Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
The Quebec Tea Rooms, Quebec, Co. Durham
Every MP’s office has them – numbering from a few dozen to a couple of hundred: they are ‘the regulars.’ Mrs B is one of them. In the 20 months or so since I’ve been elected, she’s been in contact more than 20 times. However, despite her regular emails about a diverse range of issues, both local and national, we’ve never actually met – until now.
She is one of four local people who pop down to the Quebec Tearooms for a chat. The “QT” as the locals call it is a lovely café and gift shop in the middle of a terrace in one of the hamlets that dot the Wear Valley, the central rural band of villages that separate the town of Consett in the north of my constituency, from the smaller towns of Crook and Willington in the south. Today, the QT is the 23rd stop out of 60 or so on my two-week summer surgery constituency tour.
Interacting by email, letter, or even telephone and zoom feels impersonal and remote. Sitting with someone in the flesh is different. It takes the edge off, and those small elements that remind both constituent and MP that the other person is human. The last few days have re-enforced to me just how important those chats and conversations in person are.
Last week also saw Kwasi Kwarteng visit The Grey Horse pub and the Consett Ale Works brewery attached to it in Consett. For constituencies ‘out of the way’ like mine – a four and a half drive from Westminster on a clear run – these visits by Ministers really cut through. If you feel that for decades you’ve been ‘ignored’, and then having someone visit, talk to you, and listen, it really makes a difference. They also show that your MP can get a hearing at the top table in Westminster.
For 2019 intake MPs, being in Parliament itself has been a bizarre experience. Those chats with ministers in corridors, the Commons tearoom, or the voting lobby have been far fewer. The place has been a shadow of the parliaments that those elected in previous years have known. Without a doubt that has not helped the collegiate interaction which makes you feel part of a team with a common goal.
Much less commented on has been the fact that the coronavirus restrictions have also reduced the presence of staff in Parliament. I didn’t meet my office manager in person for four months after their appointment, and not being in the same place as your team means things take longer, and you don’t develop that almost sixth sense of understanding and interaction that oils the wheels of any office.
Moreover, the relationships built up between staff from different MPs offices – where they share tips, information, and knowledge – have also been curtailed. The ebb and flow of conversation does not happen via a relatively formalised setting on zoom as it does in the lunch que or while sharing a coffee or a pint.
The return of Parliament in September will remove much of this sub-optimal working. I hope that other workplaces follow suit too, because one thing is clear from Covid: presence matters. While experienced staff can usually work quite well from distance – fulfilling tasks that have been performed before and managing clear objectives and workloads – that’s often not the same for people starting out. Learning and development for young staff best takes place when they’re cheek-by-jowl with more senior members of the team.
With so many people likely to be changing jobs too – given that the pandemic has turbo-charged long-standing economic trends away from certain sectors – being in the ‘new job’, with all the pressures and differences that entails, presence will matter too. Parliament has finally given a clear signal of its direction of travel. Government and the civil service should do the same and expect business to follow.
If not, we’ll all be poorer, but the impact will be felt most by those who’ve already been impacted most by the Covid-19 restrictions – those just starting out. Rather than retreat to the comfort and convenience of video calls from spare bedrooms in nice houses, the senior managers from our civil services to our businesses need to give get back to the workplace. The next generation need to be able to learn as much as possible from the experience of others and that’s done best when they’re in the same room.