Thursday, June 11, 2009

Casework keeps it real for MPs

The other night I was having a conversation with Darrell and Mark on Twitter which started off being about Gordon Brown's statement on political reform which was expected the next day (and what a letdown that turned out to be) and then drifted off into a discussion about the merits of the Single Transferable Vote. Unusually for a Lib Dem, Darrell has reservations about adopting this system because of the loss of the constituency link. Mark said this didn't matter really because he viewed MPs' roles as legislative rather than pastoral - and he later blogged about it. It so happens that the delightful Mr Quist, with whom I have already disagreed this week, on the objectification of women, wrote a similar post last November.

My own view is that casework is vital to give MPs a real understanding of what life is like for real people which ultimately should lead to better laws, based on real life experience rather than on some statistical gobbledegook put together by policy wonks. That has its place, but it needs to be accompanied by a good old dose of reality.

I know that there are very many people out there whose lives have been changed for the better by the intervention of their MPs. Government departments, like everyone else, make mistakes. However they are not always quick to admit them and put them right. It's often not until the MP gets involved - and sometimes they need to get involved quite persistently, that that injustice is finally resolved.

It's because of questions by MPs, and Liberal Democrat MPs have led the way on this, that the flaws in the tax credit system were exposed - at one point 42% of their payments were actually wrong. Casework started those lines of enquiry. I'm sure any MP's office could think of many other examples where a simple casework enquiry has helped the important process of holding the Government to account.

Darrell was concerned that the larger constituencies would make it impossible for the MP to have a proper link with their constituents, and the larger area would mean that they simply wouldn't be able to cope with the increase in casework that that would bring. I think there are ways of dealing with that. In Scotland we now have larger multi member Council wards and councillors have had to learn how to work together, sometimes across party lines but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That would be the same in multi member parliamentary constituencies. Constituents will not only have greater power at the ballot box, they will also be able to go to someone that they have voted for if they wish. MPs will also have different specialities and interests so casework may divide along those lines. In the end, connection with constituents is what the MP makes it.

Ultimately, for me, the advantages of STV in terms of giving power to the voter, getting a more diverse range of people elected and making people's votes count make it the must-have voting system. I think you can maintain a connection across a larger constituency with imagination, creativity and commitment.

I don't want to see our MPs becoming closeted in a Westminster based ivory tower making laws that have no basis in reality. The concerns people bring to them are vital in informing MPs and help them to both hold the government to account and to effectively scrutinise new legislation. The closer MPs are to their voters the better. I think Lib Dem MPs in particular have that desire to connect and to help in their DNA and no change to the electoral system will stop them.

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Mark Thompson said...

Caron. Very interesting post. I don't think we really disagree. I fully agree that MPs need to represent their constituents and follow up on issues for them at a national level. I went out of my way to say that.

I just worry that they can end up spending time listening to problems and issues that they cannot help with.

Unknown said...

There aren't that many that they can't help with, though. If you have a rubbish local councillor,for example, who is either unwilling or unable to help with your housing problem, then of course you're going to go to another representative. And what right has the MP got to refuse to at least try to help? And I know that they can be really successful in finding solutions to those issues - and it's also valuable in advancing national policy matters.

Yes, there are going to be times when people go to MPs with problems that they can't help with, but the MP can at least give them a sympathetic hearing and realistic expectations of what they can do to help.

Mark Thompson said...

But your last comment is really what my point is about. Is it the best use of an MP's time to be a sympathetic ear to constituents with problems that other people are better placed to deal with? My view is that it is not. That is time that could be being spent holding the government to account and/or legislating.

One thing that often frustrates me is how long MPs holidays are. I know it is a lazy journalistic reflex to criticise this because MPs work during those periods on constituency work but again, that is kind of my point. It seems that a direct consequence of the way MPs interact with their constituents is that the timetable of the House of Commons is less than it could be. I do not see this as a good thing for sensible and well scrutinised law making. Perhaps this is part of the problem.

Unknown said...

I don't think it should be up to us to say what we think are the legitimate things the public should bring to their elected representatives, though.

Also, there is no level of government that exists in complete isolation from the rest, so a problem that seems Council might have a Westminster/Holyrood angle to it.

And as for holidays - it's not like they sit with their feet up. Most of the MPs I know take a couple of weeks off if they are lucky and spend the rest of the time catching up with people in the constituency, going to community groups, doing Summer tours, that sort of thing.

And if they need more time legislating, why not do Summer public consultations on things held around the country?

There needs, as well, to be a huge shake up of Parliament before the legislative process gets more effective too.

Also bear in mind that when people come to their MPs, a lot of the time they are absolutely desperate because they have not been listened to anywhere else, despite in many instances having a valid case.

I wouldn't like to take that option away from them. You would be surprised at how much of a difference MPs can make on all sorts of issues and I think it's worth it. Of course there should be sensible passing on of casework that could be more efficently dealt with by somebody else, but I don't think MPs should just turn people away without explaining what they can do, or if they can't do anything, explaining why.

I am worried that this MP's code of conduct is going to focus on artificial standards of good service, like how many rings it takes you to answer the phone, rather then the interest taken and how much the person feels they have been helped which can't be measured.


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