Members of Parliament

Part of Petition — Christian Values – in the House of Commons at 11:15 pm on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire 11:15 pm, 7th April 2010

In my speech on the proposed reforms of House procedures, I referred to my disappointment that the Committee that sponsored those changes had not been asked to consider the role of MPs-and nor had it sought to be asked to do so. I then touched on my family experience-my grandfather was a Member in the 1930s-and my understanding of the traditionally understood role of an MP as defined by Edmund Burke, famously, if patronisingly, in his address to the electors of Bristol. I noted how far we had travelled from that model, and how little we had either consulted the public on those changes or discussed their broader impact. That is what I shall attempt to do this evening.

First, what are the understood functions of a Member? In Churchill's definition, published in the 1950s, the role was threefold, and in order of priority. I have edited it to remove the explicit sexism from his text. He said that the roles of a Member were: to exercise judgment in the interests of Great Britain; to act as a representative, but not a delegate, of his or her constituents; and to serve his or her party's interests.

The Select Committee on Modernisation's report on the role of Back-Bench Members, published in 2007, set out the following functions. Unlike Churchill's, they are not in priority order. They were: supporting their party in votes in Parliament; representing and furthering the interests of their constituency; representing individual constituents and taking up their problems and grievances; scrutinising and holding the Government to account and monitoring, stimulating and challenging the Executive; initiating, reviewing and amending legislation; and contributing to the development of policy, whether in the Chamber, Committees or party structures, and promoting public understanding of party policy.

An MP serving between 1935 and 1950 said that,

"before 1939, unless there was some controversy afoot, I rarely received more than twenty letters a week...But after the election of 1945, everything was changed...suddenly the MP ceased to be a politician and potential statesman and became an official of the welfare state. Thousands wanted houses; old people wanted pensions; ex-service men wanted jobs; everybody wanted something and 'write to your MP' became a cliché".

Patricia Hollis's excellent biography of Jennie Lee attributes her defeat in the 1970 election to infrequent visits, inattention to constituency business, and an unwillingness to attend constituency functions, which steadily undermined her vote in what appeared to be a relatively safe Labour constituency. The process of change in the expectations of MPs and in their performance was uneven.

Even in the early 1970s, one MP-I do not believe that he was from my party-could sketch his parliamentary activity thus:

"I hunt three days a week, always. Probably hunt four days a week. I don't get any letters anyhow. I only have a secretary part-time. I have one woman at home, who deals with Parliamentary letters on a Monday and that's it".

That quote also puts into context any suggestion of some golden age of disinterested service among tribunes of the people. We often hear favourable comparisons of past times in Parliament with the performance of parliamentarians now, but I have always thought them to be fantasy. That sort of quotation bears out the fact that some of the what was going on at that time was pretty inactive in many senses and rather little aligned to the public good.

There have been a number of analyses of how a modern MP spends their time. A sample of the 2005 intake showed an average of 49 per cent. of MPs' time spent on constituency work, however that might be defined. In my own case, the proportion would certainly be greater than that. All recent analyses have shown constituency work to be by far the dominant part of the MP's job.

From the model set out by Churchill in the 1950s, going further back to my grandfather's time, as remembered by my father who recalls him as an MP at a time when the constituency workload was light and the quantity of correspondence was small, how has the change to the present situation come about? The first quotation that I gave hints at one reason-the burgeoning role of the state.

As the state extends its reach, the role of an MP is the most obvious contact point with the state apparatus, so it gets extended, too. Setting aside the merits of extensive state provision, there have been some unhealthy aspects of the relationship between MPs' casework and state services. I cannot be alone in having heard citizens report to me that public servants have told them to contact their MPs if they have complaints. Having noted the higher quality response service offered to MPs-on tax credits and Child Support Agency cases, for example-constituents are motivated to use an MP rather than the official complaints process, which must be extremely hard. MPs have almost assumed the role of self-interested-I shall come back to this-quality control in some services, removing the incentive to get services right first time.

The fall of Jennie Lee and the experience of Members in all but the safest seats hints at another reason for the change. Assiduous constituency service appears to be rewarded at the ballot box. With modern office systems, casework also provides databases of contact for future reference-potential building blocks of additional support in votes.

