A Week in the Life of a Member of Parliament - UPDATED June 2011
Tim was asked back in 2008 to write an article in a local magazine as to what he gets up to as an MP. Tim has now replaced this with a new article - reproduced here...
A week in the life of a Member of Parliament
If the usual press coverage of the indiscretions of various individual MPs is to be believed, then you might be expecting an article about the job of an MP to be littered with references to a constant round of drinks parties, sex scandals and foreign junkets. In truth, in my experience of 14 years in the House of Commons the vast majority of my colleagues work hard to perform what is, after all, a challenging job, with long, unpredictable and unsocial hours where you are guaranteed to attract flack from one quarter or another!
So why on earth do we do it you may ask? Certainly compared with my previous 16 years working in the City, I have never worked harder than in my 14 years as the MP for East Worthing & Shoreham and attracting criticism is part of the job. With 90,000 constituents as bosses you are never going to please everyone all of the time but we do our best.
Whilst no week in Parliament is the same or predictable, I have taken a fairly typical week to give a flavour of what I get up to at Westminster and in my constituency on behalf of my constituents. Since becoming the Minister for Children & Families after the 2010 General Election, my diary has become more crowded than ever and though most of my time is spent in the Department for Education, I effectively have to split myself between four offices.
The first is the Ministerial Office in the DfE which is round the corner from Westminster Abbey, about five minutes away from the House of Commons but where I at least have several thousand civil servants on hand to give advice. Secondly, I have an office in the Commons where my full-time PA Caroline, takes care of all the constituency correspondence and events, helped by two case workers who work from home and a part time researcher. Thirdly, back in the constituency I share an office with West Worthing MP, Peter Bottomley, where the staff are on hand to deal with constituents dropping in, organising constituency events, surgeries and so on. Finally, on the rare occasions when I am there, I have an office in my home in Sussex. With over 200 emails a day, typically you are expected to be on call 365 days a year effectively! Certainly, the correspondence has increased considerably since my party came into Government after last year’s election and email makes it even easier for constituents and non-constituents to tell you their views.
Previously, I would reserve Monday mornings for meetings in the constituency. These days, cramming everything into the Departmental diary means I am usually on the 7am train to Victoria and in the office by 8.30. Barely have I unpacked the contents of the red ministerial box (in fact usually black) full of briefs I have had to take home to work on over the weekend, when my private secretary troops in with the other four members of the private office team to go through the diary for the week; try to squeeze even more meetings into an impossible diary and sort invitations. Everyone wants the Minister to go to speak at their conference, visit their sports project or go to meet a group of parents at the other end of the country who are up in arms about something or the other.
The civil servants in the Department cannot get involved with constituency or party political events, so my DfE diary secretary Helen, has constantly to negotiate two diaries with Caroline and of course the two are not compatible on my House of Commons issue Blackberry so I have to juggle two diaries – one electronic and one hardcopy. Amazingly, they manage to avoid me missing too many events. After sorting out the week ahead I have a weekly meeting with the DfE press and communications team. We go through the press cuttings from the weekend and flag up events over the next week which are likely to attract press coverage. This week I am due to give several speeches with policy implications and they are neurotic as usual about me not being reported for saying the wrong thing. I have learnt the hard way that attempting to give full and honest answers to questions at public events can lead to a journalist creating a newspaper headline the following day claiming that a Minister has criticised Government policy, when in fact you thought you had been tremendously supportive.
I have a little time to work on corrections to the speech I am due to give the following day with the speech writer. The great advantage of being a Minister rather than a Shadow Minister is that you have someone to write your speeches for you, which is a real luxury. That can actually complicate matters though as what you are saying constitutes official Government policy and a whole raft of officials will want to approve it or nuance it first. That doesn’t stop me re-writing most of it on occasions and changing my mind on what I want to focus on at the eleventh hour, much to the frustration of the press office!
