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Sophie - Parliamentary clerk
Name: Sophie
PhD discipline: French
Area(s) of work: Parliament; civil service
Year of graduation: 2004
Date of Interview: 03/06/2008

Now Playing: Sophie - Parliamentary clerk
Sophie describes her work as a clerk in the House of Commons and how she came to be doing it.

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Now if we could talk a bit about your current role, what do you do? 

I'm a clerk in the House of Commons which is a bit of a funny job title but it's basically like being a civil servant. You are recruited through the Fast Stream and you work in the House of Commons but you don't work for any political party. You're a neutral person so you're just working for parliament and you're advising MPs on whatever it is they want to do. For example, if they're on a committee and they want to write a report, then you help them with that or if they want to put amendments down to a bill then you help them with that or whatever it might be. The House of Commons as a whole I think employs about a thousand people directly and within that there are about one hundred people who are clerks which is what I am. The clerk is an old fashioned term for basically a person who is like a civil servant in a government department so they're doing briefings, they're drafting amendments to bills, anything that members want to have happen that requires a certain amount of drafting skill and research skill, clerks would do that kind of thing. In addition to that, there are lots of support staff who are doing administrative things, there is a House of Commons library who are all subject specialists. Some of the committees employ subject specialists and quite a lot of them have PhDs and it can be a part of their academic career to come here. And obviously we're divided up into departments in the House of Commons so I'm just talking about my department but there are other departments; there's a refreshment department and there's a finance department and so on that we don't really have that much day to day contact with.

And on a day to day basis, can you give me an idea of exactly what your activities are?  What your responsibilities are?

Yeah, there are two kinds of jobs here. One is working for a select committee and one is a procedural job and at the moment I'm working for a select committee. So the select committee will chose a topic and run an enquiry into it and gather evidence and eventually write a report on what they think about it. So as the clerk of a committee I'm responsible for the team of people working for the select committee. I'm responsible for directing that team in order to reach the goal of running the enquiry speedily, getting all the research done, getting in other people that committee wants to talk to etc.

And so would you have, at one point, been working on a committee but not as the clerk?

Not as the clerk, exactly, yes. I've only been the clerk of a committee since October. I spent first two years working for a committee with a more senior clerk as the clerk of the team. Then for the next two years I worked in a procedural job which is the other half of the job that clerks do. It's more connected with the chamber and then you're not working in teams really, you're working on your own little bit, of whatever it might be.

What does that involve?

It's a wide range of things and they're all quite specialist. The one that I worked on was called the journal office and that is to do with preparing the written record of the decisions that are made by the House of Commons, it's not like Hansard so you're not writing down every single word that everyone says, it's just keeping the record of divisions and votes and what has been passed and what has been rejected and so forth. At the end of every day, we publish a sheet that says this is what the House decided today and I was responsible for doing part of that.

Was that an interesting job?

It is an interesting job and the thing about the job here is that we move within the House of Commons every two years. You don't necessarily get to decide where you're going to so you have to be a bit comfortable with that when you join, but if you are comfortable with that, it is very interesting because you move around a lot and you see lots of different subject areas and different sides to the House. If you're interested in politics, which I am, then it's a great place to work. I think you have to not be party political because you have to be neutral. If you were very party political then it wouldn't suit you very much because you'd be seeing everything through that lens but if it's just the fact that you have a general interest, which I think is what I do, then it's a great place to work.

So you're clerk of the committee and what kind of topics does the committee look at?

Well, the committee I work for at the moment is the Scottish Affairs Committee so we're supposed to look after the bits of Scotland that are not yet devolved to the Scottish Parliament, things like defence. We're doing an enquiry on new aircraft carriers that are going to be built on the Clyde shipyards and how the economic benefit could be maximised for the rest of Scotland and that kind of thing. We're also having a one off session with the people who are involved in the constitutional commission which is looking at whether more power should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament or not, so we'll be talking to them. What else? We recently finished quite a long enquiry into poverty in Scotland which is also a reserved matter because the Treasury deals with benefits and that kind of thing. Particularly with Scotland, because you're doing everything that is reserved it can be quite a wide ranging remit.

