Willing to grovel for a quick route to glory

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHENEVER I told anyone I was a House of Commons researcher, one name used to crop up a lot. I spent much of 1989 trying to convince friends, relatives and taxi drivers that I could not introduce them to Pamella Bordes.

Pamella, the one-woman glamour end of the profession, gave a lot of people the wrong idea about the parliamentary bag-carrier. Few of us got to shred a national newspaper editor's entire wardrobe, I used to insist. Not many earned pounds 150,000 from selling their story to the press. Most of us were living proof that there were humbler life forms at Westminster even than the backbench MP.

We all wanted to be MPs ourselves, of course. We had read, approvingly, newspaper articles saying that modern politicians never had proper work, real life experience, before reaching the Commons. All they needed, allegedly, was a job as a researcher and a safe seat was theirs. We could handle that, we thought.

Unfortunately, however, Commons employment is increasingly proving an experience all too true to real life in John Major's Britain. Many of today's tyro politicians are shocked to discover that their prestigious new career combines the job security of a football manager with the take-home pay of a 19th century handloom weaver.

They are distressed to find that their working lives will be spent at a desk 20 feet below ground and about half a mile from the nearest source of natural light.

Health and safety regulations do not apply at the Houses of Parliament. 'They could probably still send children up chimneys here if they wanted to,' says one disillusioned wage slave.

Worst of all, they are learning that many at Westminster do think Pamella in some ways typical of their profession. Her ambition was undeniably greater than her qualifications for the job, these critics would say. She was unpaid, in it for the kudos. She was temporary, passing through on the way to somewhere better.

There are two schools of thought about Commons researchers. The first (from the crustier sort of Tory MP, most of the security staff and the Westminster authorities) is that they are a waste of space, fit only for persecution. Canteens are closed, corridors blocked to them. Even the House of Commons nurse is not supposed to treat them if they fall ill. The second view is that they are indispensable and appallingly under-valued, working long hours in dreadful conditions to help their employers build a better Britain.

Both camps are right. The Commons is full of unskilled students working for nothing. These are the people who ring the highly trained specialists of the members' library to ask what the top rate of income tax is. Their own research specialisms tend to centre on photocopiers, filing cabinets and coffee percolators. 'I am at a loss to know what they could possibly be, other than - if female - to accompany MPs to drinks parties,' says Max Madden MP, the founding chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party's committee on staff matters. Many are American, doing 'internships', or work experience, as part of their college courses back in the States.

The story is told of the Jewish MP asked by the internship programme's organisers if he had any special requirements. 'Yes,' he said. 'She must be blonde, female, and definitely not Jewish.' He got his wish.

The permanent salaried professional core of staff do, however, work hard - one minute writing a speech, the next being swept through the corridors in theoretical charge of a school sightseeing party from the constituency, desperately bullshitting as the piping voices ask what statue that is.

The range of bizarre demands on the pros' time has never been fully catalogued, but it includes: being sent out to count the traffic at the Whitehall lights for a 'scientific' pollution survey; combing an entire year's-worth of Hansard for a quote that does not exist; and listening to a whole afternoon's local radio, tape recorder poised, to add the 30-second snatch of the boss to the ego file. One Scottish MP's assistant sometimes had to post her employer's dirty smalls back to his wife for washing. When she objected, she was offered the chance to clean them herself.

But rewards for all this can be slight. The presence of the vast, shifting outer circle of volunteers makes things difficult. 'Because there is always someone else desperately keen to do your job for nothing, you haven't much leverage over your employer,' says Martyn Fryer, a former secretary of the Westminster researchers' trade union branch.

Twenty per cent of Labour MPs' researchers, according to their union, do not even have the contracts they are legally obliged to be given. This scandal has just been revealed as part of a fightback by the Westminster oppressed. They are also threatening to dish the dirt on MPs' alleged expense account fiddles and mistreatment of their staff at the newly convened cash-for-questions inquiry.

On pay, the offer advertised in the Guardian by Greville Janner MP - of pounds 100 for a two-month stint - may not be typical, but hundreds are on annual salaries of little more than pounds 10,000. 'Labour MPs have stood up for years calling for a 35-hour week with a pounds 3.50 minimum wage,' says Mr Fryer. 'I think perhaps 10 per cent of their staff actually work that.'

Dismissals can be brutal. 'One of the worst times was just after the election,' says Stephanie Ayres, chairman of the cross-party Secretaries and Assistants Council. 'New MPs took on lots of staff, then sacked them when they realised they could employ their families instead.' Others are cast out with no money for the three months of the long summer recess.

One of the most recent departures was Mr Fryer himself. Although he insists that an amicable settlement was reached with his Labour front-bench employer, former colleagues claim he was sacked for refusing to give up his trade union activities. 'He left his job in circumstances which it seemed to me should never have been allowed to happen,' says Mr Madden.

Mr Fryer's is the latest case of Westminster's perennial officer-material-in-the-ranks syndrome: perhaps the worst news of all for the wannabe MP. 'Researcherships can sometimes be a blind alley for the ambitious and talented,' says one long-standing Westminster staffer. 'Many are not suited to being subordinates; they're there because they want, eventually, to be the boss.'

(Photograph omitted)