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Jared O’Mara: Who Runs An Absent MP’s Office?

August 12, 2019

Jared O’Mara is taking time out from his official duties to deal with “mental health and personal issues” – but what does that mean for the MP’s constituents?

James Winstanley says he doesn’t have an MP. We meet for a pint after his shift at a pizza restaurant in the Sheffield Hallam constituency.

“I don’t know who’s in the MP’s office,” James tells me. “It could be anyone. My gran could be in there and she could just be getting paid.

“They could be campaigning for absolutely anything, against anyone’s agenda. They could be neo-Nazis. I have literally no idea what is going on in that office.”

Mr Winstanley isn’t the only person in Hallam wondering what is happening in the constituency office of Mr O’Mara, since he announced he was “taking time out” for personal reasons.

The MP, who ousted Nick Clegg from the seat in the 2017, left the Labour Party the following year after misogynistic and homophobic comments he had made 10 years previously were revealed by the Guido Fawkes blog. As an independent MP, Mr O’Mara no longer has to answer to a political party.

It has recently emerged Mr O’Mara had sent inappropriate messages to one of his female employees. He has promised to resign when Parliament returns from summer recess, but until then Mr O’Mara is still the sitting MP and is responsible for his constituents and what goes on in his office.

The problem is, something isn’t quite right in there, as I find out when I am invited in by Mr O’Mara’s chief of staff.

Gareth Arnold publicly quit his role in July by controversially posting his resignation statement on Mr O’Mara’s Twitter account. However, two weeks later, Mr Arnold is still in the job, telling me he has “extended his notice period”.

People in Sheffield Hallam have complained casework is not being dealt with.

Sinead Parkinson, a member of the Hallam Constituents Facebook group, told the BBC: “You would be hard pressed to find somebody who says they have been working in a positive way with the office of Jared O’Mara. They haven’t been. Cases aren’t being dealt with.”

Not only that, constituents have told the BBC they have been blocked on social media by the MP’s account and they have been responded to with memes.

Mr Arnold paints a different picture to me. “Is it a traditional set-up for a constituency office? No, not at all. Is it a constituency office that does manage to get casework moving, get some wins for constituents, represents them? Absolutely, yes.”

However, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, Angela Smith, tells us Hallam constituents have started to call her office for help but she has had to turn them away.

“I just don’t know what people in Hallam are doing if they’ve got a really severe problem,” she said.

There are also questions about Mr Arnold’s conduct. He has admitted to the Victoria Derbyshire programme he had blocked constituents on Mr O’Mara’s Twitter account.

I wanted to see what was happening inside the office. I arrive at the nondescript, small office in the centre of Sheffield with Mr Arnold and an 18-year-old man who is introduced to me as the head of communications.

As soon as we walk in, they usher me over to a computer. They are keen to show me a video they have made which mocks their boss, Mr O’Mara, who says he has attempted to take his own life on three occasions. Mr Arnold asks me to stop recording as the video is ridiculing the Sheffield MP.

I asked him about this video later on; he said it was “for sentimental value” and was a “warts-and-all depiction of his [Jared’s] time as an MP”, which he would not share on social media without Mr O’Mara’s consent.

‘No security clearance’

I ask Mr Arnold about who’s in charge in the constituency, considering the MP is not around.

“People have joked to me that I was basically the MP for Sheffield Hallam because Jared was so, erm – not here basically… just the idea that someone would say that horrified me.”

Mr Arnold then, almost boastfully, tells me he has not been cleared by the parliamentary authorities to work in the office.

“I am running a constituency office on behalf of an MP without the required security clearance from the parliamentary authorities. It’s crazy isn’t it?”

The BBC has confirmed this. Mr Arnold also says he is accessing and using Mr O’Mara’s parliamentary email account.

Required security measures for MPs’ staff include an ID check and baseline personnel security standard checks undertaken by the Members’ Staff Verification Office.

A House of Commons spokesperson told us: “Any member of staff with access to the parliamentary network and/or estate has to be security cleared.

“Members of Parliament must not share passwords, or allow anyone else to use devices on which they are currently logged on to parliamentary accounts and services.”

This raises serious questions, as Mr Arnold has access to sensitive data about Mr O’Mara’s constituents. He is also technically able to perform political tasks, such as table written questions in the House of Commons and sign Early Day Motions.

We were keen to understand who is accountable in dysfunctional offices, when the MP is unwell or otherwise not able to fulfil his or her role.

We asked the Speaker’s Office for an interview and they replied: “The Speaker does not have any powers over MPs in relation to staff. The Speaker neither employs MPs nor their staff. There is a process for complaints to be made, via the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.”

‘Blocked on Twitter’

So what are the people of Sheffield Hallam supposed to do now? Jodi Garth, who set up the Hallam Constituents Facebook group, is frustrated there appears to be no recourse.

“There isn’t anybody. There is no higher power than him because you can’t complain to his party because there’s not a party,” she said.

“Westminster doesn’t really have a system in place. The best thing I found was that he’s responsible to his constituents but he’s been blocking people on Twitter, he’s not been responding to emails so he’s not answering to us because he’s flat-out refusing to answer.

“And I feel like in so many ways the system needs changing so that if another constituency ends up in this situation, they can do something about it because all we’ve been able to do is call on him to resign.”

So-called recall legislation only allows a by-election to be triggered if 10% of constituents sign a petition after an MP is sentenced to a prison term or if they have been suspended by Parliament for at least 21 sitting days.

Mr O’Mara has been approached for a comment about this article.

‘Dysfunctional situation’

Luca Cornish-Jenkins, 19, who previously campaigned for him, told us: “I think it should be easier to change your MP if they’re not doing their job right.”

“Their [constituents’] link to the government has just been removed and in lieu of that there’s a team of people who are getting paid to do – it seems like – whatever they want, really. It doesn’t seem very democratic.”

We also contacted other parliamentary authorities, including the Commissioner on Standards, the House of Commons Commission and the Committee on Standards. They all said it would not be appropriate to offer comment on individual cases.

However, we understand there is currently no system in place to help constituents in this situation.

Angela Smith acknowledges this. “Parliament needs to look again at a situation where an office just becomes dysfunctional,” she said.

“We don’t have a blueprint for what an MP’s service should look like.

“The Jared O’Mara situation does beg the question about whether or not we do need to agree minimum standards and what the powers of Parliament should be.”

The situation in Sheffield Hallam may be unique at the moment, but at a time of political turmoil, with more MPs quitting their parties and with new parties emerging, it seems that this may be an issue that Parliament needs to look at.

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