How long might you be working on a particular enquiry?

It varies, the longer ones can be a year or more. More normally I would say, maybe four five months. It's all interrupted by the parliamentary recesses as well because we have a long summer recess so it's a bit like university terms. For the most part nothing happens during the long summer recess so you have to try and finish things off before hand and then start new things afterwards. Obviously if there's an election at any point then everything stops because parliament is dissolved.

Does that mean that you go on holiday?

We do to an extent, I think people who have worked here for a long time will remember the days when the recess happened and everybody just disappeared and they were never seen again. That's not really the case anymore because we still get enquiries from the public and the press and so on, so we still have to be in touch and check emails and if anything comes up, we still have to be here but there is a lot less to do in the recesses. You do have the opportunity to go on a long holiday and it is a bit like university terms, you do have the opportunity to go away for a bit longer than you might in another job. The flipside of that is that you can't take any leave at all when the House is sitting and you have to be here all the time so that's a bit inflexible. You can't say 'I'd like to avoid the school holidays' and go off skiing because parliament's bound to be sitting at that time.

Can you give me an idea of what you do on a daily basis?

If we think about what I've done today, it's probably quite a typical day; I've written up some briefing material for the committee's session next week which is background material and the types of things they might want to ask questions on. I've got a meeting of a different committee that I also work for tomorrow so I've been speaking to members about that and they've had some questions about exactly what we're considering so I've been answering their queries, sending out papers for members to look at, our secretary does that but I check off everything to make sure that it's the right thing to send out.

And who are the members?

Members of Parliament, so in addition to the Scottish Affairs Committee, I also work for a committee called modernisation of the House of Commons which doesn't meet as often as some other committees, which is why I am doing it in addition to the other committee. It looks at things like sitting hours and whether they should be made more family friendly and that kind of thing. So the members on that can be quite high profile, Harriet Harman's the chair of that committee and we have people like Teresa May is on it and Simon Hughes is on it. Scottish Affairs is obviously Scottish members and they're not so well known down here but they're known in Scotland, Mohammad Sarwar is the chairman of that committee and you would normally as the clerk liaise more with the chairman than you would with the other members of your committee because the chairman is the one who is deciding the program subject to the agreement of the rest of them.

Do you have to do much travelling up to Scotland?

There is a fair amount of travelling. I think I've been four or five times since October which is probably quite a lot. I mean, it's because the members are keen to be seen in Scotland and not be remote, in a way, in Westminster. We are dealing with reserved issues but they're happening in Scotland so they want to do things in Scotland. So, for example, I said we were doing that enquiry into defence and they had a visit around the shipyard in Govan to see what was going on, so we do go up and down quite a bit.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that it's not a desk job because actually a lot of the days that I spend here are typing on the computer from quite early in the morning until quite late at night but it's flexible in the sense that you can do that at home; we have remote access so if you need to be at home for whatever reason and you're just drafting a report, or whatever it might be, then you can do that. And in terms of meetings, your committee will be meeting at least once, probably twice a week so you're over in the Palace in the meeting room for possibly two three hours at a stretch doing that. Committees normally go on visits a few times a year, abroad and within the UK. When I first started, I had a great time because the first visit I went to, they said, 'Oh you'll have a glamorous time, you can go to Slough to look at grammar schools.' Slough is one of the few places that still has grammar schools. But then, the following January, I got to go to California for a week, which was very nice in the cold January winter. I've been to Vancouver, Denmark, Germany. One of the things that we do, a strange part of our job, is that we get sent on loan to the various European institutions. For example, the Council of Europe to help out with the temporary sessions that they run for parliamentarians from all over Europe and there are various different jobs that you could be doing there. You start off by summarising people's speeches, bit like Hansard but not doing it verbatim, you're doing more of a summary. And then as you get a bit more experienced, you're a minute writer, writing the minutes of the meetings or handling questions; they have a question time like we have in parliament, they have a European-style question time so advising members on how to phrase their questions to make them on the subject matter that is allowed to be asked about and that kind of thing. And that's quite fun because it's always in Strasburg or Paris or there was one recently in Kazakhstan so you can get sent all over the world, not all the time but a good few times a year.

