone and you don’t wish to reveal either that your MP has a totally free weekend with nothing better to do or that s/he actually has a social/family/private life of her/his own! Perhaps the simplest way is by saying that, although you do keep the diary, you don’t always have the most up-to-date information and you will need to compare diaries with your MP. That buys time for a diplomatic “prior engagement”.
3.3 Filing and dealing with incoming post
Dread word – filing! Boring but essential and, perhaps, the single most important thing you need to get right if you want to remain sane. Rule Number One: if in doubt, chuck it out. Rules Number Two, Three, etc: even if not in doubt, you can probably safely chuck it out.
Remember when you started doing casework and replying to letters? You had one drawer of a filing cabinet for “live” cases and another for completed cases. Well, the chances are that one drawer is still sufficient for all your cases awaiting replies but that, after a few years, the completed cases could fill several four-drawer filing cabinets – if you let them.
Until you are running the elusive “paperless office”, here are some ideas on how to keep the filing monster under control. If you do it differently, please let us know.
- Be ruthless with incoming items. Agree with your MP what s/he really wants to see. It is unreasonable to imagine that every MP wants or needs to see every item sent by every organisation or individual that chooses to contact them. Develop the skill of plucking, from the myriad of glossy magazines, briefings, crazy letters from the red-and-green-ink brigade, round robins, etc, only what your MP needs to see. Unless you have a grateful local school or library, for instance, the rest can be binned – in your recycling box, of course. If you entertain pangs of guilt about binning a lot of excellent material….you just have to learn to live with your guilt! You may choose to have a rule of thumb that all letters personally addressed to the MP will be responded to, but consider that this would still include many round robins and letters from disturbed people and those who are not your constituents. See the standard letters and forms pages for an out-of-constituency model letter.
- Keep paper copies of briefing material to a minimum. Restrict your natural urge to hoard endless briefings and background material. One way of doing this is to have a shelf of “bankers boxes” (stationer-ese for those open box files) with one box for each major Government Department. So, for example the MAFF one would contain – amongst others – information on pets quarantine arrangements, BSE, hunting with hounds, fisheries policy etc. Invite a volunteer worker (see also section 2.7 in Setting up the Office) to go through the boxes every so often and update/cull the contents.
- Have a few other boxes marked “Newsletter material”, “Manifestos”, “Commons Factsheets and Guides”, etc.
- Save briefing material electronically if possible. You probably receive a large volume of briefings by email, so set up folders where you can save them and do a quick search – in seconds – when needed. Keep a database (topic, Department, date, constituent’s name) of letters received from Ministers which set out government policy on specific topics in response to queries by constituents. Although such letters will have a limited shelf life, you can then copy these (with the name obscured) when another constituent raises the same topic.
- Waiting-for-Replies drawer. This is where you hold the files that are waiting for replies to letters you have written. Some departments and agencies will send you acknowledgements and it’s worth attaching them to the front of the file in case of delays in response. Once every three or four weeks check for overdue responses and chase them up. Another job for a volunteer worker perhaps. As an alternative, many MPs’ offices run a casework computer programme such as Caseworker or MP-Case (details from your Party HQ) which, amongst other things, inform you of overdue responses.
- Archiving: short-term and long-term. Have a short-term archiving drawer next to your “waiting-for-replies” drawer in the filing cabinet. When you have dealt with a constituent’s letter or advice surgery case or phone call and you are not waiting for a response from the Benefits Agency or a Minister or whoever, file it in the short-term archive drawer. Here’s another job for a volunteer: to go through this drawer every two or three weeks and move all letters and case notes older than, say, three weeks to the long-term archive drawers. At that stage they can safely shred all letters which you don’t need to keep, such as out-of-constituency replies, polite refusals to job seekers, etc.
