How do MPs take up constituents issues?
MPs take seriously the idea of representing all of their constituents and not just those who voted for them and will often make a point of saying this in their winning speech at the count on election night. However, an MP active in the constituency is able to get more votes at the election in what has been called the incumbency effect.
Three types of issues come to MPs from their constituency:-
Constituents bring their personal issues to the MP such as problems with landlords, with the tax system or with delays in the payment of benefits. Most MPs pay out of their expenses for an office in the constituency with full time staff to contact the relevant authorities and try to sort these out. MPs also normally hold a ‘surgery’ in the constituency on a regular basis so that people can talk to them directly. If they feel that there has been serious maladministration by a public authority that has affected a constituent, MPs can refer the issue to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, generally known as the Ombudsman, who will investigate and report on what has happened.
Constituents will contact MPs by letter, or now more often by email, about a host of issues that they think are important such as the effect of the proposed US-EU trade deal, the bombing of Syria, food banks or the petrol duty. The staff in the MP’s Westminster office will answer these after the reply is approved by the MP. If the MP thinks the issue is important then they may write to the relevant Government minister or organisation to pursue the matter further. MPs may simply disagree with the constituent and have to say so, such as a constituent who favours capital punishment, or party policy may be contrary to what the constituent wants. In the latter case the MP has to decide whether and how far they want to deviate from the line that the party leadership has laid down.
Issues may arise in the constituency such as a large housing development or a hospital closure or local flooding. In addition, changes in policy may affect the area such as new EU fishing quotas which will be very important for a fishing town. The MP’s job is to bring people together to discuss the issue and put pressure on the relevant agencies to resolve the issue to the benefit of the constituency. Some problems may be politically difficult - an MP may see the need for a hostel for prisoners who have served their sentence and need to be rehabilitated back into the community but residents will not want it near them – half of the people in the town of Newbury wanted a by-pass and the other half did not and the Liberal Democrat MP suffered by taking sides in the argument.
MPs mostly take up constituents’ personal problems with the relevant authorities but they may raise them in Parliament. This will normally be only be the most extreme cases such as a constituent who has been detained in prison abroad and the MP will use questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister as a way of raising the issue. More normally MPs in debates or Parliamentary questions may refer to typical cases that they are dealing with frequently – when the Child Support Agency was asking fathers who were no longer with their children for payments which were way beyond what their incomes would allow, MPs had lots of complaints and raised this in Parliament. In the end the Government closed the Agency down. MPs may raise an issue such as the effect of the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy and quote a case without mentioning the individual’s name and probably with their permission. If MPs see a need for a change in policy as a result of the constituency problems they encounter or are convinced by a constituent’s view on a policy issue there are a number of vehicles open to them in Parliament:-
- They can raise the issue in a general debate. Parliamentary rules also allow them intervene and make a point on an issue that another MP is speaking on.
- They can apply for an Adjournment debate. This allows an MP to speak briefly on an issue at the end of the day’s proceedings and a Government minister has to reply
- They can initiate a Westminster Hall debate. This takes place not in the main Chamber but in a separate room near to Westminster Hall, which is part of the Parliamentary buildings. Other MPs with an interest in the topic take part and a Government minister replies.
- They can ask a question to the Prime Minister or to other Ministers. As well as Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesdays, Ministers from each Department take it in turn to answer questions from MPs. MPs can also put down a written question, or even a series of questions, to the Departmental Minister to pursue an issue.
- MPs can put down an Early Day Motion. This is not debated in Parliament but allows other MPs to sign the motion to show that they are also concerned.