Of late, there is much talk of work experience - what makes it experience, how can people do more of it, is it slavery, oh all kinds of questions that for something, back in my day used to be quite simple. A few months before the highly anticipated 'work experience week' which, however dire, had to be better than a week of lessons, you'd fill in a form expressing preferences as to what areas of the work world you might be interested in, then hope for the best and forget about it until closer to the time. I got lucky once and had a fantastic placement, and on another occasion remember sitting in a post room for a week not being allowed to actually do anything. Them's the breaks, even then back when it didn't require either an independent income or DWP imposed sanctions to be able to carry out work experience.
So, when the idea was suggested that I might like to do work experience in the Deputy Speaker's Office I was quite excited and hopeful of more than just a post room holiday. It took everyone involved a few months to set up, in between available dates, illness and wondering just how to fund the whole thing, but eventually we settled on early March, hoping the weather and therefore my symptoms would be a bit better. The weather lived up to traditional British expectations and was f r e e z i n g, but apart from that the week was fantastic, exhausting and exciting.
Being based in the north west I couldn't take up the opportunity of an internship without being able to fund accomodation - which meant for a few days work experience I needed to raise well over £500 to cope with London prices. Fortunately I was able to find a charity to help, so I only needed to cover the costs of transport and food - having several months lead in time meant I could save up for the ticket and food wasn't too terribly expensive as lunch was provided for us each day. Without the charity support I wouldn't have been able to do any of this, and despite asking around charities and work programme providers about funding to do work experience no-one could think of any, so this fantastic opportunity simply isn't open to sick or disabled people who live outside easy commuting distance of Westminster, unless they have independent wealth.
The experience, or mini internship as it was properly titled, was organised for us by DWP Ministers, and a timetable was set out from 10 am until 4pm each day as one of the participants might have fretted a bit about where nap times fitted in to the whole thing. As it turned out, unsurprisingly, naptimes did not fit with the programme, but 10 - 4 was just about sort of manageable, although there were consequences as a result. And I do apologise to the hard working House of Commons cleaner's for the various sticky patches of oramorph residue I left about the place...and the multiple doorways that didn't move when I asked them nicely to. Oh, and the really expensive automatic door that erm, needed fixing after I tried to open it. However, having learnt my lesson about liquids and Westminster, I oh so carefully refused to actually drink anything in the receptions they went to as I've noticed it stresses the domesitc staff out quite a bit when said liquids get flung everywhere. There was a definite, don't worry about dropping stuff, attitude from the political staff though.
Our first morning was so cold, so, so cold that I was visibly vibrating when I arrived at security to be greeted by a broken wheelchair doorway. I suspect the looking like I was going to fall off my scooter helped them rush me in, but the automatic doors refused to co-operate and one nice security man had to fight his way into the bit I was stuck in and wrench the doors apart. On a side note, it is potentially concerning when the security guards remember you between visits that are some months apart. However, this set the tone for the whole 3 days, I'd arrive, we'd all celebrate the wheelchair doorway being fixed, scratch our heads then wait for the nice man to come along and use brute force to open them.
Access at Westminster is an interesting business - generally speaking I think it is quite good, using a base line level of 'is there any access, and can you get to where you want?' however it does involve lots of longer routes, going outside, having to observe from separate areas, and much more time allowed to get anywhere. The teeny tiny lifts won't all fit even a small wheelchair or scooter, and it was sad to see the empty stools in them where just a few weeks ago men had full time paid employment. We only got lost a few times, and one particular 'where are we' moment came with a flurry of black tie'd waiters who let us pinch canapes off their plates.
