Rookie MPs search for paper clips and a sense of purpose: Andrew Gilligan reports on the initiation rites endured by five by-election victors

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Indy Politics
'I'VE NEVER walked into a new job and felt so disabled by the lack of physical facilities,' Margaret Hodge, the newly-elected MP for Barking, said.

As leader of Islington council in north London, Mrs Hodge controlled a budget of pounds 300m. In her first week at Westminster, she wielded rather less impressive sums: 'I had to trundle off down Victoria Street to buy my own paper clips.'

At least she had a desk to put them on. David Chidgey, another recent by- election victor, for the Liberal Democrats in Eastleigh, is still camping in the corridors. Not surprisingly, he complains that 'the management environment is unbelievably poor'.

Deprived of paper clips, devoid of word-processors, their eager new staff locked outside the Commons by a 10-day wait for security clearance, the five new MPs are undergoing a traditional initiation ritual.

Eager to exercise their mandates, they are discovering that they have hardly any importance and no power. Overnight, they have been demoted from media stardom in hectic by-election campaigns to the curious limbo of the rookie backbencher.

'There's no routine, nothing you're expected to do except vote,' Stephen Timms, winner of Newham North East, said. 'You just don't know how to spend your time.' Judith Church, the impressive newcomer from Dagenham, added: 'You're all in the chamber, then everyone suddenly vaporises without trace and reappears six-and-a-half hours later. You think: 'Where are they all? What are they doing'?'

Ms Church described Parliament as 'like one of those 57-screen multiplexes with different things going on all day'. Unfortunately, no one has shown these newcomers the programme.

All have noticed the essential maleness of the Commons. David Chidgey was shocked at the 'beer garden' atmosphere he found in the chamber: 'Sitting in the gallery, you are not aware how noisy it is. Down below you can hear every snide comment.' Mrs Hodge, who is more politically experienced, says her expectations of a 'dirty- jokes-and-booze culture' were fulfilled.

There are consolations, of course, such as immediate, and adequate, office space for four out of the five. Yet even this brought forth grumbles from some longer- serving members, who said their new colleagues had not suffered enough.

One newcomer said: 'This is a long-stay mental institution where the doors are always open.'

(Photograph omitted)