At lunchtime on Mondays we have the full weekly Departmental meeting with the Secretary of State Michael Gove, my four fellow ministers Nick Gibb, John Hayes, Sarah Teather and Lord Hill, the Permanent Secretary and assorted other officials, advisers and Parliamentary colleagues. The focus today is on question time, as this afternoon from 2.30-3.30 it is Oral Questions to DfE ministers where we are subjected to an hour’s worth of Spanish Inquisition style questioning on anything and everything covered by our Department, with Opposition MPs obviously keen to try to trip us up.
This spectacle comes round on a six week cycle and whilst you get advance notice of some of the questions, each MP is entitled to ask a supplementary and you have to be on your mettle to deal with the inevitable googlies. If you think that is challenging, the Prime Minister has to go through the whole thing once a week with potentially no notice of the question and his every utterance likely to be scrutinised by several million people as it is played back on the evening news. This week we all acquit ourselves pretty well although not without the now obligatory interjections from the Speaker complaining at the barracking going on between the respective front benches. I take questions on adoption, runaway children. Child protection and CRB checks as part of my brief.
Question time over, I take the opportunity to snatch half an hour in my Parliamentary office going through the constituency diary with Caroline and the postbag, together with the letters I have brought up from the constituency office. I then hotfoot it back to the Department (we did away with individual ministerial cars ages ago and besides the exercise is good for you.) Sarah Teather and I are then due to chair a meeting with a number of voluntary sector organisations from the children and young people sector who are keen to input into work we are doing around special educational needs, child protection and youth services where they are particularly worried about the effect of local authority cuts.
Back to my office for a quick meeting with someone who has come to talk to me about the future of the UK Youth Parliament, which is an excellent organisation; there to promote youth democratic engagement, but which has got into financial difficulties. I am keen to offer what support we can. I notice that the paperwork in my ‘in trays’ has been building up and after a failed attempt to make an impact on it, another team officials appear in my office to go through the latest progress of the Munro review on child protection which I commissioned last year and which is an important measure in improving child protection in England which is still failing too many vulnerable children. This subject has dominated my brief in Parliament ever since the appalling tragedy of Victoria Climbie back in 2000 and whose name is still synonymous with child cruelty.
There is a vote in the House due at 7pm and so I scoop up what paperwork I can and decamp to my office in the House of Commons itself. After traipsing through the division lobby in support of Government amendments to legislation on the Localism Bill, I have arranged to meet a Labour MP who is concerned about children’s services in his area and I agree to make some enquiries about what is going wrong. I receive many representations from MPs of all parties taking up the cudgels for their constituents who are aggrieved at the way they have been treated in the family courts or by the local council for example, and whilst it is usually difficult to intervene directly, particularly when it involves a legal process, it is useful to know what is not going right at the sharp end and do what you can to put it right.
We are on a ‘running whip’ for the rest of the evening with votes expected up to 10pm, so I need to stay within the precincts of the House as you have just 8 minutes to get in the division lobby once the bell to vote goes off. When there are bills going through the House it is often predictable when you need to be around to vote which means making commitments elsewhere is usually very difficult during the week and Government ministers are expected always to be there to back the Government’s programme. That uncertainty has been exacerbated by the Conservative part of the Coalition Government not having an outright majority and the whips who keep us in order are rarely prepared to take any chances and most MPs will be ‘confined to barracks’ throughout the afternoon and until the voting has ended usually just after 10pm.
I take some work back to my office where I am also confronted by all the emails that have come in that day. I like to see them all myself but given my workload it is now impossible to deal with each one personally. My office will therefore filter out all the straightforward ones requiring replies or diary confirmations, as well as the few which still wriggle through the Parliamentary email filter system offering breast enhancement or a share of a multi-pound windfall left in a Swiss bank account by some ex African dictator. I answer a number directly where there is a policy implication or where there is a local issue I am particularly engaged with, and ‘triage ’on the rest with instructions for my office to handle. You would be surprised by how many circular emails we get from lobby groups running campaigns and where their supporters just have to fill in the name of their MP, sign and press the forward button. Frankly, if a constituent is not moved enough to write their own letter or at least customise one presented to him or her on a plate, then I cannot be terribly moved about their commitment to the issue. You would be amazed by the number of emails I receive which start ‘Dear (insert name of your MP)’!