You said you work early mornings and late nights but is it, more or less, a nine to five job?

It's a ten to six job, which I think is quite common for London. You are expected to night duty as I think I mentioned earlier which involves being here for the late night sittings, a certain core number of staff have to be here all the time so we do that on a rota and so you would perhaps spend a night per week on duty. I'm on a Tuesday night at the moment, that's my night, so I'll spend the early part of Tuesday here in the office from ten til two thirty. Then the House starts sitting at two thirty so I'll go over to the Palace where there's a duty desk, that's a hot desk that people who are on duty that night use and I'll log into the computer over there and take some work with me and carry on until eleven.

And then you can go home?

And then you can go home.

And what is your working environment like? How would you describe it?

At the moment we have offices across the road from the House of Commons itself so it's just a standard office block pretty much. I'm lucky enough at the moment to have my own office but a lot of it is open plan so it's pretty much like anywhere else that you would work. Last year I worked in the Palace of Westminster itself which is a great place to work in that it's very atmospheric and you really feel that you're in the thick of it when you're there. On the other hand, it's not very modern so it's not really set up for computers and that kind of thing; you tend to get wires trailing all down the walls where they've tried to fit things round the corners but it's a great place to work and it's obviously not very far to get to everywhere that you might need to go on a day to day basis.

And what about the people in your environment?

The people are fantastic, one of the best things about working here is that all of the clerks tend to be people who have very odd interests, quite a few of them have done PhDs and you find people who in their spare time are writing books on bridges or the history of Newcastle or whatever it might be so, they're all very supportive and they're a great bunch of people to work with really.

Does that surprise you, that there are so many people with PhDs?

Not really and there are quite a lot of people who if they don't have PhDs, they have Masters or they've done some kind of further study. I don't know if this is anticipating what we're going to come onto later but when I first looked into doing this job I went to see my careers advisor and said I have quite academic research interests but I'm also more interested in current affairs and I'd like to try and combine those two. The idea I'd come with was working for a think tank or something and she suggested this as a job that combines the academic style because there is a lot of research and preparation of briefing and written material with the more political environment.

What are the things that you enjoy most about your job?

Well I do enjoy the drafting part of it because I quite like putting an argument together and marshalling all the bits of evidence we've heard and coming up with a conclusion at the end of it. Although you still get the essay crisis mentality when you've got to do it by a certain deadline, it's actually quite satisfying to do that. The other thing that I enjoy is the fact that the committee can basically call anyone they want to come and give evidence to them so, when I started on the education committee and we were doing enquiries into secondary schooling and they'd just say, 'Oh we need evidence on the best, are grammar schools better than comprehensives? Let's just call all these academics in.' We call all these people in and they all turn up because it's the House of Commons. We have the ability to get the world's expert at the drop of a hat.

Do you get these people in?

Yes but they're usually very willing. It's very rare that they don't want to do it.

What other kind of research might you be doing? Do you consult any source material?

We do, it's not really academic source material, it would be things like, government green papers, white papers, reports in the sense of, if there's been an independent commission set up to look at something and they report on it, that kind of material. Some is academic, we are influenced by academic opinion so in the example of secondary schools there was academic research done on whether people in the grammar school performed better or people in comprehensives and the way that we access that is by getting the relevant academic to come and tell us about it; we wouldn't really trawl through their research papers. Everything is organised around what we call oral evidence sessions where we get the person in and ask them questions and it's all recorded and we have a short-hand writer who takes a complete record of it and we get transcriptions at the end. That's how we're taking evidence mainly.

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