Twice a year ask your volunteer to go through the long-term archives and shred all files older than six months which you don’t need to keep. With few exceptions, work on the principle that if constituents need to come back to you, they will (almost certainly) have jealously guarded previous correspondence with you. The exceptions will include particularly complicated immigration cases as well as those to do with the CSA, War Pensions Agency, Benefits Agency, claims of negligence and others where you may need to copy your file to an Ombudsman or Tribunal.
OPENING THE POST
useful guide for volunteer workers
Open all envelopes and remove all contents, making sure all items from each envelope are stapled, or temporarily paper-clipped, together.
Date stamp everything at bottom right hand corner of top page only. Make sure stamp shows today’s date!
Sort into piles:
- Any urgent items.
- New letters from individuals.
- Invitations of notices of events. Check these against the diary and mark in pencil as “free” or list clashing commitments.
- Replies to, or acknowledgement of, or further letters on, existing files/letters. The files need to be dug out of the cabinets and the most recent arrival fixed on the top. Remove existing staples and re-staple or files become messy. Most files are in the Waiting-for-Replies drawer but some may be in short-term or long-term archives. Acknowledgements should just be stapled to the file and put back in the Waiting-for-Replies drawer, unless it looks like there may be a long wait for the full reply or if it is an urgent or distressing matter, in which case send a photocopy of the acknowledgement to the person concerned.
- Letters, circulars etc. from organisations.
- House of Commons Order Papers etc. should be filed immediately in the appropriate places but check Order Papers to see if your MP has any Parliamentary Questions (PQs) listed and note them in diary.
Put all the post in one pile in the following order, with rubber band around it and a Post-it label with the date on it:
- Hand-written letters
- Other letters from individuals and organisations
- Replies or responses to our letters (with rest of file attached below)
- Other letters, circulars, brochures, briefings etc
NB: Any very urgent letters or imminent events should be marked for immediate attention. Any letters marked “private” or “confidential” should have these words highlighted in yellow.
3.4 Sending post
Stationery of all shapes and sizes, including post paid envelopes (and much of it in recycled materials), is available for use by MPs. You can order this on a next-day-delivery basis from Universal Office Supplies who have the contract to supply MPs’ offices at Westminster and in the constituencies. These, as well as all your other office equipment needs, are clearly displayed in the UOS catalogues (ring 0870 60 30 40 2 for copies). Limited stocks of headed paper, post paid and other envelopes, compliments slips etc. are stocked in many locations on the parliamentary estate.
House of Commons stationery, including post paid envelopes, provided at public expense must not be used for purposes which are not properly a charge on public funds. Such items should not be used for correspondence that is for party political, business or commercial purposes or for 18th Birthday letters. Nor may they be used during the period of a Dissolution (i.e. during a General Election). The rules are all spelt out in the Serjeant at Arms leaflet “Use of the House Emblem, House stationery and post paid envelopes” (ring 020 7219 5555 for a copy).
Here’s a warning about use of HoC Stationery. It was sent out on 11 April 2002.
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.
Airmail post paid envelopes are provided for use to approved European destinations only.
There are two Post Offices in the Palace of Westminster which staff can use: one in the Central Lobby and the other on the ground floor of Portcullis House.
The Internal Mail service provides delivery and collection services both in the Palace of Westminster and in the outbuildings. This service is intended for the delivery of mail to and from Members, their staff and Departments of the House as well as to Government Departments outside the parliamentary estate. Make sure you use the separate posting boxes for these internal services and use plain, not post paid envelopes. Further details are contained in the Serjeant at Arms leaflet “Internal Mail Service” (ring 020 7219 5555 for a copy).
The Letter Board in the Members’ Lobby provides a limited service for urgent mail between Members. If, at the end of the day, the letters have not been collected, they are passed to the Members’ Post Office for despatch to Members’ offices, either to the constituency or at Westminster – whichever you have arranged.
