Areeq Chowdhury explains why we need robust data to tackle inequalities amongst the hundreds of staff who work within the offices of MPs and Peers

With a century passing since the first women in the UK were granted the vote, the fight for equal representation has been at the forefront of our politics this year. Despite huge advances, Parliament is still found lacking when it comes to representation cutting across gender, class, ethnicity, and disability. This is clear for us to see on the front and backbenches whenever MPs crowd into the debating chamber. But what is the make-up of the advisors, researchers, and assistants walking with them along the corridors of power and up the career ladder of politics?

With recent allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, the need for proper HR structures in Parliament has been under the spotlight. A typical organisation which employs hundreds of staff would have an HR department in place, but not Parliament. Even though expenses to cover staff costs are provided centrally to each MP, the offices themselves are essentially treated as individual entities. Whilst this is problematic for developing a robust avenue for reporting problems in the workplace, it is also problematic for other functions such as the collation of equal opportunity data.

Under the 2010 Equality Act, public bodies are required to advance the equality of opportunity. As a result, major employers such as the Civil Service and the NHS publish data and strategy documents on how they are tackling discrimination and promoting equality. Whilst the House of Commons publishes equal opportunities data for staff in departments such as finance and IT, there is no data for the hundreds of staff who work within the offices of MPs and Peers.

This is important. Whilst our elected representatives, rightly, wax lyrical about gender pay gaps and diversity in the workplace, there is zero transparency over their own employment practices. This hypocrisy shouldn’t continue, and there is a simple fix. Collect, collate, and publish the data.

I briefly worked for an MP during the last Parliament and, having been rejected from dozens of other MPs offices, I felt very privileged to do so. But I was approached for the role and it was not one which was advertised and that I applied to. On accepting the role, I was surprised, or, if I’m honest, unsurprised, to learn that the collection of equal opportunity data simply wasn’t a thing in MPs offices.

If we had this data, what would it tell us? It would show us whether or not there is a gender pay gap. It would highlight the proportion of staff who identify as ethnic minorities or LGBT. It would indicate whether or not there are barriers to entry for those with disabilities. It would map out how much progress has been made over the years towards advancing the equality of opportunity. These are all important factors when we consider that Parliament is the most prominent public institution and when many of those staff members go on to be future MPs themselves. Given the shortcomings in representation on the benches of the Commons Chamber itself, would it be shocking if the back offices were equally unrepresentative?

The counter-argument may be that as MPs’ offices are quite small, the collection and publication of this data could affect the anonymity of the respondents. This is, however, a fairly easy problem to work around. It could be done in two ways. First, upon applying for a security pass, a separate equal opportunities form could be completed. Second, an anonymised survey could be sent around to all MPs offices, encouraging staff to complete it. If these methods aren’t acceptable, it surely isn’t beyond our capabilities to design a third way.

When we look at the BBC; the Civil Service; the NHS; the Police; or the Army, we hold reasonable expectations that these publicly funded bodies provide some transparency over their recruitment practices. With rich data, we can identify gaps and target recruitment campaigns towards underrepresented groups. Why do we not have the same approach with the offices of our lawmakers in Parliament?

Diversity and representation matter – we must be able to measure it. If politicians are to speak or lecture others about closing pay gaps and increasing access to opportunities, shouldn’t they lead by example and sort their own House out first?

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Areeq Chowdhury is the founder and chief executive of the digital democracy think tank, WebRoots Democracy. He tweets at @AreeqChowdhury.


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