More than 50 MPs have taken part in secondments to charities. Caspar van Vark follows one member's story.
For many charities, the chance to have an interested and attentive MP to themselves for a whole day or more would be a dream. It's a dream that voluntary sector umbrella body the NCVO is keen to help charities realise.
The organisation has run an MP secondment scheme since 1999. Under the scheme, MPs and MEPs spend eight to 10 days with a large organisation and two days with a smaller organisation. The days are spread over the course of one year - the aim is to give MPs an insight into the workings of the voluntary sector.
The charities and MPs meet beforehand to discuss an agenda and match visits with the MP's interests and work. As charities become increasingly involved in the delivery of public services, the secondment scheme can provide a valuable communication link between organisations and government departments. More than 50 MPs have taken part in the scheme so far - and it is reciprocated by charities, with representatives shadowing MPs for a day.
Eighteen months ago, the RNIB and Liberal Democrat MP for Mid Dorset Annette Brooke joined the scheme and struck up what was to become a special relationship.
Dan Scorer, the RNIB's parliamentary officer, was already acquainted with Brooke before she started her secondment there. The charity had previously worked with her on disability issues and knew they had overlapping interests.
"We had worked with her on a number of issues already," says Scorer.
"For example, on the accessibility of PIN pads installed in post offices, which created major access problems for blind and partially sighted people. Annette had also tabled written questions in Parliament on education and disabled people before, so we knew she had a strong interest in our issues."
Once it had been been agreed that Brooke would do her secondment at the RNIB, a meeting was arranged to talk about the kinds of things she was interested in seeing and doing.
"She set out her main policy interests," says Scorer, "and we talked about what we could do with her. We then went away and put together a draft programme of visits, such as visiting our schools and our talking books recording studios."
It was important to get this stage right, he adds, because it was the time when both parties could say what they wanted to get out of the scheme and ensure they were in agreement with the agenda.
"It was quite a lot of work," remembers Scorer. "We had to make the proposal for the NCVO in the first place to say we'd be able to provide her with a valuable placement, and explain the work she would see. Her time is obviously precious, so we had to show that it would be used well."
It took two months from the first contact with the NCVO to initiate the secondment, and the first thing that Brooke did was visit RNIB's head office to meet its then chief executive, Professor Ian Bruce, and other directors. She spent the day being briefed on the charity's priorities and asking questions about its work.
This was followed by trips to other RNIB sites, such as its talking books recording studio in Camden, north London. "She saw how we use actors and authors to record books onto CD," says Scorer. "We have 40,000 subscribers to our talking books service, and we send out about 6,000 CDs a week."
There was also a trip to Peterborough, where the charity produces Braille publications. Scorer explains: "We have enormous industrial Braille machines there, churning out tens of thousands of pages. Annette saw the distribution and packing centres and met technical staff, particularly those working on accessible technology. They ensure that websites and new phone technologies are accessible, for example. Another service we provide there is tactile maps."
A visit to Northwood School was scheduled because Brooke has a particular interest in issues concerning children with disabilities. Local authorities contract the RNIB to provide specialist education there. Brooke joined in some classes and saw the services available at the school.
"The whole secondment went extremely well," says Scorer. "But I think Northwood was particularly useful, because Annette was interested in seeing how the school was an example of best practice. At our head office afterwards, she had a summit meeting with our education policy team to raise issues and questions."
Towards the end of the secondment, Brooke was also able to use a Ten Minute Rule Bill that she won in a ballot to highlight the need for children with sight problems to have access to appropriate reading material. The Bill did not progress, but it was still a coup for the RNIB to have an MP draw attention to one of its issues in such a high-profile manner.
For Scorer, the value of the secondment scheme lies not just in the visits, but also in securing a continuing relationship with someone in a position of influence who shares the charity's concerns.
"I stay in contact with Annette and keep her up to date with the work we're doing," he explains. "I'll quite often be contacted by her office asking for information. I know her interests and she knows what we can offer, so we're a port of call for her too.
"She's very dedicated to championing the causes of disabled children, and I think the scheme expanded her view of the work the voluntary sector undertakes."
He advises any other charities planning to take part in the scheme to pay attention to the MP's interests and match the visits to those interests.
"We tailored the secondment to her parliamentary brief, which worked well," he says. "The more work you can put into a visit, the better. Let them interact first-hand with service users or staff, but also help them to explore broader policy issues and get a holistic overview."
Brooke's experience of the voluntary sector started before she joined the MP secondment scheme.
"I was someone who had a life before entering Parliament," she says.
"I didn't go straight into it, and I had a great deal of local contact with voluntary groups."
As an MP, however, Brooke felt it was important to appreciate the wider issue of how voluntary organisations fit into the delivery of public services.
She was interested in working with the RNIB because, among other campaigns, she'd already been involved locally in securing transport arrangements for people with sight problems.
"I had some connections with a local Dorset group that was lobbying on a number of issues," she says. "So I was pleased to take on this particular secondment. I'm particularly interested in the challenges facing visually impaired children."
Scheduling a series of whole days away from normal parliamentary and constituency work was a challenge, but Brooke thinks it was well worth it.
"It's difficult, because you want to have meaningful time with them," she says. "But as with all secondment schemes, you just have to make a decision to find the time one way or another. It does mean giving up other things."
The various trips Brooke made to the RNIB's head office and projects added up to more than the sum of their parts, she says, because they rewarded her with insights that weren't necessarily on the agenda. One of these was the difference that computers can make.
"I hadn't fully appreciated the significance of computers to visually impaired people - how they have opened up a new world for them," she says.
"It seems such an obvious thing now, but to be able to shop at the supermarket on the internet - that makes such a difference. That was probably the biggest eye-opener to me."
Brooke says this realisation sparked her interest in the issue of access to technology: many people with sight problems who are not in work or education lack access to a computer. "Those people could do with a good computer system at home, but there seem to be no grants available for this at the moment," she says. "That's another mission I've tucked away at the back of my mind."
She has already been able to apply some of the issues raised by her visits.
The Ten Minute Rule Bill was a good way of rounding off her secondment, giving it a real focus. "Being able to raise issues on the floor of the House - that was a real highlight that pulled it all together," she says.
There are also smaller ways of applying what she learnt. "I recently opened a conference where I talked about how important it is that the RNIB is the Royal National Institute of the Blind, rather than for the blind," Brooke says. "It should be fully inclusive, and should not feel like someone from above talking down to visually impaired people. It shows how times have changed, that the services provided by voluntary organisations have to be determined in discussion with the users of the service."
The secondment scheme works both ways, so Brooke has also been shadowed at her work by Dan Scorer. "I think it was interesting," she says. "Every day is so different in the House of Commons. Dan came into my select committee and we went on a visit to the Natural History Museum to meet a village school that had won an award - he even made some contacts of his own there."
It's easy to see how a charity would benefit from having an MP come to visit and then promote its cause to the House of Commons - but how exactly does the MP benefit? For Brooke, delving into a charity's cause is worthwhile on its own, but she also thinks it helps in her day-to-day work.
"It gave me a greater understanding and greater confidence to go into a debate and speak about the issues I'd experienced," she says. "It's fine doing things from the textbook, but you need to experience things at first hand."
She does stress the importance of good preparation, however. "It's important to have a clear vision of what you want to get out of it, and reassess as you go along," she says. "Within my own education authority, I specifically wanted to see how visually impaired children are included in schools, how materials are used and how much support they get. Spending time with the RNIB's education side has clarified those issues for me."