Anna Sanders, Politics, University of Manchester
Aiming to gain some practical experience in policy alongside my doctoral studies, I decided to apply to the Political Studies Association’s/House of Commons Committee Office internship. A large part of my doctoral research focuses on analysing policies in a British context, so the chance to witness government scrutiny first-hand sounded like an invaluable opportunity.
I began the internship in January 2018 and was placed with the Welsh Affairs Committee for four months. During this time, I worked as an Inquiry Manager, overseeing the Committee’s inquiry on prison provision in Wales. The criminal justice system was a topic with which I was initially unfamiliar and had previously little knowledge about. However, through researching and analysing written evidence, I found that I was able to quickly build up a specialised knowledge on the topic in a short amount of time. In many ways, there were some overlaps between my own research, which analyses gendered policies, and the inquiry I was managing. The needs of male and female prisoners are very different, and since there are currently no women’s prisons in Wales, questions over the possibility of building a new prison in Wales had gendered policy implications.
One key responsibility of my role was to organise evidence sessions. Usually, Committees hold evidence sessions every week on active inquiries. In order to prepare for evidence sessions, I identified and liaised with witnesses, drafted questions for Committee members, and analysed evidence to produce briefing materials for the Committee – all key responsibilities that enhanced my research skills. Briefing Committee members was especially important: since Committee members have many other demands, they often don’t have time to build up expertise on inquiry topics. In drafting briefing materials, I learnt to transform what was often complex information into digestible and accessible material for the Committee. Learning how to deliver complex information to a lay audience was a very useful skill to learn – and perhaps something we could do more of in academia.
A particular highlight of the internship was organising an evidence session with a witness who had requested to give their evidence in Welsh. We hired an interpreter to provide simultaneous translation from Welsh to English as we listened through headphones. Listening to some Members ask questions in English and receive answers in Welsh was a really interesting experience!
Additionally, another aspect of my role was to organise Committee visits to external sites. Committee visits are often used as a means to gather evidence during an inquiry, or to provide the Committee with some background knowledge into an issue. As such, I organised a range of Committee visits to prisons across Wales, as well as to local community centres that provide specialist support to vulnerable people. I went with the Committee to examine prison conditions and meet with the prison governors and directors. We were also able to hold focus groups with the inmates and prison staff and hear about the issues that mattered to them. Holding discussion groups with inmates and prison staff meant that we could speak with those that would be directly affected by potential policies, which provided a ‘human side’ to the policy process. Before and after each visit, I liaised with journalists as well as the Parliamentary media team, who were able to provide widespread media coverage of the Committee visits. This was particularly important to showcase the work that the Committee was doing, and to garner public interest in the inquiry.
There were many other benefits of being based in Westminster that were not directly related to my role. During this time, I was able to engage in a range of activities that Parliament had on offer. I was fortunate enough to obtain tickets to Prime Minister’s Questions and sit in various debates. Working in Parliament during the women’s suffrage centenary meant that I was also able to attend the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square and see Parliament’s display of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted some women the right to vote.
The internship was also a great chance to meet other PhD interns working within the Committee Office, many of whom I have stayed in touch with since my placement ended. Many of the interns were undertaking PhDs across a range of subjects outside of politics – such as law and sociology – and all had emphasised how beneficial the placement had been for their own research.
The internship provided me with a much broader perspective on what working for Parliament entails. Now that I am nearing towards the end of my PhD, I have a much clearer idea about the career I would like to pursue once my doctoral studies have finished. I would certainly recommend the internship to those considering applying in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed the internship at the House of Commons, which I was able to undertake thanks to the support of the Political Studies Association and the NWSSDTP.