Setting up the Office
Last revised: 10 November 2003
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
Update 10 October 2003.
This Guide and the other three Guides from the old website have been replaced by our new Guides and good practice pages. 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.
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 locating their office(s):
- Do you want constituents to have walk-in access to your staff (NB: security – 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?
- Is it most convenient to have a researcher at Westminster and 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.
Update: 10 August 2001. The old arrangements for funding MPs office costs, including staff salaries, were radically changed in a vote on the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body Report in July 2001. Now the Speaker’s Advisory Panel has produced new job descriptions and salary scales for Members’ staff. Click here for more information.
Further update: November 2001. “Members’ office costs – the new system”. This is the title of an excellent and comprehensive new Research Paper (number 01/88) from the House of Commons Library. Not only does the paper set out the details of the new arrangements, but it also gives some interesting history on the OCA. If you are struggling to grasp the new set-up you need this research paper. It is beautifully clear.
You will also find helpful the related papers on “Parliamentary Pay, Allowances and Pensions: the Reviews of 2001” (RP 01/86) and “Parliamentary Pay and Allowances: the current rates” (RP 01/87). All these Research Papers are available from the Library.
2.2 Furniture and Equipment and Stationery
At Westminster, standard furniture is provided at no cost. In the constituency you will have to buy it and in the first year this will be a heavy drain on the OCA; once established, however, further costs are minimal. This has now changed (see note above).
Apart from computers (see separate section below), 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 and 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 on-line 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 Universal Office Supplies (UOS) catalogue which you should have already.
If you don’t have it already, you must get a copy of the House of Commons Stationery Catalogue. It covers every piece of office equipment you could want and is produced by UOS; ring 0870 60 30 40 2 for a copy. UOS have negotiated a deal with the Palace of Westminster authorities and most of what they supply (excluding machinery) is discounted by 50% to MPs. They also provide House of Commons stationery (listed in a separate catalogue) at no cost (including all the post paid envelopes) and all orders, which you can fax to them on their two standard order forms, are on a next-day-delivery basis if ordered by 5pm. They are efficient and reliable and can often provide items not in their catalogue.
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.
Update November 2001. Much of the information below about buying equipment is now out of date. See the excellent Research Paper (RP 01/88) “Members’ office costs – the new system” for details of the new arrangements for central provision of IT equipment. Available from the Commons Library.
Where to start with this topic? Any detailed advice offered here is likely to be out of date by the time it reaches you and, anyway, it really is horses for courses. The following information is, therefore, very basic but it does provide some pointers for further advice and support. Again, these arrangements may all change in the new parliament (see note in introductory section above); it does look very likely that computers will become centrally provided, but not before a vote on the SSRB recommendations.
If you have plenty of experience then, possibly, you don’t need any advice. If you are keen but hesitant then phone, or visit, the Parliamentary Communications Directorate (PCD – tel: 020 7219 2001). They will be happy to advise you and – particularly important if this is a computer for your office within the Palace of Westminster estate – discuss compatibility with the Westminster set up. If you are a complete technophobe, well, good luck with sharpening your quill.
Try and buy as powerful a computer as you can afford, so you can use it, without delays, for the standard word-processing/database/spreadsheet functions. But also because you will want to use it for email, for searching the internet and all the resources of the Parliamentary Intranet; for holding a diary, perhaps for networking within your office, maybe for keeping your MP’s website updated. And make sure you have the facility to use CD-ROMs, not least so you can use all the excellent training materials provided by the ADAPT learning centre. If you would like to book an appointment to meet one of the Learning Centre staff email email@example.com If you would prefer to speak to someone personally in the Learning Centre, phone 020 7219 6008.
Get as fast a modem as you can afford. Whatever computer hardware/software package you go for, make absolutely certain that it includes support facilities; not an expensive helpline at £1 per minute but a named individual who will talk you through problems, either over the phone or by visiting you at short notice.
The Parliamentary Communications Directorate (PCD) publishes a sporadic newsletter (“PCD News“) and several helpful leaflets (e.g. “Connecting to the PDVN”; “Communications Services for Parliament”) with advice on using all the many parliamentary facilities. They will give you general specifications for hardware and software but they won’t advise you on which model to buy. There are many other services available to MPs and their staff, such as voicemail, audio-conferencing, messaging services and, again, the PCD will help and advise you. We cover this in more detail in our Guide: House of Commons Departments.
If you are having problems with “remote” access to PDVN, our advice is to keep trying, despite the frustrations and delays. PCD are doing their best to upgrade the system. Remote users do best to try and access PDVN as early as possible in the day or between 1pm and 2pm or in the evening. We know that may be inconvenient for you but it’s just a thought!
Update March 2002. The system was upgraded on 16/17 March 2002 and it does look much better but there are continuing problems (click here for background) with access for remote users. Keep trying!
If you haven’t got the message yet, computers really will make your life easier. Just take one example, which will be very familiar to you. You receive, from your Party HQ, a draft press release which you want to get to your local media so it hits the newspaper and local radio headlines today for maximum effect. It needs to go out immediately; now compare these two scenarios:
- In scene one it comes in the post or by fax; you then have to re-type it and post or fax it out to all your press contacts – an hour’s work at least.
- In scene two it arrives by email, you copy and paste it into your standard skeleton press release and email it out (perhaps in one email with a group of addresses) to most of your press contacts, perhaps faxing it to a few – done in minutes.
If you are already using it, you won’t need to be convinced. If you are not, here are some reasons why you might find that it improves communications:
- Saves paper and postage and, most importantly, time
- Allows text to be copied from one document and pasted into another
- The more informal style generally used allows for more direct and “conversational” communications – if that’s what you want
- Gives your office a more professional profile and creates a positive impression of being more in touch
- If you use your or your MP’s parliamentary email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), then it is accessed via a free 0800 number – significant saving if you are in the constituency
- Allows you to assemble databases of constituents who are keen to receive emailed copies of your newsletters and parliamentary reports
- Flexible way of keeping in touch with your MP when s/he is travelling
Conversely, many MPs’ offices have expressed concerns about email widening the divide between constituents who are comfortable with email and those who don’t have access to computers. While some government departments are geared up to receive email, as are some local authorities and other agencies with which you need to communicate regularly, there is a long way to go until we can dispense with the services of the Royal Mail.
2.5 Data 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 Data Protection Registrar’s office are very helpful. You can ring their Information Line on 01625 545 745. If you want to “notify”, email them at email@example.com or ring 01625 545 740. Their postal address is Data Protection Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF. Further information can be found on the Data Protection Registrar’s website at: http://www.dataprotection.gov.uk
The House of Commons have 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 Data Protection 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.
Update in June 2002. The Data Protection Commissioner has recently been writing round to all Members encouraging then to register. You’d better take the hint. We are aware that new, up-to-date guidance has been prepared for Members and their staff and this should be available in the autumn.
A new Order, which should make life easier for Members’ offices when dealing with constituency casework, was placed on 24 July 2002 and should come into force in the autumn of 2002. The new Order would relieve Members of the burden of seeking consent in most of these circumstances but, until the Order takes effect, staff may continue to experience some difficulties when dealing with casework. Meanwhile, we strongly advise you to use something like the Permission Form in the next section.
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
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 pag 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”.
With this in mind, we offer you some suggested guidance for a constituency office health and safety policy which spells out the practical steps you need to take. Click here to access the suggested model policy.