Artillery Row

Chucking out time

Why are Ministers with private offices happy to deprive backbench MPs of staff?

On 2 November Tory MP Pauline Latham pleaded with Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not to designate the ordinarily Westminster-based staff of MPs as being non-essential workers. She said she needed them where they usually worked precisely so that she do her work in the House. Otherwise, Latham noted, she would have stationed them in her constituency office. As many MPs have noted, unlike during the previous Lockdown, this time the government is insistent that parliament should remain physically open and working.

The Leader of the House sympathised but said ultimately it was a matter for the House of Commons Commission. Sadly for Pauline Latham, the Commission yesterday emailed all MPs telling them not to allow any of their members of staff onto the parliamentary estate unless they were supporting “front bench duties”.

The effect on MPs will be differently felt.  There are still a few MPs who have very limited capacity to work on computers and their staff provide an essential service in taking dictation and printing out emails. Now, these staff sit at home and must read out emails over the phone, or are forced to forward confidential emails to MPs private email addresses and hope a more tech-savvy family-member is willing to help their member read it. Who said GDPR was a thing?

This is in contrast to the conditions Ministers work in. Although departments are basically empty, and I hear the National Audit Office has less than 20 staff in their main building out of 800, the private offices of Cabinet members (and their opposition shadows) did not suffer the same dictat given to backbenchers.

They continue to enjoy the physical charms of spads and senior civil servants. The lack of parliamentary scrutiny in the way No.10 has handled the pandemic has been heavily criticised by many, not least Lord Sumption, who believes it was a deliberate policy rather than an unhappy accident. Locking out vital staff from the MPs who need them risks being subject to the same charge.

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