Role of an MP

This post reposted from my old, non-functioning site

Many of us watching the debate over the past couple of days (yes I was that sad) came away feeling betrayed. Not just because the bill had passed, but because of the disgusting processes which had been exposed. I have an idealised image of what an MP should do and a rather more realistic vision of what I think they are able to do, a rather more cynical vision of what they actually do all from following the Civil Partnerships Act, the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations and the Equalities Bill (also passed during wash up in the previous days). The last couple of days have blown those out the water.

The problems are two-fold: the parliamentary processes and traditions themselves and the role of the MP. The parliamentary processes and traditions mean that there are three readings in each house. The first is basically agreeing that the bill is indeed, a bill. The second is where the first debate comes in - they argue principals then vote for it anyway in the assumption those principals will be addressed in committee. This is alright (although confusing to outsiders) when the committee stage is going to last the typical 50 hours. When, as last night, it was only due to last an hour or two tops and it was known there was no way that it was going to get that kind of debate or scrutiny it comes across as a direct betrayal. What we saw last night was the committee stage (Should Clause 1 stand as part of the bill) followed by the final question - the 3rd Reading. This takes the Bill as amended by committee and asks "do we accept it or not".

Worse than that was the complete absence from the debate of many of the voting MPs. I have said it before, but I don't like the party political system - to the point where banning them looks like an attractive proposition. I don't like that MPs blindly follow their party's edicts.

And while we're at it, where the fuck was everybody? Very few listening to the debate, 189 voting in favour of screwing us over, 47 against. 646 MPS, 236 voted. That's an amazing 36.5% - far lower than the depressingly low General Election turnout in 2005 of 61.3%.

Anyone who stayed tuned into the parliament feed or BBC Parliament will have seen the chamber emptying, a petition from a group of Christian Radio listeners wanting a return to traditional Christian Values (they will vote in line with Christian Values and want the House to restore its credibility) and finally, two hardy souls alone in the chamber - Mark Todd and Barbara Follett to discuss . Not so much a debate as a single speech and a formal response. This speech actually caught my attention as it asks us to think about what is the role of the MP and the changes that have occurred and was something I was discussing at work earlier that day. He charts the increasing importance of constituents' casework over the course of the 20th Century. An MP serving between 1935 and 1950 for instance:

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

He also notes that this new caseworking brings votes and notes:

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.

He then goes on to give an example of the scale of the casework: "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." The time to respond and work on that casework removes the time available for scrutiny of bills and holding government to account which many of us feel is a vitally important part of an MP's job, but that's alright because "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."

My own view is that MP shouldn't be caseworker. By the MP (or councillor) intervening in cases it creates a culture of dependence, not one of empowerment. We have excellent network of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and other agencies offering advice on accessing state provisions*. Todd points out that the casework role is difficult to do with any "quality" - these agencies can offer that - but they need better and more secure funding - Todd notes that his own casework service "serves a need, and it delivers a wider value". They should be a person's port of call for those issues. In particular cases an MP should get involved, but this should come from referrals. The MP should, of course, be in regular contact with those agencies and the local council to pick up on Social Policy issues - hopefully helping to resolve local issues or taking the issues to parliament. Before you accuse me of thinking that the MP should keep themselves at arms reach of the constituents, I also believe that constituents should contact their MP with political or policy concerns. And the MP should take the time to understand those concerns and respond - not just with "the minister says" or "our party spokesperson says", but with their own take too. They should be willing to take those representations and balance them with their party's view and come to their own decision on what is best for their constituents, them and their party.

All this is important stuff. It doesn't even begin to discuss the added problems of holding government or party positions, the extra work required there, and, ultimately, the conflict of interest apparent. I believe after seeing last night's debate that I can wholoeheartedly agree with Mark Todd when he concludes:

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.

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(*Disclaimer - I work for such an agency)