Having not factored in lunch in my diary, as usual, I grab a quick bite in the Member’s Tea Room in between votes before we finally finish, trooping through the Lobby at about 10.30pm. One of the favourite haunts of MPs, you can get a full fry-up, beans on toast or whatever your fancy at any time of day or night whilst the House is sitting. Back over to the Department where I finish off the contents of my box which has increased further since I left for the vote earlier. In fact I do not take a box home with me during the week as my London flat (modest one bedroom but convenient) is in the same street as the DfE so I tend to go through everything in the office. The redrafted version of my speech for the following day is waiting for me and I take it back to the flat for a final run through, leaving the office around 11.30pm.
Early start as usual the following morning as I arrive in the office by 7.30 am before my private office, enabling me to ease myself in gently with a strong coffee, yoghurt and a quick flick through the newspapers. Those of us who live in commuter distance continue to come under fire for maintaining a flat in London rather than travelling home by train each day. For my part it would be good to have a remotely normal job that allows you to go home and see your family every day. If I was to maintain these hours however I am not sure that it would actually leave any time for sleep even if there were suitable trains available at that time of night or morning.
There’s time for an early meeting with officials who brief me fortnightly on the latest crop of ‘serious incidents’ involving children who have been killed or seriously injured or abused, often by family members. In many cases they will lead to serious case reviews commissioned by the local authority safeguarding children boards, all of which cross my desk, or lengthy court cases giving rise to national headlines. This is one of the more depressing parts of my job and you inevitably develop a resilience to some of the more shocking cruelty inflicted on vulnerable children whilst strengthening your resolve to improve the system so that whilst never eradicating such violence, makes it less easy to take place and easier to spot and intervene in time.
Off to Euston for the train (second class of course) to Northampton where I am due to speak in front of 200 judges on the family court system and our proposals for improving child protection. I have a couple of officials with me to give last minute updates on the mood amongst their lordships at this conference but no press officer as it is a closed meeting not likely to be reported by the press, officially at least. As a non-lawyer this is one of the more challenging ‘gigs’ I have agreed to do and I get the distinct feeling that I am in the witness box being cross examined by 200 legal brains when it comes to questions. Several of them nab me during the coffee break and probably safest that I am unable to stay for lunch for an extended interrogation as I have to get back to London for another speech.
Race back to the train from Northampton station and use the time on a crowded train to go through my next speech which I have not had time to change as much as I would have liked and, therefore, will have to do some judicial ad-libbing. Arrive back at Westminster and go straight into a conference organised by Barnardo’s to speak on the subject of child sexual exploitation, where I am the lead Minister and we have agreed to produce an action plan in the light of recent worrying cases of paedophile sex rings busted by police in the Midlands. Back to the Department where I have fifteen young people aged from 10-17 waiting for me who have all been adopted. As the minister responsible for children in care and adoption I have been looking closely at how we can rejuvenate the flagging adoption numbers where still far too many vulnerable children for whom it is not safe to go back to their birth parents are having to wait far too long in care where a loving stable adoptive family placement would be the best future for them. I have issued new guidance and we are challenging the political correctness or lack or urgency which still undermines this important area of work but we still have a long way to go.
Today I am hearing direct from the horse’s mouth where the system is going wrong from children who have gone through the system themselves and they are certainly not slow in coming forward with their invaluable thoughts. I am a great believer in hearing about things as they really are on the front line and when I am not out visiting projects away from Westminster at first hand, I invite a lot of experts, practitioners and young people to come and see me at Westminster. As well as the group of adopted children I have similar groups of children in foster care and teenagers who have left care, and they come to see me on a quarterly basis.
