Head of Front of House, House of Commons Library, and member of the General Election Planning Group
After the last election, there were 182 new Members of Parliament, all of whom needed to get to Westminster, be inducted, receive their pass, sign up for their pay and expenses, and pick up their IT; and all of this needed to take place within a few hours of them arriving at Westminster. On top of this all new Members were to be given a ‘buddy’ from the House staff, as we knew from interviews with Members that the first few days in Westminster are really difficult; it takes time for Members to be allocated their offices and appoint their staff but nonetheless they are expected to get on with their new job almost as soon as they arrive.
We already had a good idea that a system of buddies would work as it have been used successfully – though on a smaller scale – after the last National Assembly for Wales elections. Although there were some misgivings about using the word ‘buddy’, ultimately none of the other possible names – mentor, adviser, guide – really summed up what we were trying to do; which was to give new MPs someone from the House staff who would take the pressure off during their first few days in the job, who would help them find their feet and most importantly, start work on behalf of their new constituents as soon as they could. And, also, the Member’s ‘buddy’ had to be in front of the Member when they arrived, so there would be no waiting around.
I worked on the coordinating group that was given the task of making this work. We decided early on that buddies would be drawn from across the House service, from all grades and all directorates; that we would not pre-assign buddies but provide a taxi-rank of buddies that would meet the next Member through the door (pre-assigning would be too complicated given the uncertainty over the time Members might turn up); and that we would call all Members over the weekend after the election so we could find out their travel plans and be prepared.
Overall we recruited 120 buddies, and subjected them to a rigorous training programme. Everyone involved was keen (they were all volunteers and did it for no extra pay) but many of them were not that aware of what people in other part of the organisation did. So we set up sessions for them covering all aspects of the House’s business and work; we gave them a ‘getting off to a good start’ training course and tours of the building and areas where, normally, Members only can go. There was a big launch event with Members speaking and a clear focus on customer service, led by Martin Phillips, the head of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew who, again, gave his services for free.
The first floor of one of our main buildings – Portcullis House – was given over to a reception area for new Members. Here they would do all the things they needed to do to get set up for work, as well as meet their buddy. We didn’t have enough volunteers for every buddy to have only one Member, but each buddy expected to have two Members each and we hoped the timing of their arrival would make this reasonably straightforward. So, to determine this, once the election was over and we knew we had 182 new Members to induct, we started calling our new Members.
Most were exhausted having had little or no sleep for weeks; many had not expected to be MPs and now had to get themselves down to Westminster as quickly as they could; and all were grateful for the help we could supply and the travel bookings we were able to make. However, the main benefit of calling each Member was that it quickly became clear that they were all planning to come down to Westminster early on the Monday morning. Buddies were called in as early as possible, but as Members started arriving just after 7.30 we had several moments when we thought we weren’t going to have enough buddies. Luckily, despite at times being down to our last couple of buddies, more and more arrived as the morning went on and we were able to ensure that every Member had a buddy in front of them when they arrived. There was no time to breathe as each Member went off to get signed up with IPSA (pay and expenses), to get their pass and IT, and register with the Travel Office, before getting their locker keys and tour of the building, but by mid-afternoon most MPs had arrived and been inducted. The final few came on Tuesday and the very last one on Wednesday.
We also set up an induction day for New Members, starting with a briefing in the Chamber on Wednesday morning, followed by a ‘new Member’ photograph and induction sessions on setting up an office and complying with expected standards of behaviour. Members’ buddies had a vital in making sure that all Members knew about these sessions and help their Members find their way to the events. Members do not get offices when they first arrive because these are allocated not by the House but by each Party, so we were supporting people having, in effect, to handle all the workload of being an MP while needing to hot-desk for the first few weeks.
Even though all MPs were inducted by the Wednesday, our buddies found their training to be worthwhile, as they have received a variety of requests from Members since. One extremely popular request was for help with their maiden speeches. The Commons Library (where I am Head of Front of House) drafted 182 emails giving links to each MP’s most recent three predecessors; links to statistics and profiles about their constituency; and various other pieces of information that MPs would want to use for their speech. We managed to do this by the beginning of the week after their induction, in plenty of time for the Queen’s Speech on 27 May when they could start making their maiden speeches.
Also in the Library we have spent the past few weeks giving tours to Members and introducing them to our service, and have started receiving their requests for research or information. (The Library service as a whole received 30,000 enquiries in the year before the election, all of which received a confidential reply.) We received requests for new newspapers (the National, Scotland’s new national – and nationalist – newspaper, – is now in our stock); and all the evidence points to a similarly busy year as new Members settle down, start working at full speed, and, more importantly, use the services they were introduced to in their first week.
The key point of course of any service is that it meets the needs of the customer. In this case we received considerable amount of positive feedback from Members, many of whom took to the press or social media to comment on their induction. Despite the hard work we honestly feel that the efforts of the past year were worthwhile, as they have enabled Members to get up and running in their new roles more quickly than ever before.
Refer 31 (2) Summer 2015