3.5 Keeping accounts
One of the side effects of the “MPs-offices-are-really-659-small-businesses” syndrome is that the Fees Office (part of the Finance and Administration Department) does not provide, or recommend, a House-of-Commons-customised simple accounts system for dealing with all the salaries, expenses and other financial transactions which MPs’ staff look after. So, unless we can share ideas and try to establish best practice, it’s back to reinventing that particular wheel.
The IPSA website has comprehensive information on contracts, salaries, insurance, redundancy, training and much more. Whether you are a new starter wondering where on earth to turn for answers or an old hand in search of an elusive piece of information, this is the place to look.
3.6 Media Relations
As a cross-party web-site, you wouldn’t expect this section to include any party political material. It doesn’t! You can get all the advice you want from your own Party machines. These are general guidelines and hints on how to handle relations with the media and are arranged under the following headings:
- Who? – media contacts; your audience
- What? – press releases
- What else? – pictures
- What next? – monitoring the press; TV and radio; sources
Hopefully your constituency already has a good database of media contacts, which includes contact information on: Press, Radio, TV and Agencies. Keep up to date with the launches of new media enterprises – and don’t just think about the daily or weekly press; check out the local specialist journals and magazines. You should ideally know:
- Audience/Readership and circulation – so you can target what’s appropriate
- Preferred method of delivery – email, fax, post – do it the way they want it
- Personal contacts
Your main method of initiating contact will be by press release; this may be exclusive and may follow up an initial telephone contact, or it may be circulated widely.
Writing a Press Release – Golden rules:
- Check your facts – you will not endear yourself to the local media if you present incorrect information.
- Be timely – yesterday’s news is not news.
You may be using information generated by others e.g. as part of a national campaign. Do think about how it applies to your constituency; that is what your media contacts will be interested in. Think about working with fellow MPs in nearby constituencies where it is a regional matter – a co-ordinated approach will be more effective.
The Press Release: The Basic Rules
Your local press will rely on you to generate some of their stories. Much of a paper’s output comes in unsolicited. Many reports are straight reprints (with extra typos!) of stories that are fed in. These come in the form of press releases sent in by individuals, associations, and firms. Because the Press work to deadlines, your news stands more chance of getting printed if you observe some basic rules:
- The item should be typed on a sheet of A4 paper clearly headed “Press Release” or “Press Information”. Address it to the News Editor, Newsdesk, or a named journalist.
- Date it and put a headline on to identify it. If you need to embargo the information make this clear at the top – for example, details of a speech should be restricted to a time at which, or after which, it will have been made. Don’t use this unless necessary.
- Double spacing should be used to allow room for alterations at the desk. Wide margins should also be used for instructions to the printer. Print on one side of the paper only. Paragraphs should not be broken at the end of a page.
- Most stories can be told in three paragraphs. The meat should come in the first one. If space is short then the sub-editor will delete from the bottom. Even if the bulk of the story is cut, at least the main facts will get printed. The first paragraph must say who, what, why, when, and where, and succeeding paragraphs can expand and give more detail. The papers are always looking for fillers—short items that can be dropped in at the end of a column. A brief story has a very good chance of getting published as it stands if it is written in simple, plain English. Use short sentences and avoid padding.
- Your story should contain at least one direct quotation or comment.
- Keep it simple and remember who you are writing for.
- Only a few abbreviations are well enough known not to need spelling out. NATO or EU are fine, but NUT (National Union of Teachers) or PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) will need the full spelling. Every sector has its jargon and you should remember that what is familiar to you may be incomprehensible to your readers. You need only spell it out the first time—successive mentions can be left as abbreviations.
- The local press can be distressingly parochial. The classic story of “Local man lost at sea” instead of “Titanic sinks” has its parallels today. They are more likely to print a story with a local angle or with local examples.
- End the text with “ENDS” and then finish with a contact for more information. Give a phone number at work and out of hours. This will tend to be used if a gap appears in a radio broadcast schedule and a journalist is looking for more detail.