To help young people in the care system have a direct link into me as the Minister I set up earlier in the year a ‘tell Tim’ facility on the DfE website where anyone can email me direct about what is going wrong or working well for them in the care system. Every few weeks I record a video response to all the points that have come up in those emails and so it’s on to the studio in the DfE for some quick filming which is then downloaded to our website. I have also been asked to do a radio phone-in interview on adoption following on from the excellent series on the subject which the Times are currently running. It’s a live interview on national radio rather than TV this time (I am always told I have a face for radio!) which always keeps you on your toes but at least you can say exactly what you want to say rather than have it edited and selective soundbites played back from a pre-record. A meeting with officials in my office joined by civil servants from our office in Sheffield by video link to plan for a series of meetings I have planned for next week on youth policy, is interrupted by the news that we are about to have a vote and several ministers unceremoniously leg it to attend the chamber in the House of Commons.
Today we are debating the Finance Bill and as such it can uniquely carry on until any hour rather than succumb to the usual 10pm cut off time for debates. There are a number of contentious issues in this Budget measure and word is that the Labour Opposition plan to keep us up late. The element of surprise remains one of the most effective tools for an Opposition and just as we tried to disrupt Government business when in Opposition so our sins are revisited on us. With no indication when further votes will come, meetings are transferred over to the House of Commons and officials decamp across Parliament Square for meetings I had planned on our review into child performance regulations and on school sport.
I also pop in to a lecture by fellow Sussex MP Nicholas Soames on his grandfather Winston Churchill as part of a series on eminent Parliamentarians organised by the Speaker to mark the Centenary of the Parliament Act. With no sign of the debate abating, I pop into a packed member’s dining room for some late supper with colleagues. Ten o’clock passes, then eleven and then midnight with still no sign of the final vote. At least it is an opportunity for me to catch up on the backlog of paperwork in my office in the Commons. In the event, the Opposition keep us up until a final vote at 4.05am. Is this really the best way to make laws?
Back to the flat and grab a few hour’s sleep before an 8.15am start in my office as I have a series of back to back meetings with OFSTED, a group of Lib Dem peers and a minister form DWP regarding benefits for grandparents. I walk across to the House in time for Prime Minister’s Question Time. A distinctly jaded looking House of Commons bombards the PM with questions for half an hour and as usual, my corner of the Government benches keeps up the usual barrage of heckling when Ed Milliband and his mates interject. For me, it is a good way of getting some much needed exercise but the Speaker does not agree and I am singled out for a rebuke as his eye catches one of my particularly vociferous chants at just the wrong time. ‘The Minister for Children need not feel obliged to act like a child’ is the rather clichéd retort from Speaker Bercow and I decide that keeping quiet for the rest of the proceedings would be the best course of action. For some of my colleagues such a rebuke from this Speaker is seen as a badge of honour and I am congratulated generously.
Today I have a group of pupils from one of my schools in Lancing coming up to Westminster for a tour of the Commons and session with the Parliamentary Education unit which runs an excellent programme to engage school age children in how Parliament works. I join them for a question time session as they finish a mock debate on swimming safety to show how legislation is passed through Parliament. It is always good to welcome constituents up to my workplace, especially schoolchildren, and it always amazes me how few people have ever visited the mother of Parliaments before, but then I am a bit of a political anorak.
It is then on to Number 10 for a meeting with a group of businesses and officials from the Prime Minister’s policy unit about our exciting National Citizen Service scheme which is to be piloted around England this summer. This is initially a three week programme rolled out to sixteen year olds to get them engaged in their communities, volunteering and running social action projects. It is a tremendously exciting scheme first launched by the Prime Minister in 2006 and I have been involved with it ever since and look forward to visiting the first cohort of recruits around the country over the summer.