A third reason is the combination of modern technology and the use of constituency mail by campaigning groups. Postcards and e-mails urging MPs to sign early-day motions, write to Ministers and take other actions now proliferate, built on the knowledge-again taken from surveys-that MPs look hardest at material sent to them by constituents.

What have been the consequences of these changes? I have mentioned one already-the design of some state provision around the assumption of an MP advocacy role. We have MP helplines and MP correspondence units, specifically to deal with the assumed level of complaints that MPs will have to handle from their constituents.

Secondly, unless MPs are very discriminating indeed-I shall explain why that is hard to be-they intrude on the competences of other representatives. Concerns about planning, housing, education and many other services offered by local councils really lie within the responsibility of a councillor. Many electors, however, feel that contacting an MP-"going to the top", as has been said to me on many occasions-is more effective and that if I should pass a matter to a councillor, I am "passing the buck" on the complaint that has been raised. I see you nodding, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I say this, and I would be surprised if most constituency MPs had not had similar experiences.

In addition, local political competition may dissuade MPs from passing casework to a councillor from an opposing party. As I have said, simply building on the database of contacts one has from electors on whatever subject provides a strong incentive to pursue a complaint, whether it is relevant to the responsibilities of an MP or not.

We may also find that Members of Parliament are ill equipped for such purposes. I am not a lawyer, yet I regularly receive queries in regard to which some legal knowledge is at least desirable. I am not a financial adviser, yet I have often received queries about pensions. I am not a benefits specialist, yet I frequently receive queries about benefit entitlement. If the compass of an MP's role is so wide, MPs need appropriate resources in order to address at least the common concerns. Given the scale of their casework-in a typical year, I deal with well over 2,000 new cases-offering a quality service is a challenge. I emphasise the word "quality", because I am not talking about a simple acknowledgement or routine correspondence. Adding genuine value by saying something of substance is quite difficult.

It seems certain that the increase in constituency work, willingly undertaken by Members, will compress the attention given to their other functions. Critical parts of the role of the House of Commons are already poorly fulfilled. For instance, the scrutiny of huge volumes of European legislation is manfully tackled by a very small resource. It is arguable that the House transferred detailed scrutiny of legislation to the House of Lords far too readily, and the Finance Bill-with which I have dealt in the House on several occasions-suffers particularly when that cover from the Lords is unavailable. While Select Committee work remains a largely quality process of scrutiny and policy contribution, much of Question Time on the Floor of the House is a formulaic mix of partisan work and constituency name-checking.

I have always regarded constituency work as both a good in itself, providing a service that is clearly demanded, and a resource. There is not a complete division between a Member's constituency role and his or her parliamentary work. I regularly say that if I do not learn something new through my constituency correspondence almost every day, I cannot be doing my job. The sheer variety of subjects raised forces one to learn., and it often prompts parliamentary activity.

I have also always regarded correspondence that I receive as personal. If someone takes the trouble to write to me, at the very least I should look at the letter and give some direction on the response, if I cannot reply myself. Until recently, I replied to most letters personally, and that personal link remains an important anchor in the job, connecting Members to local realities and broadening their knowledge.

You will sense, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not suggesting that the shift in emphasis is wrong. It serves a need, and it delivers a wider value. However, it has taken place silently, gradually and patchily, without strategy and without any genuine engagement with citizens on what they want from MPs. Results of surveys suggest that about half of them believe that MPs should represent the views of local people, but do they mean that in the sense in which Burke tried to define the relationship? I rather think not. And how is it possible to determine what those views really are? They are, of course, diverse, and it is difficult to weigh them against each other in terms of volume and quality.

Nearly the same proportion of citizens suggest that an MP should represent a national interest. Setting aside how that might be defined, we must ask whether there is a conflict between the two goals, the serving of local interests and local concerns and the national interest. In some circumstances, there is.

I hope that when the House reassembles after the election, it will seek to establish the purposes of an MP through a process of public engagement. Once we have that foundation, we can better define the resources that are required, the procedures and business balance of this place, the skills that are desirable, the relationship with the other parts of our country's governance, and even, I have to say-because it forms part of the programme of one party at the election-the broad number of MPs that there should be. To cut the number without any intellectual apparatus relating to justification of the role of an MP is frankly lazy and facile.