- All the media work to strict deadlines. Be aware that if you ask television crews to appear in the middle of the afternoon you will be very unlikely to make the six o’clock news or magazine programmes.
P R E S S R E L E A S E
JOE BLOGGS MP
[date] [embargo information]
HEADLINE DOES NOT NEED TO BE WITTY, CLEVER OR LONG.
The first paragraph should summarise the story. It should state “who, what, why, where, and when”. It should be simply worded, with short sentences, have no padding, and should give all the main information. An editor will start removing text for which there is no room from the bottom of an article. This is the key paragraph if the story is to be printed.
Quotations from people named in the article are useful and give some personal reference to the story. If quotations are to be used they must emanate from someone of standing and relevance. Spokespersons are not as newsworthy as, say, the MP him/herself. However, over-quoting fragments the story.
Be careful not to use jargon unless the piece is directed at the technical press. You can always include separate details on an attachment to the release; but if the journalist can’t grasp the details easily, the readers certainly won’t. Simple, concise language is preferable to long, protracted, “flowery” language. Similarly, acronyms and abbreviations should be avoided. If they are to be used, they should be spelt out in the first instance after which time they can then be used in their abbreviated form.
The final paragraph can provide further information relating to policies, issues etc. However, it should not sound like a sales pitch, instead it should detail factual information in a concise manner.
Contact information: make sure the press can get hold of someone by phone
Good Pictures are Worth a Thousand Words. Every picture is worth half a page of text if it is a good bright subject. News photographs are definitely best left to the professionals but Editors are always on the lookout for good photographs, so don’t be shy in offering them if you feel they “tell your story”. If you have a digital camera you can send the photos as attachments to the emailed press release. Ordinary photos must be glossy prints, double weight, and of good contrast. Also, make sure they are sharp. Seven inches by five is quite large enough. Do not forget to label the reverse of the photograph when sending it in. Modern resin coated prints do not accept many inks and ballpoint pens show through. If you forget to identify the print, your release and the photo may be separated in a busy newspaper office. Use a self-adhesive label on the back.
If the story is strong enough the paper will send its own photographer. Do not forget to ask for several copies, as they can always be useful.
Monitor your press for three reasons: success of your activities; rebuttals; issues for the future.
Once you start getting results you will want to keep it going. Try to find a story regularly for the local press and get to know your local journalists and editors. Perhaps there is a news agency in your town that sends stories off to the media. They can be very helpful as they earn their money by the number of lines that get published or seconds on the air. If they do their job properly they will be on intimate terms with all the right people and there is no charge to you.
Always be frank, helpful, and available. If they ring you and you are at a meeting, make sure you always ring back. This applies even more so in adverse times. Do not pump them with material in good times and expect them to print it if, when a bad story breaks, you pass a “No comment”. Most important: always be truthful. Half-truths will always be found out.
Don’t forget the other useful activity of ‘Letters to the Editor’ – this may be a more appropriate approach, particularly to correct misinformation or to appeal directly to readers.
Television and Radio
With the growth of local radio and television it is not hard to get on air. You make the approach in the usual way by press release, but the response tends to be different. Do not expect a great deal of positive feedback, as you will get more from the written word. TV and radio are more ephemeral media and few viewers and listeners sit there with pen and paper poised to note down interesting items. TV is always more interested in visual stories; so human-interest issues and action stories are more likely to grab their attention.
You need to ease the path for journalists to your door – and thereby to your MP’s door – by having clear and reliable access, but on your terms. Clarify if your MP is happy for all journalists – or just a few selected ones – to have her/his pager number. Agree a policy on how easy access will be made for those wanting an urgent quote. Always know where your MP can be contacted a short notice and think about who else can be asked to stand in for the MP if s/he is not available.
