This guide links in with our ‘How to survive your first 10 days in the constituency office‘ so, if you skipped that one, do go and have a read through it now’. Both guides were written by an experienced caseworker and constituency office manager who, like you, was once upon a time wondering what had hit him!
He survived….and so will you.
- So what exactly is casework for an MP?
- How to tackle the individual issues
- Recording of your work
- If you can get the answer by telephone, do so!
- Do work closely with your local agencies and organisations
- Commons Library’s Constituency Casework Toolkit
- And finally – an example of what works!
Casework for a Member of Parliament can be tremendously fraught, mind numbingly complex and very tiring. At the same time it can be hugely rewarding. We are entrusted by MPs to deal with people’s lives and their personal circumstances can be harrowing at times. I would argue that pursuing individual casework is one of the most important roles a Member of Parliament will play.
If, as Parliamentary Caseworkers, we can help and assist those often unable to help themselves, for whatever reason, we can genuinely go home knowing we’ve made a difference in our work.
I hope this simple, not often rocket science guide, based upon many years experience of helping and giving advice will help you do your job better.
A very good question, and one I asked myself somewhat despairingly when in 2003 I inherited a five inch pile thick of casework I had no idea where to start with in my first job working for a Member of Parliament. My in tray included cases for constituents on the Child Support Agency, asylum and immigration, housing problems, social security benefits enquiries, problems with NHS appointments, alleged child abuse, anti social behaviour of neighbours – the list is endless.
In a flippant sense you feel at times like a glorified social worker or welfare rights adviser. Members of the public, when they can’t fathom out for example the labyrinthine system of social security, will come to their MP often at their wits end, wanting help. It maybe that a Job Seekers Allowance claim has been delayed, housing benefit hasn’t been paid for a week, or someone’s council tax bill appears wrong.
It’s our job as a parliamentary caseworker to help constituents ensure, for example if it’s a benefit claim, that the Department of Work and Pensions have given a correct assessment, or find out why the claim has been delayed. If someone has a housing problem and needs re-housing, we need to contact the local authority and to get expert advice.
The important thing to note is we ourselves don’t always have to resolve the problem. Our job is to probe, and find out the relevant organisation that can help resolve the issues.
You will receive the information on the problems an individual has either at your Member’s surgery or in a letter sent by post, via email or by telephone or during a visit to your office.
The most important thing you will need to start off with is a written statement signed by the constituent, confirming what the problem is, what they want the MP to do to help, and an authority given for the MP to make representations on behalf of the constituent. Whilst not legally required for data protection purposes, it is good practice and may save you a lot of time if external agencies ask you to provide proof of authority to act. See our page on Standard letters and forms here. The written statement does not have to be long, but provided the features above are covered, you can start work on behalf of the constituent, and send a copy of the letter the constituent has supplied to the relevant authority, together with a covering letter from the Member of Parliament.
For individuals who have asylum and immigration issues, it is very important to have their Home Office reference, if it is available, and for those with social security issues, the National Insurance number will be required. Again, see our page on Standard letters and forms for helpful templates here.
If you are dealing with the local authority on housing benefit and council tax enquiries, try and make sure you have any relevant reference details.
Do make use of the dedicated MP hotlines for a lot of government agencies (CSA, Immigration, Tax Credits etc) – they are imperative for generating speedy responses – our current hotlines list is here.
Many constituencies have high volumes of immigration and asylum casework. Have a look at these Commons Library briefings and guides, which you will find invaluable:
Constituency casework: asylum, immigration and nationality: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn03186/
Dealing with immigration casework: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/dealing-with-immigration-casework/
Immigration appeal rights: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/immigration-appeal-rights/
Nationality and passports: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/nationality-and-passports/
There are some excellent casework management software packages available for you and we already have a guide listing the most popular ones here: https://w4mp.org/library/guides/casework-guides/planning-and-management/case-management-software-information/ The information changes from time to time so check out that you are getting the most up to date version. In our guide you will find a Commons number to call for any enquiries you may have.
Whilst they may take a bit of time to get used to, these packages will provide a comprehensive system for recording all the actions taken on the whole load of casework. Whatever system you are using do ensure that every topic or subject the constituent raises is recorded against their name. This can be really important when you are required to provide statistics on types of cases dealt with.
Often, if you have the constituent’s written authority, it is possible on the more straightforward cases to get the answers you require by telephoning the local social security office or local authority.
You can then write back to the constituent with the answer and if that is the end of the matter, the case is then closed.
You will find that you increasingly don’t have the time each week to do everything you need to, as the amount of individual casework can be high, and it is quite often very complex. The more cases you can clear quickly by a telephone call, saves lots of paper work in the long run!
It is really important to establish good relations with the local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and any other local welfare rights organisations. They may want to refer individual cases to the MP, as well as highlight more general social welfare policy issues. They in turn can often assist you, too, working in the MPs office; they do have good knowledge on a wide range of benefit matters.
It is worth its weight in gold in the first week of your job to go and meet your local Benefits Manager at the nearest Jobcentreplus office. You will be able to find out how the MP’s office can contact them quickly and efficiently. You will have a lot of contact with the local Benefits Manager – so build up good working relations quickly. Also ask them to supply details of different local contacts for benefit enquiries – processing of benefits (not covered by the dedicated MP Hotlines above).
Just because you are based in the constituency doesn’t mean that the Commons Library is out of bounds to you. The Library has put together a truly wonderful resource JUST FOR YOU on ParliNet. Stacks of useful stuff here, including Casework guides and pointers to where constituents can find legal help, as well as data on subjects such as unemployment, population and crime in your local area or constituency. Also a useful section entitled ‘Casework in context’.
It is impossible to resolve every single bit of casework that crosses your desk. MPs are not above the law and are subject to it in the same way that you and I are. This though is an example of what can happen and one that I recite to students who come into the MPs office which I manage.
In 2005 a gentlemen came into the office; he demanded an appointment immediately and proudly announced he would never vote for the political party my Member represents (good start). He went on to outline how he had been made redundant and his last employer had reneged on a pension agreement, so he was out of pocket by £14,000. I took all of his documents and over the next two months exchanged a series of polite letters with the relevant Ombudsman about the constituent’s predicament.
To cut a very long story short, because of the MPs intervention the constituent got his £14,000 back in full. He was so pleased (naturally), that he decided to write a letter to the local newspaper saying how brilliant the MP had been in intervening, and urging everyone to vote for him in future.
Doesn’t always work out like this, but does illustrate what can be done! Moral: it pays to be persistent.
Your work will be a challenge, but do persevere. Of all the work that an MP undertakes, it will be your casework which can make the most difference.
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