With no votes until 7pm I am able to go back to the Department for a meeting with councillors and officers from a local authority which has failed on its OFSTED inspection and we have had to put them into special measures for safeguarding children. They come to update me on the progress they are making which involves recruiting new specialist social workers and changing their procedures. It is one of those ‘full and frank exchange’ of views meetings and clearly we have a long way to go before, as Minister for safeguarding children, we can let them run their own affairs totally again. I am due to make a visit down to see them in action later in the summer. I start on the box before returning to the House for a series of votes at 7pm which is when we usually finish on Wednesdays and after the late night earlier everyone is keen to get home earlier to catch up on sleep. I am due to speak to around 150 children in care at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children in Care. This is the second time I have been asked to take questions from them in the last six months and as usual they have plenty to say in the two hours allocated and we have had to move to a bigger room to allocate everyone.
Back to the Department to catch up on the paperwork and prepare notes for a debate on children’s centres tomorrow which I have been asked to take over from Sarah Teather who is due to visiting the North West. Finally pull stumps and get back to flat at 11pm for a late supper and catch up on some sleep. Early start again on the Thursday and finish off box work that I didn’t get round to completing the night before. First meeting is the weekly update on the School Games at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport off Trafalgar Square. This is a joint venture between DCMS and DfE and will be launched later in the summer to promote competitive sport in schools, between schools, and ultimately nationally with the finals to be held in the Olympic Stadium just before the Olympics proper.
From the DCMS it is back to the Department for a pre-meeting on the UK Council on Child Internet safety (UKCCIS) which I jointly chair with Home Office Minister James Brokenshire and which seeks to make the internet safer for children. Before we arrived on the scene it had become a bit of a talking shop and with the PM’s backing we have made it clear that we expect rapid and tangible progress so it is important to get our script straight for the cast of thousands from industry who attend. It is then off to Ealing for a visit I have been looking forward to for some time. Four years ago as Shadow Children’s Minister I had the privilege of opening the Horizons Centre, which is a fantastic education and support facility for children in care in Ealing, largely run by young people who have been through the care system themselves.
I have often cited the Horizon Centre as an example of best practice for children in care given that on average three times as many young people from care in Ealing go on to university against the national average, so they are clearly doing something very well. I decide it is time I went back to see how things are going and they kindly invite me to celebrate their fourth anniversary and cut an enormous cake. They are good at cakes in Ealing and it is great to catch up with some of the fantastic young people I first met there four years ago and yes, it is as impressive as ever. I love getting out of Westminster and doing visits like this but it is soon time to get back to the House of Commons for the debate on Children’s Centres called by the Opposition.
Shadow Secretary of State goes into bat first followed by my boss Michael Gove and then my job is to respond to the debate at the end having sat through all the contributions, some of which are actually quite good and predictably we win the vote. It being a Thursday it is time to go back to Sussex at last, armed with a box for the weekend and a bag full of washing. Caroline has given me a file full of briefing for the events in East Worthing & Shoreham including case notes for a surgery which is full up as usual.
This evening there is a particular hurry to get the train as I have to go straight to Worthing to chair the AGM of WADARS, the Worthing And District Animal Rescue Society, of which I am President and to congratulate them on another excellent year. The trouble with being a constituency MP is that you are asked to take on a lot of honorary roles like this and I always make an effort to try to turn up at some of their events during the year to show willing. Last year, this lot had me dressed up as Father Christmas in a grotto with a real live reindeer.
Friday is an important day, as it is the one day that I can usually guarantee to be available for constituency events when Parliament is sitting. It is not always possible as I have to be duty minister at the DfE on certain weekends and next week I am to be sent into bat for my first EU Education Ministers Council which promises to be an eye opener, and I am determined to be able to vote against everything put in front of me.
I try to get around as many schools, businesses and other local organisations as possible, and today there is a lot crammed into the diary from dawn to dusk. I usually start with a trip to the Lancing Country market ruin by the local WI to stock up on home grown vegetables and excellent marmalades. Always a good place to see a lot of people. Staying in Lancing, I have a meeting with businesses on the Lancing Business Park and local councillors to try to find a way forward with the poor state of the roads which have been made worse by the harsh winter weather. This is one of the most important business communities around and it is important that we do everything possible to help the existing businesses prosper in difficult economic times and to attract new investment to the area.