I noticed that not many people in Westminster notice the real people who work there - the cleaners, the security guards, the waiting staff, everyone who is actually important in terms of keeping the place going is invisible to those who think they are important in keeping the place going. I was really saddened to learn that senior management staff are getting a pay rise of between 4-5% but the important, front line staff are getting the same 1% as other public sector workers, with a side order of re-negotiated contracts to reduce their employment and pension rights. No wonder they are planning to strike. It was also depressing, but unsurprising to learn that the chief clerk of the House of Commons is given a grace and favour mansion as part of his job, not like for example the Speaker's residence which is used frequently to host events, the clerk can do that if they wish, but doesn't really. However, to compensate the clerk for the sheer inconvenience of having to live in a grace and favour mansion worth millions, he is given 7% of the value of the grace and favour property in addition to his salary. This is all information in the public domain but as the chief clerk isn't a political position the media don't seem to care. I bet all the cold, homeless people would care if they knew though, the hard working Common's staff watching their management give themselves payrises certainly cared!
From the perspective of disability and access, I think its safe to say the Deputy Speaker and his team learnt more than their interns. We were looked after by the very lovely Alex, who like most young, ambitious Westminster staffers hadn't much in the way of prior disability experience, so, sensibly he'd phoned up the Diversity Office to ask for some advice before we arrived. They, not terribly helpfully managed to drum into him that he must not, under any circumstances EVER ask 'what was wrong' but merely ask 'what was needed'. Its the kind of social model advice that seems a great idea until reality crashes in and irritatingly reminds people that generally just a little bit more information than that is required. This meant I didn't realise until we were leaving on the final day that Alex hadn't a clue what was going on when I went a funny colour, muttered about needing morphine or went off to the loo to relocate another joint hoping the screaming was muffled by the thick Westminster walls.
The other intern was a young man with profound deafness, so we made quite the group as we went about - Paul needed two full time British Sign Language interpreters with him at all times, sometimes there were three, then there was me on the scooter and poor Alex trying not to lose or break any of us. This mostly succeeded until the final afternoon when for some reason the scooter tipped, I put a foot out to stop it falling, insisted I was fine, then two minutes later said that actually immediate access to a toilet and some morphine would be helpful. Now. Please.
The most important messages I got from this work experience were;
I'd like to go back and stay there forever. My body however was not so enthusiastic about this ambition and demanded copious amounts of opiates and three days before I could get out of bed and speak without slurring.
Westminster is a bubble. We all know that, but from the inside the bubble of priviledge is far more insulating than the outside could ever imagine. It's really no wonder that they are all utterly disconnected from reality, regardless of which party they belong to.
Its not just the work programmes the DWP have 'forgotten' to inform about minor details such as Access to Work. They haven't told other departments about it either, so no-one had any idea when setting this up where they could ask for advice, any access requirements or fund them.
In that bubble, if people insist they want things to happen, they happen. Its like magic to the important people...all those underpaid Common's house elves just wave a wand when the important's aren't there and Dobby style, their will be done. Its really no wonder that we have a political class who are utterly ignorant of the real world when they get a lesson in 'thy will be done Westminster style' without the reminder that the rest of the country simply doesn't work that way.
Politicians are really, really keen to get more disabled people to become MP's. Really keen. So much so they don't actually listen to what disabled people are saying the barriers actually are.
The key take home message I left with was that if I want to be an MP there are no barriers, there will be no glass ceiling, and whatever is needed in access terms would be done. It was actually really powerful to hear that message from the Deputy Speaker, and I won't forget what he said. But sadly, I think there's a long way to go before those same politicians understand that for many of us, all the access or equipment in the world cannot overcome the barriers our bodies present to working in terms of sickness, pain and fatigue. However, the more of us who spend time with politicians, the more likely they are to understand this.
My favourite fact about the House of Commons turned out to be toilet related...which won't shock any long time blog readers, but is also a weird little access feature, historical style. If you've ever wondered while watching PMQ's why the Speaker's chair has a roof on it, its because once upon a time it was also a toilet. The Speaker wasn't allowed to leave the House while it was sitting, so before there were Deputy Speaker's there was a curtain around the chair which the Speaker would pull shut, do his business, then open back up and carry on. Bringing that back would really liven up PMQ's!