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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The growing demands and challenges for members in representation, legislation and oversight

Thursday, July 8, 2010

At a conference organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy Meg gave the following speech. The conference was for international Parliamentarians - delegates came from Uganda, Lebanon, Georgia, Mozambique and Ukraine.

 

Just two months ago we suddenly had over 200 new Members of Parliament arriving in Westminster. Since then they have been getting to grips with their strange new role, a completely new life with demands and pressures not experienced before. In any new job you have to adjust, but in most jobs you have a boss, someone to tell you where to sit, someone to allocate your work. A Member of Parliament has more freedom but you still have people you are responsible to.

 

There are the constituents the people you represent. In the UK that could be around 70,000 people - people holding every possible view on a particular topic and none, people having very different expectations of what their Member of Parliament should be doing.

 

There’s the political party, at national and regional levels. Also the individual members in the constituency you represent. Sometimes these various levels of the party have very different expectations of how an individual MP should act on a particular issue.

 

Within Westminster there are the party whips members of your own party charged with ensuring that the party speaks and votes together. They are especially important when in Government as they endeavour to get your programme through parliament.

 

So while MPs can chose how to allocate their own time there are many people who have an interest in those decisions - an important consideration if you want your role as an MP to be a long one.

 

Changes in representation

The job of an MP has changed enormously during the last 30 40 years. It used to be the case that an MP could be largely based in London, perhaps visiting their constituency once a month or so. Today many Members of Parliament either live in or near their constituencies, spending four days a week away from home working in Westminster. Others, who are based in London, expect to spend Fridays and part of the weekend in the constituency.

 

MPs used to receive little correspondence from constituents, during their constituency visits they would hold a public surgery so local people could explain to the MP what they wanted them to take up. It was just as well that they received little in the way of letters because MPs did not receive any support from Parliament to deal with them, no secretarial or research help; they had to pay for hiring of a room for the local surgeries.

 

Today MPs receive huge amounts of correspondence, not just from their constituents asking for help, but from all sorts of organisations seeking to influence their behaviour. MPs are now expected to pursue casework and try and resolve problems for their constituents in a wide variety of areas. Of course the development of e-mail has led to an exponential growth in people getting in touch, including constituents and others just forwarding campaign e-mails from a variety of pressure groups many of which you have never heard of!

 

Receiving adequate help

Parliament now provides support to each MP for the costs of setting up a constituency office, employing staff and research facilities. Without this support it would be impossible for the individual Member of Parliament to provide anything like an adequate level of help for constituents unless the MP is a millionaire! We also receive help from Parliament in other ways for instance the House of Commons Library employ research staff who issue regular updates on many issues of the day. They also respond to specific requests of MPs, providing detailed research to help a constituent’s problem or a particular matter that the MP is taking up.

 

An MP must know how to use the various ways available in parliament to raise issues affecting their constituents. These include asking Government Ministers probing questions, initiating debates on particular issues and introducing your own legislation. Even experienced MPs rely on the advice and help from the permanent staff employed by parliament. For example, the Table Office provide advice on the phrasing of parliamentary questions, their expertise lies in ensuring your questions go to the right department, and making sure the wording is acceptable.  

 

Websites - there may be a few MPs of very long standing who have yet to have their own website, but I guarantee that every one of the new MP’s will have a website running. It’s one way we do business now; a way of communicating with the electorate. Some write a regular blog, while others use twitter, tweeting short updates about key issues to anyone who chooses to follow them. The rules in the Chamber of the House of Commons have recently changed and electronic devices are now allowed, allowing MPs to communicate in ‘real time’ to those outside.  

 

MPs also pool resources through their political party, for instance to ensure that they receive briefings on current issues. When in Government this means daily briefings to explain and promote policy and action. In opposition these briefings ensure the party view is clear, and can aid an MP in constructing a speech or article opposing Government policy.

 

Legislation

I had been a member of my political party for over 25 years, and as an activist I was familiar with political issues and policy. What I didn’t know when becoming a Member of Parliament was the ‘nuts and bolts’ of legislation, particularly the legal language contained in an Act of Parliament. Of course we do have many MPs who are solicitors, for whom this is perhaps less of a shock. But for most new MPs it’s vital to spend time learning about the process of passing legislation through Parliament, and the procedure of how it is drafted.  

 

The people who actually draft Bills in the legal language which they require often take weeks to do so, and their drafts are then checked and double checked by top lawyers. So for an MP to try and amend a Bill can be a daunting prospect - for an experienced as well as a relatively new MP. But the staff within the Bill Office in Parliament will help Members get it right. If you want to put forward your own legislation they can help with getting the title right although they won’t draft it for you.

 

With the development of the internet it has become possible for people outside of parliament to follow the legislative process. Governments, in the recent past, have decided that more legislation should be published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny. For example, a few years ago we were bringing in new mental health legislation an area that is usually only legislated on every 20 25 years. As it affects the liberty of individuals it was thought right to have a committee of parliamentarians look in depth at the proposed legislation. They met professionals in this area, lobby groups, services users and their families and held site visits at examples of the facilities involved.

 

Oversight role

Parliament has a number of mechanisms in place to give parliamentarians the opportunity to exercise oversight and scrutiny of government. Written and oral questions to Ministers in the various departments of State are important, as is the opportunity to both initiate and contribute to debates.

 

We also have various Select Committees of the House of Commons, established to scrutinise the work of each of the main departments of state. Each Committee has representation reflecting the strength of the political parties in the Commons. They are assisted by a small number of officials who undertake their work under the direction of committee members. They also appoint experts to give advice to the MPs, who may or may not be well versed in the subject matter.

 

There are also All Party Parliamentary Groups, established by MPs to focus on a particular issue and sometimes have the support of an outside organisation. The rules state that these groups have to be supported by MPs across the political spectrum and have to be on a public register.

 

Self education

MPs have to deal with a wide range of matters, some of which will be in areas they have not experienced before. Inevitably we need to ensure we get information and help to understand these issues. This can include attending seminars, taking part in planned work schemes organised by outside bodies such as the armed forces scheme, police scheme, Industry and Parliament Trust. These enable the MP to spend time learning about a particular area of life or particular industry. International issues are important to many MPs and they can gain knowledge and experience through visits overseas with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or International Parliamentary Union.

 

Conclusion

There are so many different aspects to the role of being a Member of Parliament that I generally advise new MPs not to expect to have the full range of processes clear for at least two years. Crucially it’s important for each MP to decide for themselves how they will carry out their role. What are the issues that matter most to them and their constituents? What are their interests? Where might they make a difference? And of course are they going to be one of the first to take up the next new way of communicating whatever comes next after twitter. Only when MPs have answered those questions can they determine how they will organise their time and hopefully make their mark. 

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