Both TV and radio tend to react quickly but with little lead times. Do not be surprised if they ring you at 9 am, expecting your MP to be willing to be recorded down the line now. TV will rarely record after about 2.00 p.m. as they will not make the evening bulletins. While your release may be taken at face value, occasionally you may be approached first to comment on some issue. Some simple rules for any interviewee:
- Never agree to be recorded straight away. Ask what the angle is, what is the purpose, what is behind the questioning, and who else is being asked for comment?
- Prepare three points that you need to get over and write them down.
- If you have the choice, go for a live rather than recorded interview; that way you retain some initiative.
- Look at the interviewer not the cameras and avoid loud check or striped shirts. Dress soberly and do not drink beforehand!
- Do not slouch; lean forward slightly. Avoid mannerisms and keep control of your hands.
- Smile, relax, and look “human”. No matter what you say, the impression you create is all-important.
- For tricky questions, turn it back with a question of your own: “What you really mean is why..….” Do not let the interviewer put words in your mouth: stop at once and correct.
- Radio demands a light varied voice. Avoid sinking into a monotone.
- Speak clearly and slowly – gives time to think.
Put together your address list of local media contacts. You can find some details at Media.Info. You could also take out a subscription to your local newspaper – digital subscriptions are often cheaper than hard copy. The House of Commons Library has a list of many online resources, including free subscriptions to various publications, including The Financial Times, Times Online and the Nexis Database via the House of Commons Library, See here for further details.
Why do MPs have researchers? OK, no cheap jokes – we’ve heard them all before! Well, for many reasons: to write speeches; to prepare background for debates, PQs, meetings, interviews etc; to provide information for use in answering letters; to write articles for publication. So, if you are tackling any of the above, where do you find all the information you will need?
“As far as the commons researcher is concerned, the Internet is extremely good news, as a vast amount of information is immediately available on screen.”
Your first stop must be the Parliamentary Intranet – the Commons Intranet web-site. This is not available via the World Wide Web …only through the intranet. This gives you easy access to information about current Parliamentary business, such as details of votes and proceedings, debates, ministerial question times, as well as access to an excellent on-line version of Hansard.
The Parliamentary Intranet Site Index gives a list of the full range of services on offer and links to the most helpful websites. Perhaps the most useful is the House Commons Library.
“I have to confess that I hardly ever actually go to the Library, because there isn’t much there, as far as I know, that isn’t available online.”
The Library website is invaluable as a means of accessing archived newspaper clippings, biographical information, publications as well as Factsheets explaining a great deal of parliamentary procedure. The Library also publishes a wealth of research papers covering all areas of government policy and proposed legislation. These are extremely detailed and objectively written. It also produces Standard Notes, which are basically short research papers that have been commissioned by MPs in response to specific inquiries.
“The current affairs room, which is where the newspapers and research papers are available, also has spare PCs which can be very useful if you have volunteers who need computer access. It is also a quiet place to work and think. And have a look at the eLibrary on the ground floor of Portcullis House.”
The Library itself has an extensive collection of archived newspaper records and over 1,000 periodicals. It is also useful if your research is more historical. On-line Hansard goes back as far as 1802 but some of the early material is still not complete; the Library has hard copies dating back over a century. The Official Publications Library also has copies of old parliamentary publications which are no longer available from the Vote Office (see below) and is an excellent source of statistical information.
The Vote Office is where copies of Government Bills, Commissioned Government Reports and Government Responses, Green and White Papers, debates, copies of daily Hansard and the day’s Order Paper can all be collected. It is therefore invaluable as a means of keeping up with the current business of parliament.
Presenting your Research
Frame the work before you start – for a better result, finished on time.
The document should suggest a process like this:
- Understand what the final product will be (e.g. report, briefing note, PQ, etc)
- who will be reading the final product?
- What will their level of understanding be?
- What will their point of view be and where will their interests lie?
- What is the scope of the final product?
- What are the questions that need to be answered?
- What information will be needed to answer those questions?