I am then off to a Worthing primary school for a question time session with Year Five pupils. In between the usual suspects about have you ever met the Queen and what is David Cameron, one of the more hyperactive students bowls a googly with ‘have you got any serious medical conditions?’ and then proceeds to tell me all about his! Almost as challenging as being caught off guard at the Despatch Box. After making a quick call at the home of a disabled constituent who cannot make it to my surgery, I pop into the constituency office in Worthing to catch up on the week’s events, go through the post and pick up my papers for the surgery later that afternoon.
It’s then back to Adur and a chance to look round the site of the new Shoreham Academy due to open its doors next Easter. The new buildings look amazing and will be a great fillip for the old Kings Manor School whose classrooms were well past their sell by date. A chance to chat with the Head and staff who are clearly eager to move in and it is great to see the school on the up with some excellent results this year. I also have a meeting with the management of a local bus company concerned about proposals by the West Sussex County Council to cut back on subsidies to some local routes. This is already hitting my post bags and I know there e serious concerns in parts of my constituency let alone the more rural parts of the County.
This Friday, my fortnightly surgery is held at Southwick Community Centre, one of the four locations I use by rotation. As usual the two hour slot is full and inevitably it is a minimum of three hours before I get through all the cases. I have now enrolled my wife to come along and take notes and then write up the surgery case notes, which helps to speed things up but and we are still running well behind time by the end. The final engagement of the evening is a reception at Shoreham Airport to mark the end of Councillor Debbie Kennard’s year as Chairman of Adur district Council and what a year it has been. Both the Adur Chairman and the Worthing Mayor have had fantastically busy years, which are rarely appreciated, and it is always a pleasure to be on duty with both of them at official events. I am particularly keen to go along in support of Debbie as I will miss the AGM of Adur and indeed the Mayor making in Worthing next week as I have to go to Brussels, depriving me of one of my valuable constituency Fridays.
Some Saturdays can be just as busy as Fridays and I have taken to holding ‘street surgeries’ on at least two weekends each month. Today I am at Shoreham farmer’s market with a group of Shoreham councillors and it is always a good place to be accessible to a large number of constituents who always throng to the award winning market. For around two hours I usually have a constant queue of people wanting to see me on any manner of local or national issues and I always enjoy doing it even if it does present me with a lot of extra casework. The third Saturday of the month I am usually to be found with Sompting and Lancing councillors at the Children and Family centre in the village centre, whilst other Saturdays we cover Southwick Square of Broadwater shopping parade in Worthing.
There are usually party fundraiser events to go to on Saturdays too and it is also a chance to do some political campaigning whether there are elections coming up or not. Today I am also due to go and help out at the volunteer’s day of the Cortis Avenue community garden in Worthing which is bringing a plot of overgrown land owned by Worthing Homes back into use by the local residents.
Back home mid afternoon but the day is not done yet, as my wife and I have been asked to attend the Shoreham Lifeboat fundraising ball at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and act as auctioneer again. This is a great cause and I was lucky to be invited out on the new state of the art lifeboat which is now housed in Shoreham at the brand new stunning boathouse on Kingston Beach after a £5m fundraising exercise. Helped by a few cocktails, the packed audience are in good mood and it is relatively easy to raise just over £3000 from the donated items with all the proceeds going to this popular and essential charity which receives no Government money.
It’s another late night albeit not quite as late as Tuesday’s late night sitting but at least on the Sunday there is a chance to catch up on some much needed sleep in what is usually kept free as a family day, if they remember who I am. By the evening though, there are usually a good few score emails to catch up with and some constituents may be surprised to get an email response from their MP late on a Sunday night but then, we don’t exactly keep conventional office hours.
Monday morning, the early train beckons and it’s back to work all over again. Who’d be an MP?