Martin Chong from the National Audit Office talks about his experience working alongside former Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equality.
This could be the introduction to some new reality TV series, and to be honest I’ve seen worse. After all, I’m sure I’m not the first person to have wondered what MPs actually do with their time. If you go by the media stories over the last few years, they’re probably tending to their duck ponds, picking up cash-filled brown envelopes and shouting at police officers as they cycle past. Or if you watch The Thick of It, they’re bouncing from crisis to crisis under a soundtrack of expletives.
So it was with great interest that I applied last August to take part in an MP attachment scheme. Run by the Industry and Parliament Trust, the scheme developed from a recognition that most civil servants won’t get much experience of ministers and/or Parliament unless they are working on a bill or in a private office.
A month or so later, I found myself getting a refresher course in how Parliament works at Westminster Palace. This was pretty helpful, as I had attended the government framework course about five years ago and my knowledge of how a bill is passed was pretty flaky. It was also a good opportunity to hear from an MP elected for the first time in 2010, Gordon Birtwistle (Lib Dem). Given his industry rather than political background it was fascinating to hear how he found settling in as an MP, for example just trying to set up an office and finding staff.
The IPT then spent some time trying to match shadows to willing MPs who might find us interesting. As Easter approached, I wondered if every MP contacted had fallen asleep whilst reading my CV, but then got the call – Catherine McKinnell (Labour) had taken pity on me.
Some of you may be well aware of Catherine, not least because her constituency is Newcastle-upon-Tyne North. She is also currently Labour’s Shadow Exchequer Secretary. This of course meant that April was her busiest month in that role, with the Budget having been announced not too long before and the Opposition keen to see how they might fire off some broadsides into the other bench.
I turned up at Portcullis House on the morning of Tuesday 23 April, just in time for day one of the Finance (No.2) Bill Committee meeting in Room 15 and Catherine was presenting the first two proposed amendments. As it turned out, the debate around the first two amendments alone became a full-day affair with Catherine alone presenting for about 2 hours. Whilst this all sounds very dull, it was often very entertaining to hear how the MPs on the committee punched and counter-punched (metaphorically speaking) in the very archaic Parliamentary style and at times to the exasperation of the chair. As Catherine patiently explained later, the government majority meant amendments wouldn’t likely go through. However it was a good opportunity to voice objections and often amendments were intended to try and force reporting in the future on how well/badly the legislation has worked.
Day two was much more of a mixed bag. Beyond Prime Minister’s Question Time, Catherine spent most of it having back-to-back meetings across a very wide range of topics from tax and multiple sclerosis to the BBC and adult education. At least two of these involved the offer of food and drink, so if you want an MP to come along to something, offer them food (they don’t seem to be picky).
As the attachment was only two days long, I didn’t get a chance to see the constituency side of an MP’s work. However I felt that having the Westminster experience really did help to bed-in what I thought MPs did. Having said this, I was recently watching that excellent quiz show, Pointless, and Parliamentary terms came up for one of the rounds. Sadly I only managed to score 11 out of 14.
Nevertheless my sincere thanks to the IPT for organising and Catherine and Keir for their time, insight and patience… and helping me get at least 11 questions right.
Martin Chong, National Audit Office