- Where can that information be obtained? (a) quickly or (b) in full detail
Use your research skills to obtain the information you need:
- Using the web
- Using print journals
– know what journals are available, and from where (HoC Library, British Library)
– quickly read the abstract to find out whether the article has what you need;
– take notes or a photocopy & keep this for future reference
- Interviewing people
– introduce yourself & the reason for interviewing
– get them to broadly explain their job & involvement in whatever matter you are concerned with
– group questions by topic area
– the first few questions of a topic area should be open, e.g. “What would you say is the most important aspect of waste management?”
– the last few questions should be closed, e.g. “Is it safe to bury low-level nuclear waste?”
- Writing up
– write for the intended audience (level of understanding, style)
– if an extended piece, write a one-paragraph short summary which appears at the top of the article. Write this last of all.
DON’T WAFFLE – ALWAYS QUOTE YOUR SOURCES – SHORT IS GOOD
The researcher can also find valuable information on Government Department websites. These can all be accessed from https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations All give access to relevant speeches and policy information as well as press releases. Many MPs now have individual websites, which are also worth a visit.
Here’s the briefest of guides on how to write a brief for a speech. Use the website’s Feedback Form to suggest improvements.
Writing a brief for a Speech
1. Who is the audience? Why? How long is your MP to speak?
2. How does s/he want it set out? Bullet points or full text? Are references/sources required? Are examples, quotes, statistics etc needed?
1. Use large font, well-spaced, short sentences.
2. Use headings and subheadings, key words, highlighting.
3. Put numbers in words (Five hundred thousand, NOT 500K or 500,000)
4. Start with polite introduction and thanks.
5. Put most important information at the beginning.
6. Use examples and case studies, if appropriate.
7. Emphasise the local angle.
SIMPLICITY AND CLARITY ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FINE PROSE.
Finally, newspaper web-sites such as The Guardian’s www.guardian.co.uk now have excellent archive facilities and are useful for getting up to speed with particular issues quickly.
3.8 Standard Letters
There’s a certain coyness in some quarters about sending ‘standard’ letters setting out Government or Opposition policies. Once you have received a few hundred identical letters or postcards from members of campaigning organisations, this coyness tends to wear off. If organisations are writing to their members encouraging them to write to their MPs about, for example, pensions or Europe or teachers’ pay or Third World Debt, then they will expect MPs to develop a standardised response which is likely to be a statement of their party’s policy plus, perhaps, the local angle or a personal perspective.
The party machines at Westminster are, to a greater or lesser degree, geared up to providing you with briefings and policy statements, of course, and you need to develop a system for storing this information in a way that it can be retrieved to respond both to individual and to campaign enquiries. If it comes by email, so much the better, as you can cut and paste the information you need into a newsletter, or a letter to a constituent, for example. Individual MPs will, of course, have their own standpoint on national policies but you will, no doubt, know about that.
On topics which are matters of individual conscience rather than party policy (e.g. euthanasia, hunting, age of consent, abortion) your MP is also likely to receive a large postbag whenever that particular topic is in the news or when a vote is imminent. Again, this is a time for a standard response, prepared by the MP and used, with suitable updating, each time.
Several MPs have found it convenient to use these ‘standard’ responses as the basis of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) on their website.
Some of the political parties have subscription-based research services which can help you to respond to constituents:
Parliamentary Research Service (Labour)
Policy Research Unit (Conservative)
You can find further information here: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/research-impact-at-the-uk-parliament/how-is-research-used/
3.9 Running Advice Surgeries
All MPs hold advice surgeries. They are hard work but there are plenty of ways of making them work as smoothly as possible.
Given the tragic murder in early 2000 of MP’s assistant, Andrew Pennington, at his advice surgery, and the horrific murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016, you must take all necessary steps to make the surgeries as safe as possible. Ask your local Police and other ‘advice-giving’ local agencies for guidance and don’t overlook obvious safety measures such as arranging the furniture in the interviewing room so the MP is nearest the door and making sure that there is at least one other person about. Safety is as much about the attitude you display as about physical arrangements, particularly in the rushed atmosphere of a surgery when you know you can expect some angry and thwarted people. If constituents come to your office, you will need to take similar safety precautions there as well. Do take advantage of the security measures offered by Parliament – you can find all the information you need on the intranet.
