An influential cross-party group of MPs is lobbying for a major overhaul of employment practices in the House of Commons, reflecting a growing perception that some members’ employees are being exploited.

The MPs plan to ask for a personnel department as soon as a select committee starts discussing changes to the pay system for their assistants and secretaries.

Assistants, who are based in Parliament, and secretaries, who work at the constituencies, are currently paid from MPs’ own income. This system, which leads to some assistants being paid less than £6,000 a year for a full-time job of research and administrative work, has been accused of being unfair and exploitative.

The lobbying group, led by Clive Soley, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, says that assistants and secretaries should be remunerated in the same way as MPs – directly from state funds. And it is calling for the establishment of a select committee to set universal pay levels for members’ staff.

A number of MPs believe that the new pay structure will need an HR department to administer it. They have suggested that personnel professionals could also help them to recruit staff, give advice on salaries, make sure secretaries and assistants have proper contracts of employment and monitor MPs to ensure that good employment practice is followed.

In recent years, several politicians have faced employment tribunals after being accused of bullying or of unfairly dismissing their staff. They include Frank Cook, the Labour MP who faced a storm of protest from House of Commons staff after dismissing his research assistant without warning in 1998.

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, wants a personnel department that will drag Parliament away from its 19th-century traditions, by introducing career development and training courses not only for assistants, but for MPs as well.

“One of the things that MPs suffer from is a lack of continuing development. We all work in an isolated way, and there would be more support if management were more businesslike,” Campbell told People Management.

Personnel issues have been brought to the fore by a number of recent incidents, she said. These included pressure on the government from backbenchers to impose office hours on the House of Commons, calls for better creche facilities, and the furore that resulted when Betty Boothroyd, the speaker, banned an MP from breastfeeding while in committee.

Soley sees the creation of a personnel department as only one of a number of options. Others include extending the Parliamentary fees office, which would then administer the new pay structure, or contracting the job out to a private company.

Campbell had already raised the idea of a personnel department with Nick Brown, the government’s former chief whip. “He was fairly warm to the idea, but felt that there was quite a lot of work going on in that direction anyway,” she said.

Helen Jackson, a Labour member of the Commons modernisation committee, which is reviewing working hours, said that training MPs was the responsibility of the political parties, and an HR department should be responsible only for employees of Parliament such as the sergeant at arms. Her party, she said, already provided a “great deal” of training and monitoring of MPs’ progress.

But Campbell believes there are HR functions that cut across parties, including computer training, using the library, office management, time management and controlling budgets.

Campbell said that there was some cross-party training provided by administrative departments in Parliament, but it was “bitty and ad hoc”. The only training she had received from the Labour Party had been “limited to the time when I was a candidate”.

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat shadow leader of the house, said he was strongly in favour of a personnel department for Parliament and that the current arrangements were “a mess”.

“In what the Conservatives would regard as ‘the good old days’, Parliament was a gentlemen’s club. They’d have a social secretary to look after their personal affairs,” Tyler said. “Now we have an extremely hard-pressed job specification, and a lot of that gets dumped on to our staff.”

He said that the murder in January of Andrew Pennington, assistant to Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones, had highlighted the need for members and their staff to be trained in how to deal with violent constituents. He said that MPs also needed training in good employment practice.

Campbell said that any personnel department would need several members of staff, including a director, because it would be managing 650 MPs and all their assistants.

But Soley warned that while many MPs recognised that training would help them to do their jobs better, some still felt strongly that they were in Parliament to speak for their constituents and did not want to be “corralled into a pre-assumed structure”.

Jenny Holland, T&G branch secretary representing assistants in Parliament, said the union had been lobbying its MP members to push for the establishment of a personnel department to administer assistants’ pay and provide training.

The current system was “reliant on the goodwill of people who have a belief in the job and a belief in politics”, Holland said.

The T&G is also calling for the abandonment of the “office cost allowance”. This is a payment made to each MP of just over £50,000 a year, from which they must pay two full-time or several part-time assistants and secretaries, buy office equipment and fund the rent and upkeep of the constituency office.

A recent survey by the T&G of assistants’ pay pro rata based on a 35-hour week showed huge variations. Most assistants received between £12,000 and £21,000, 15 per cent got less than £12,000 and almost 2 per cent were paid less than £6,000.

Holland said that, with no contracts, no pay scales and no clear guidelines for employment, staff assistants were vulnerable to exploitation. Also, the inadequacy of the office cost allowance meant there was excessive use of volunteers.

Europe takes a lead
Muscle from Brussels
The European Parliament, which already has a personnel department, is also tightening up is rules on working conditions for employees.

From January next year, members of the European Parliament will be required to provide proof that each secretary and assistant has an employment contract, together with insurance for health and social security.

The move follows pressure from assistants and some MEPs to ensure adherence to the existing rule that every assistant should have a contract.

MEPs are allowed to choose their staff, but workers are paid directly by the parliament. MEPs can spend up to £76,000 a year on staff. Most have about three workers each.