Westminster’s first locum MP talks to Russell Hargrave about how she’s finding the role so far
A political experiment began in Walthamstow last year, when Kizzy Gardiner became the UK’s first-ever locum member of parliament.
Stella Creasy, the area’s MP, took six months off from constituency work in November following the birth of her daughter. Kizzy, a local charity fundraiser, was recruited to cover that work. None of this sounds very radical – except that MPs have never had the right to maternity or paternity leave, before now.
For centuries the House of Commons has simply assumed that politicians will carry on exactly as before, regardless of any changes in their family lives. Stella had to lobby for months before officials in Westminster agreed to pay for a locum so that she could step away and care for her new-born baby.
Kizzy, who has worked for many years in the charity sector, went through a four-stage application process to land the locum role. Another MP acts as Stella’s proxy in parliament when votes take place.
Now Kizzy is just over halfway through her time in the job and, despite all the fuss behind the scenes, Walthamstow residents seem to understand her role. “Parliament has a way to go to get with modern times and get up to speed with it,” she told the Echo. “Local people understand the concept of maternity leave. It’s not that confusing.”
In her work on the ground, Kizzy has taken up where Stella has left off, busying herself in the community she now helps to represent. Every day involves “holding surgeries, meeting people, chatting to people, finding out what’s important to them,” she says.
Kizzy has been “stunned” to see just how many community groups are working in Walthamstow. Among others, she mentions foodbank Eat or Heat, St James Street Big Local, and Harmony Hall, a community centre where she has been supporting new bids to try and secure its survival. Kizzy enthuses: “There is almost an organisation for everything!”
A large chunk of the locum time is spent on the type of work required of so many MPs and their staff; helping local residents get information on complex issues such as housing, welfare and immigration.
“A lot of what we get through in the office [is from] people who have found a brick wall,” she explains. “There is something they are looking for. They are trying to find answers and they aren’t getting any. A lot of what we do is take those cases up on [a constituent’s] behalf and talk to organisations.
“Some of that is the power of me fighting for stuff and some of that is the power of the MP’s office. It is a really powerful role and it’s a real honour to use that to help people.”
And the ‘office’ means that, even when she can’t help, Kizzy hopes she can offer a sympathetic ear.
“Some of it’s really heartbreaking. And I can’t always help,” she admits. “I will try, and I will be empathetic. I’ll always listen, even if I can’t do the thing that people are asking for. It’s so important to give people that space and that voice.”
Stella is still doing some work supporting local causes and pops up at local events every now and then, but Kizzy says it shouldn’t be confusing for constituents. “This is her home. Maternity leave or not, if that’s who you are then you’re not going to suddenly switch off.”
Kizzy’s locum spell ends in June. After that “I might just go and lie down for a bit,” she laughs. In the meantime, she knows why the job matters so much. “Constituents shouldn’t lose a voice because their parliamentarian decided to have a family.”