Some MPs offer open surgeries but experience tends towards making them appointment-only. Time can be saved by getting addresses and phone numbers beforehand, as part of the booking process, and using this to produce a standard advice surgery action sheet – see example in the standard letters and forms pages. Remind constituents to bring all relevant letters and other papers. If, when a constituent rings for an appointment, it’s some time before the next surgery, suggest that giving the details over the phone or by email may be quicker than waiting a couple of weeks for the next surgery. Many constituents are more than happy to have an appointment with the MP’s staff if the MP isn’t available.
Here are a few more choices you’ll need to make:
- how long are appointments?
- one location or several in the constituency?
- how often: weekly, bi-weekly;
- what day of the week and at what time?
- what about telephone surgeries?
- how to publicise advice surgeries?
- how about one-off surgeries for a particular area or topic?
- will the MP see constituents alone or with a secretary/note-taker? For safety reasons, it is advisable that MPs or staff should not see constituents alone, and should always use the personal security devices available from the security team.
- do you need someone to look after the queue – a local Councillor perhaps?
3.10 Booking Tours (Line of Route, Guides, Big Ben etc)
Line of Route and Guides
People wishing to make a tour of the Houses of Parliament need to book it through their MP. All the information you need to do this can be found on the intranet here.
It is not currently possible to arrange tours of the clock tower/Big Ben as it is closed for renovation.
The Jubilee Café is open to all visitors, passholders and their guests. It is located off Westminster Hall and provides meals & light refreshments between 09:00 and 18:00 Monday to Saturday.
Tours of No. 10
There is huge demand for tours of No. 10 Downing Street. In order to ensure fairness, No. 10 offers each Member the opportunity to bring a small number of chosen constituents to No. 10 once during the current Parliament. Effectively, this means you will have to tell constituents who ask for a tour of No. 10 that they will have to wait until your Member is invited to bring constituents. At that point it will be up to the MP to choose who gets priority.
3.11 Booking Gallery Tickets and Public Access
Constituents wishing to see Parliament at work have several opportunities for doing so: in the Strangers’ Galleries of the Commons and the Lords, in Westminster Hall and in the many Committee Rooms. For the Galleries, this almost always means queuing but there are ways of getting priority access and you need to know how to get these tickets for your constituents.
Every MP has an allocation of two Commons Strangers’ Gallery tickets every nine sitting days and you will receive a new list, showing your dates, three or four times a year. You can see the allocations list here. In addition, MPs can apply for further tickets on other days, either direct to the Admission Order Office or by writing round to other MPs and asking to use their allocation. These are notoriously difficult to get hold of on Wednesdays because of Prime Minister’s Questions at 3pm.
Trying to get hold of other MPs’ allocated tickets for a specific date can be a laborious (70 MPs to contact) and fruitless (many don’t reply) exercise but, if you are really desperate, there is a standardised letter (see the standard letters and forms pages) to send which makes it relatively easy for you and for the MPs offices to whom you are writing. Sometimes your Party’s support office may have unused tickets so it’s worth asking them as well.
The Lords sit from 2.30pm on Monday to Wednesday, from 3pm on Thursday and from 11am on sitting Fridays. Finishing times vary widely and can run past midnight. There is a separate queue for the Lords Gallery and the wait is usually not long. MPs can make priority bookings by writing to Black Rod’s office; see suggested letter to Black Rod’s Assistant – in the standard letters and forms pages.
Sittings in Westminster Hall are on Tuesday from 10am to 1pm, on Wednesday from 9.30am to 2pm and on Thursday from 2.30pm to 5.30pm approximately. Seating is limited to 35 and there’s no advance booking system.
