MPs’ workload

I did an interview yesterday for Radio Lincolnshire on the issue of MPs’ constituency work.  The programme was pursuing a comment by MP James Gray that Members should spend less time in their constituencies and more at Westminster scrutinising government.  I explained that the constituency workload of MPs had increased decade after decade – for various reasons – and  that there was now a problem of the time devoted to constituency work encroaching on the task that MPs fulfil collectively at Westminster in relation to government.   MPs are bad at saying ‘no’ to requests from constituents, even if they are matters for which government have no responsibility and despite the fact that Members are not trained as social workers and may not be knowledgeable about the matters raised by constituents.   There are various bodies and grievance-chasing agencies that could pursue the matters raised by constituents, but only MPs can carry out the tasks ascribed to the House of Commons.

I did point out that one solution would be to enhance the resources available to MPs in carrying out their constituency casework, but that this solution was not feasible at the moment.   Giving extra resources to MPs at the present time of austerity, and following the scandal of MPs’ expenses, is not exactly politically feasible – with the potential for those objecting to increased resources to include the very people that want their MP to do something for them.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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12 Responses to MPs’ workload

  1. James Walker says:

    Lord Norton, I feel that the problem of giving increased resources to MPs isn’t just related to the problem in the current climate of spending cuts, but more one of that people think that, like the expenses people feel there is a potential for abuse.

    As a suggestion, how about the following: MPs constituency casework is recorded and anonymised with time taken over each constituent/issue, but categorised into issues for example social, enviromental, and if the issue is referred to a another body this is also recorded. Finally all constitents talking to their MP about an issue have an opt-in to make their correspondence partially or wholly public for publishing on the website – this could be framed as allowing the constituents to share their concerns in a wider area.

    This way casework can still be private but it can be publically accessed to see what MPs are doing with their time, and if people are asking their mp about a common issue it gives them the ability to form into a single group. Finally it could also be used as a measure of what people are generally concerned about and what the government both locally and nationally should spend its time on.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this

    • Lord Norton says:

      James Walker: Thanks for the suggestion. The point I would raise is a practical one. I am not sure who would do the recording of the MP’s casework and categorising it in the way you recommend. I suspect it would entail creating more resources in order to implement.

  2. Anon says:

    MPs forward on so many emails and letters straight to Government – and other public and private bodies – without saying ‘no’, thereby raising expectations from the constituent, and giving them the impression the MP is battling on their behalf. They do this without consideration of the contents of the email, which are often angry/irrelevant/nothing to do with Government or the body it is sent too.

    Since email has become predominant, this has exasperated the problem with the ‘Green Ink Brigade’. A 3 sentence whinge to an MP gets sent to Government and causes 3 hours of work and research back to the MP to forward back on.

    MPs inboxes are busier, but the actual impact on resource is within the Executive, and other bodies.

    I don’t see a strong case for increased resource for MPs, but certainly more for training MPs and their offices to be able to say ‘No’.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Anon: I agree that the almost mechanical way in which correspondence is treated, with material passed on to ministers when there is little point in doing so, is a problem. Some MPs often forward correspondence even though the issue covered has already come upon before and they are quite capable of responding without a letter from a minister. Training MPs and their staff to say ‘no’ to constituents is going to be difficult: MPs are reluctant to be seen to be not helping their constituents.

  3. Paul says:

    A slight side issue but one thing that I don’t seem to have seen mentioned is the extra workload that MPs will be expected to take on after the boundary changes. As far as I know, the Bill provides no provisions for extra staff members etc.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Paul: Indeed, though the increase may be offset by the fact that in the past year or so the volume of correspondence received by MPs has gone down. (See my post on the subject on Lords of the Blog.)

  4. Princeps Senatus says:

    I agree with the obeservation that MPs workload has grown tremendously, out of all proportion to their other duties. I have worked with MPs and their offices and am appalled at how little time they can dedicate to legislation and holding the government to account. It is almost as if MPs have ceded the job of tidying up legislation to the other side of the corridor and are kept busy responding to the public’s complaints, often in irrelevant areas, such as the bus stop being moved two streets down, etc.
    There are two possible solutions that I would suggest.
    a) Elect two MPs for each constituency. One MP deals with legislation, the other with complaints. That would not automatically lead to doubling the size of the Commons. Just double the size of each constituency. So, divide the UK into 300 constituencies, each electing two MPs. that after all was the electoral system before the 1880s.
    b) Create a German style Petitions Committee. It will have a member of each political party in the Commons. All the casework of all MPs will be redirected to the party representative on the Petitions Committee. The committee is effectively a super-onbudsman, while the other MPs can focus on legislation & scrutiny.
    http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/bundestag/committees/a02/index.html

    • Lord Norton says:

      Princeps Senatus: The issue of petitions is presently on the agenda. Constituents can write to their MP but petitions are presently largely a waste of time, certainly in terms of the relationship between the effort expended on them (extensive often) and what happens to them (usually very little). The need to generate a more meaningful petituons process is being pursued, but whether it comes to fruition remains to be seen. Having two MPs per constituency may generate some of the tensions one sees between constituency and list MSPs in Scotland. I think the principal solution is through an educative process – for the MP as well as for constituents.

  5. ladytizzy says:

    Lord Norton, given your gift to handle an extraordinary workload on a pittance do you think you could explain to your well-resourced neighbours the art of delegation? Perhaps they could pay you a similar amount that goes to PR classes for them.

    PS why did Radio Lincolnshire ask a Lord for comment? Were they all too busy?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I recognise the need to relate activity to outcomes. I focus on what needs to be done and the most efficient means of doing it. I am struck by how many MPs rush around doing things without necessarily achieving anything. They need to be willing to say no. When they get invitations to events, not least receptions, many will say yes unless there is a compelling reason to say no. With me, it is the other way round. I say no unless there is a compelling reason to say yes.

  6. tory boy says:

    The problem is that MPs need to decide whether they are to be social workers (via case work) or legislators in Parliament.

    • Lord Norton says:

      tory boy: They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though there is, as I have indicated, a growing tension. MPs feel they have to devote themselves to constituency work even though most would prefer to focus on their Westminster role.

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