Redditch MP lifts the lid on life in Parliament

By Ian Dipple Friday 04 January 2013 Updated: 04/01 08:57

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Buy photos » Karen makes her way through the House of Commons to another meeting. (s)

IT IS more than two and a half years since Karen Lumley ousted former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to become Redditch MP and since then her life has been transformed.

There have been EU rebellions, a double dip recession and lunch with The Queen along the way.

But if the stresses and strains of being an MP of the party in government or having your life divided into a series of 45 minute or hourly segments is getting to her, then she shows no sign.

"The only thing we mustn’t lose track of, any of us, is we are really lucky. There’s only 650 of us and there’s not many in the country would ever get the opportunity to do a job like this and it is incredibly difficult, and incredibly frustrating at times but it is amazing to think you have got the opportunity to do all this," Karen tells me as we sit in her modest office in the former Scotland Yard building just a short walk away from the Houses of Parliament about to begin another working day.

I have joined the Redditch MP to get an insight in to what the role entails and to see if taxpayers are getting value for their £65,000 a year. It is a Monday, which is different from the rest of the Parliamentary week as business does not start until 11am to allow people to return from their constituencies at the weekend.

For Karen the late start is a fair compromise for a day that will not end until 11pm when she finally gets back to her London flat after a day of meetings, committees and votes.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are a little better, ending at 7pm, but in reality it never stops. There are always emails to go through and letters to sign and each one will be personally read by Karen before being passed on to either her two staff in London or two person team in Redditch to deal with.

"I love it, it’s not a job it’s a way of life," she informs me enthusiastically.

"I have never worked harder in my entire life, even bringing up two children. Every day is different and I get to meet fabulous people and I get to help people, which is the best part of the job and I can actually achieve something."

The day starts by going through her mountain of correspondence which includes up to 200 emails and two giant bags of post. Decisions have to be made about which invitations to certain events she will attend, which campaigns to support, meetings to set-up and casework needs to be allocated.

She also needs to get up to speed on the issues she will be grappling with that day in her role on the Transport Select Committee.

"I don’t come in the office very often, an hour a day if I am lucky, most of the time I am out meeting people and on committees or going in the chamber and it is never ending, it’s like being a little hamster on a wheel," she jokes.

"Fridays is always massively busy and Saturdays I try to work in the morning and have the afternoon off with my family and I refuse to do anything apart from Remembrance Sunday and Christmas Lunch on a Sunday as it’s important I spend time with my own husband and occasionally my own kids."

As I look through her diary for the day I note there is no time spent in the Chamber of the House of Commons which is where most people would expect to find their MP.

"I don’t spend a great deal of time in the chamber to be honest," she said.

"I do a lot more in Westminster Hall because you can choose the debate yourself. I have had two or three this year and it’s your opportunity to put your case forward, put my constituents' views on the record and the minister has to come and answer. That’s as important as being in the chamber.

"I have got my ways of influencing policy. London Midland is a prime example, I asked for a meeting with the Transport Secretary, got one within 24 hours and made sure he was fully aware of what was going on and I won’t be leaving it alone and that’s a way MPs have of getting in to people. People write letters to me all the time and I send off to get answers.

"And at 7pm and 10pm when you get in that lobby (to vote), you are all in there together and the ministers are standing around without their civil servants and it is your chance to get in there and let them know what is going on and that’s how I influence things.

"Whenever I see the health minister I am always asking him 'What’s happening with the Alexandra Hospital?' It’s a key priority of mine and I hope it is top of his agenda too."

The first appointment of the day is a Parliamentary reception for the charity Whizz-Kidz, which Karen first got involved with after meeting some of the young people it has helped at party conference two years ago.

The charity is celebrating providing 2,000 wheelchairs in one year to disabled young people across the country, including 19 from Redditch. It also runs a kids club in Birmingham where the charity’s young ambassadors regularly meet to play games, make friends and take part in skills workshops.

Although it is only a brief appearance of about half an hour, Karen spends time meeting three of the young people helped by the charity, talking about anything from their life ambitions to the final of the X Factor.

Rhiannon Hughes, public affairs and PR officer for Whizz-Kidz, said the support of MPs was important in helping raise awareness of the charity’s work.

"Karen has been an enthusiastic champion of Whizz-Kidz since becoming an MP and we’re grateful for all that she does to back Whizz-Kidz in Redditch and in Parliament."

Then we are off dashing across Parliament again to Portcullis House, the public entrance to the House of Commons, for another meeting. When I enquire when lunch is I am greeted with a chuckle.

"You grab what you can when you can," she says as we race off.

The meeting is to discuss leisure issues, particularly concerns the industry has about changes in legislation which could impose new charges on pubs which could hit the nighttime economy in Redditch.

She agrees to sign up to the All Party Parliamentary Group on leisure which will add to her already heavy workload.

The next hour or so is taken up with meetings I am not allowed to attend before I rejoin Karen as she sits on the Transport Select Committee, which on this particular day is grilling bosses from the airport industry on the Government’s airport strategy.

Karen is a keen supporter of expanding the role of Birmingham airport and building the high speed rail link which she believes will create jobs for people in Redditch.

But when she asks how important HS2 will be in diverting people away from Heathrow to Birmingham she is disappointed to be told it is unlikely to be the game changer she hoped for, meaning extra capacity in the South East is likely to remain the focus.

It is at this point my time in Westminster ends, but taking in to account the lack of food, long hours and constant criticism from the public, press and political opponents, are there ever any days when she wonders if she made a mistake becoming an MP.

"There have been a few," she admits.

"The worst day was the European rebellion as I never thought I would vote against the Government. I was always scathing of those Tories who were fighting each other, particularly when I stood in 1997, and I never thought that would be me so that is probably my darkest moment because I knew I had to do it, but the pressure that day was horrendous and I will never forget that.

"You have got to be incredibly thick skinned but understand people out there probably don’t understand what we do or how difficult it is some times and occasionally you may say something you regret later because you are tired or whatever, but I am here to do the best job I can and I think I do a reasonable job. I work quite hard and try and put forward at every opportunity what the people of Redditch would want me to put forward.

"You will always get people who, for whatever reason, think you are lazy or on the take but it is a well paid job and I think I am value for money.

"I’m not complaining, for me it is an honour and a privilege to be here."

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Buy photos» Karen begins the day going through her mountain of correspondence with officer manager Lucy Lermer. (s)

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Buy photos» Nathan Mattick, 16, chats to Redditch MP Karen Lumley about the difference Whizz-Kidz has made to his life. (s)

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