Civil Service Attachment Scheme Case Study

Dave Whyte recounts his time shadowing Martin Vickers, previously MP for Cleethorpes and is now the current Conservative candidate for that constituency

Despite having been at Department for Transport for three years so far, I still feel something of a newbie as this is my first Civil Service job. I have come from local government and, whilst there are many similarities, there are also significant differences. There are many new things I need to learn about people and processes, which is why I signed up to the IPT’s Civil Service Attachment scheme! My attachment began with an excellent “classroom” session focussing on the parliamentary processes (including the development and scrutiny of bills) which – in one short afternoon – significantly improved my understanding of how parliament works and how legislation is delivered. The session concluded with advice that we were being paired up with an MP but that it could take up to six months to be allocated to someone.

A matter of weeks later, I was rather surprised to get an email advising me that I had been paired up with Martin Vickers, the current Conservative candidate for Cleethorpes and a previous member of the Transport Select Committee. With the help of his Parliamentary Assistant, I quickly arranged a three-day stint.

I arrived at Portcullis House (or “PCH” as I quickly learned to call it) and was escorted through many doors and corridors to Martin’s office. He shared with his office manager and parliamentary assistant and, I think it is fair to say, the building has seen better days. A refurbishment is imminent but, as no major work has been done since the mid-1970s, it is definitely some way removed from the modern accommodation of PCH.  Martin had just arrived in London and was beginning his day (as with most days) dealing with the deluge of e-mail correspondence he receives whilst trying to free up some time for planning a speech he was giving in a debate that afternoon. Over a quick lunch, I had some time to find out a little more about him, his parliamentary career and our shared love of long-form cricket before we have to head back to prepare for the debate. In order to speak he had to be in the chamber for when the debate started and then just has to wait his turn (which could have been  at any time up to 10pm!). I am able to catch the first part of the debate before I have to leave for my final appointment of the day - a session of the Transport Select Committee.  Fortunately for Martin and his other guests, this was not a contentious debate and it was concluded by not long after 7pm.

On day two I arrived to the news that Martin had secured me a ticket in the gallery for PMQs. Given that this was the day after the Brexit White Paper had been published – there was the potential for some fairly robust exchanges! However, before we headed to the House of Commons there was time to stop by Westminster Hall for a “showcase of regional produce” arranged by local MPs which, by coincidence, was from my home county of Yorkshire – meats, beer, wines, chocolate, tomatoes and, of course, rhubarb, were all available to sample! The chamber and the galleries were all packed for PMQs and the PM arrived to cheers from her side of the house. There was a slightly odd juxtaposition between the head-to-head of the two leaders and, in the second half, the more parochial questions of backbenchers and before long, time is up and the chamber rapidly empties. I met up for some lunch with Kassim, Martin’s Parliamentary Assistant at the time, and had an interesting discussion with him and some of the other PAs on working in the Civil Service and our political neutrality. Fair to say there was a certain amount of incredulity as to how we maintain our professional position and keep a lid on our own personal opinions!

My final day with Martin was in his constituency – Cleethorpes. It was a cold and early start for me as I travelled on a TransPennine service that potters through the agricultural and industrial landscapes of North Lincolnshire. By the time I’d met Martin and David (his previous local office manager) he’d already had his first surgery of the day and we’re quickly on route to his second appointment in the town of Barton. From then on, it was non-stop. A meeting with a bank, a photo-call at a new school, another surgery, a local regeneration meeting, a meeting with the MD of the Humber Ports, another surgery and then it’s time for me to go. For Martin, however, there was more to do, with a surgery to conclude and a further public meeting to attend that evening. We hardly stopped all day – even lunch was a quick sandwich consumed on the hoof. It’s a tough schedule – especially in a large, rural constituency with large distances to travel between each appointment.

I had plenty of time to reflect on my experiences and learning on the long journey back to London. It had been a whirlwind tour but I’ve definitely learned a lot about the working life of MPs and it will undoubtedly help inform my work. I’d like to thank Mark and the IPT for making this opportunity possible and to Martin, David, Ann and Kassim for giving me such a great insight into the “other” side of our world. 

Watch more about IPT Training here

Dave Whyte

Dave Whyte, Department for Transport

Key Learning Points

Key learning points:

  • Sitting in the chamber and debating is actually quite a small part of an MP’s role. Committees, correspondence and other constituency / party issues take up a much greater proportion of their time – much more than I’d anticipated.
  • MPs have to deal with an incredibly diverse portfolio – they have to be prepared for whatever their constituents might throw at them both via email and at surgeries. Their office teams are essential to help them manage this workload.
  • Don’t assume that those working in parliament have an in-depth understanding of how the Civil Service works. Whilst parliamentary assistants have an intimate understanding of the political processes, they often know a lot less about how we work. 

How can I get involved?

The IPT's unique training scheme provides an invaluable development opportunity for civil servants to build upon their parliamentary knowledge through an arranged attachment to an MP.

Get in Contact

For further information including full programme details and prices, please contact:

Mark Perry

Training Coordinator

0207 839 9414