Dr Paul Williams and Stuart Dexter at ParliamentIn the June 2017 election, Stockton South elected a new MP, Dr Paul Williams, and during his maiden speech he stated that one of his policy priorities was fighting for a better deal for families affected by autism. As I’d joined Stockton based autism charity, Daisy Chain, as CEO in April 2017 this seemed like an ideal opportunity, so I contact Paul’s office to propose I conduct a piece of work with them as part of my Clore Secondment.

They accepted my offer and plans were put in place to do some work for the MP in October. I expected this to be a bit of research with local families affected by autism, maybe spending some time at Paul’s Stockton office and, if I’m being completely honest, I was worried that my time with Paul could be a bit inconsequential and tokenistic: a gesture rather than genuine collaboration.

That all changed when I received a call from Daniel, Paul’s Head of Office on Thursday 7th September informing me that a debate on autism waiting times had been called for Wednesday 13th and asking whether I would like to attend the debate with Paul. Daniel also asked if could I collect some case studies to inform Paul’s speech.

After a bit of frantic diary re-arrangement and a visit to our ‘Links’ parent support group that morning to ask for stories, I was on my way to challenge and change government policy on autism diagnosis waiting times.

As interest in this endeavour grew, I was interviewed by the Northern Echo in a café at Darlington Station and upon arriving in London found that Paul’s request on social media for stories from families affected by this issue attracted over 500 responses.

I arrived at Portcullis House shortly before 8.00am the next morning and met Daniel from Paul’s office outside. After passing through the thorough security checks I was given a pass and entered into what can only be described by the cliché ‘Westminster Bubble’. A quick trip to Paul’s office to say hello, a quick coffee and Daniel and I set off for Westminster Hall to take our seats in the public gallery for the debate.

I’ve visited the Palace of Westminster a couple of times before but it still unsettles me seeing so many faces only usually seen on the TV or in the press walking around and getting on with their business. In fact, I had many revelations during my visit and felt rather naive that even as someone who takes an interest in politics, there was so much about the political process I wasn’t aware of – even the fact that there is a tunnel from Portcullis House to the Houses of Parliament; I wondered why you never saw MPs crossing the road to reach the House!

The debate started and it struck me that actually being in the chamber, compared with watching parliament on TV (especially edited highlights on the news), was akin to the difference between watching a football match on the TV compared with live in the stadium. It was often the ‘off the ball’ action that fascinated me; the passing of notes, the requests to ‘give way’ and the comings and goings. It also occurred to me that when members leave the chamber during a debate they are not going for a coffee, they are off to another debate.

Daisy Chain was mentioned by Paul and Alex Cunningham, the other Stockton MP, and I also received a name check which slightly took me by surprise. Our families’ stories were used to make Paul’s and Alex’s speeches all the more powerful. Unfortunately, at the end of the debate, the Health Minister was reluctant to set a waiting time target for autism diagnosis.

I expected that to be the end of my parliamentary adventure and that I’d be on the 12 o’clock train back home. We returned to Paul’s office and he asked: ‘Right – fancy starting a campaign on this?’  I said yes, but his next question surprised me even more: ‘Would you like to turn my speech into a Guardian article?’

I spent the next 7 hours writing press releases, converting the speech into articles and blogs and pursuing media contacts. It was a surreal experience; holed up in Paul’s office in Portcullis House with Paul coming and going to various debates and meetings and the Parliament Channel on a TV in the corner. It became even more surreal when we (infrequently) surfaced to grab a coffee only to bump into the very same faces I’d just been watching speak on the TV!

Probably the most striking example was on the way back from the morning autism debate when a large crowd passed me on the escalator leading to the tunnel from Portcullis House to Parliament – Theresa May and her entourage on the way to PMQs.

The work continued, a telephone interview pre-record with Paul and I for BBC Tees, communication with the Huffington Post and discussions about our strategies to challenge the government’s position. I left Paul’s office at 6.15pm in order to catch a 7pm train back to Durham and left Paul and Daniel hard at it.

The day far exceeded my expectations and I learned far more than I ever could have hoped. Paul and Daniel apologised for being inadequate hosts and regretted that I didn’t get a full tour, visit to the main chamber, etc. They did tell me that my input had been genuinely helpful and that they couldn’t have achieved everything without me; being told this meant far more than a tour – I had spent the day working for an MP to help him change governmental policy.

Paul and Daniel have asked me to return for an extended visit to Parliament. They have offered to set up meetings with Ministers and other Tees Valley MPs and they have offered me space at their new constituency office.

Checking my Twitter feed on the train back to the North East, I saw that Paul had posted video of us and that the Northern Echo had published a news story based on my interview the day before and the press release I wrote during the afternoon. I felt that I had made a difference, that I had made a genuine contribution and that I had really learned about policy and campaign work – all within a 10 hour shift.

Upon my return to Daisy Chain I revisited our Links parent support group, many of whom had provided stories to inform Paul’s speech. They had been following my progress the previous day and I was proud to be able to tell them that I had done my best to give them a voice, to tell their stories to people in positions of power.

I learned about some of the nuances and subtleties of working in this milieu. That Paul deliberately challenged an area of policy that required neither a Bill or law change. That this was a considered pragmatic challenge that would provide an opportunity for further challenge and change.

After my brief experience in Parliament I felt a shift, I felt that I could lead the Daisy Chain team and the families with whom we work to speak out and engage with the world, holding our heads high as an equal rather than being grateful if people paid us any attention.