Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Commons and Constituency Clash

It’s impossible to be in two places at once. Yet, to be an effective MP, you have to try to do both. For every MP there is a constant struggle between time spent at Parliament and time spent in the constituency.

Markedly, independent MPs loyalties often lie with their constituency, however, without voting in Parliament their constituents cannot be represented. As Dr Richard Taylor previously said in a conference of independents in January, ‘the ability to vote is a real privilege’.

In 2006 The Hansard Society found that MPs generally spent equal amounts on parliamentary and constituency work. When Parliament is in session, MPs usually spend most of their time there which accounts for around 165 days a year. In Parliament they raise issues affecting their constituents, attend debates and vote on proposed bills. Many MPs are members of Select Committees, which look at a wide variety of issues in detail. Examples of Select Committees include the Members’ Allowance Committee and the Energy and Climate Change Committee. If an MP has a special forte, for instance medicine, it then makes sense for them to sit on a Select Committee, such as the independent MP Dr Richard Taylor who sits on the Health Committee.

All Party Groups are growing in influence in Parliament and are very popular with both MPs and Lords. They are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament and are run for and by Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Unfortunately an All Party Group must include at least five members of the Government party and five from the opposition parties. However, all party groups provide an opportunity for cross-party and independents to discuss a range of issues including animal welfare, sport, science, industry and the environment.

Therefore it is essential that an MP spends time in Parliament, technology also now allows MPs to undertake constituency work whilst in London. There are many innovative ways to keep in touch, such as Facebook, Twitter, email and blogs. Many MPs are using these tools - look at the huge list of MPs on Tweetminster. These approaches fall in line with the Bell Principles, which avow that MPs should consult their communities regularly and innovatively (The Bell Principles are thought to be the first set of conduct guidelines created by a political organisation for its affiliated candidates and representatives).

The vast majority of MPs hold weekly surgeries in their constituency, which allows constituents to discuss their concerns and problems with their MP. Constituency office staff have a key role to play and can make sure the community is aware that there is someone available for them, even if the MP is not there all of the time. Constituency staff main role is to do casework for constituents and help them with a variety of problems. Common topics of casework include immigration applications, council housing, dog fouling and student funding. Thousands of people contact their MP every year and it is the job of constituency staff to respond to enquiries.

It could be argued that there are four main parts to an MP’s job: taking part in debates at Westminster; working in Committees; dealing with problems and issues for constituents; and visiting and keeping in touch with local people and organisations. Without going into Westminster, the interests of the local people in the constituency can’t be represented at a national level. On the other hand, if an MP spends all their time in Westminster then local people will not be able to share their insights and concerns.

The nature of a good MP is one who divides their time appropriately between Parliament and their constituency and makes use of all the tools available to enable them to undertake a heroic job on behalf of the constituents and be in two places at once.

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