Most committee meetings are open to the public. Standing Committees look at the detailed contents of legislation while Select Committees specialise in particular subjects or scrutinise the work of government. There is no queuing system and advance booking is not necessary.
Members of the public must enter the Palace of Westminster through the St Stephen’s entrance (opposite the east end of Westminster Abbey) and all visitors must pass through the security check. This is usually quite quick but warn visitors to allow time for this if they have an appointment. The Central Lobby is the best place for people to agree to meet.
Information for visitors with disabilities can be found here: https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/access/disabled-access/
3.12 Booking Rooms in all parts of the Parliamentary Estate
Booking rooms appears, at first sight, to be a rather complicated and daunting prospect. Persevere! It isn’t too painful, in reality.
Your best guide is the Serjeant at Arms leaflet ‘Committee Rooms, Conference, Meeting and Interview Rooms’, updated to include the opening of Portcullis House with many new rooms which can be booked. This leaflet shows the correct phone numbers to ring to make a booking, as well as full details of the rooms. Ring 020 7219 5555 for a copy.
Taking the parliamentary estate as a whole, you need to understand that there are, with the exception of the Jubilee Room, which is a special case, two types of rooms you can book:
- the Conference Rooms, Meeting Rooms and Interview Rooms, and
- the Committee Rooms.
There are roughly 30 Conference Rooms, Meeting Rooms and Interview Rooms, varying in seating capacity from 4 to 150 people and these are spread throughout the parliamentary estate, including the Palace itself, as well as Norman Shaw North, 1 Parliament Street, 7 Millbank and now, in Portcullis House, the Attlee Suite, the Macmillan Room, Meeting Rooms M to U and Interview Rooms 1 and 2. For these rooms, the Serjeant at Arms Department operates a computerised booking service and you may phone any of the Room Administration telephone extension numbers to make a booking. Be sure to make a note of the booking reference, which they give you when you make the booking.
The Committee Rooms are located as follows:
- within the Palace itself: the numbered Committee Rooms on the Committee Corridor (rooms 5 to 16), the Upper Committee Corridor (rooms 17 to 21), and the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall.
- on the first floor of Portcullis House: the named Committee Rooms (Boothroyd, Grimmond, Thatcher and Wilson).
Ring 020 7219 3090 to make a booking but remember that all these rooms are booked on the basis that your booking may be moved – sometimes at short notice – to give priority to Committees of the House.
The Jubilee Room is a popular venue and there are special booking arrangements; see the Serjeant at Arms leaflet.
No food or drink may be consumed in any of the Committee, Conference or Interview rooms, with the exception of: the Jubilee Room; Conference Room E on the ground floor of 7 Millbank; and the Attlee Suite, the Macmillan Room and the Meeting Rooms in Portcullis House.
There are many regulations connected with room bookings so have a close look at the Serjeant at Arms leaflet for details on length of booking, advance booking, equipment, access, mass lobbies, recordings, publicity, parking, etc. There is also a helpful Serjeant at Arms leaflet entitled ‘Assistance for Disabled Visitors’.
If you get stuck, ring the Serjeant’s Helpline on 020 7219 5555 for advice. The team know most of the answers and if they don’t, they’ll point you to someone who does.
3.13 Dealing with Petitions
From time to time you will have to deal with Petitions from your constituents. You need to have a look at the booklet “Business of the House and its committees – a short guide” . In the January 2003 edition it’s on page 25: PETITIONS. Lots of helpful advice on acceptable forms of wording and on how to present the petition, either formally or informally. The section on petitions is also accessible on the Parliamentary Intranet.
It gives you the number of the Clerk of Public Petitions (0207 219 3310). Give him/her a ring to discuss the petition and seek advice. You may well find that, unless your petitioners sought advice on the wording in advance, the petition is not in an acceptable form. Ask the Clerk what can be done to remedy this.
Further information on petitions can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/sign-a-petition/