Constituency work

The constituency work of MPs has increased enormously decade by decade over the past half-century.  That is clear from the reported experience of MPs and of various surveys.  However, getting hard data is not always easy, especially on the different forms of communications received by Members.  I was therefore very interested in the figures given by Craig Whittaker, the new MP for Calder Valley, in his written submission to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, in which he writes:

“My experience shows that in my 10 months (full financial year) of Parliament as an MP, my office dealt with over 39,400 pieces of communication (c24,000 emails, 9,600 letters, and 4,800 telephone calls) as well as 2,183 constituents’ cases.”

This is valuable information, not least for showing the extent to which MPs’ offices are now inundated by e-mails.  We have data on the number of letters received in the Palace of Westminster each year, but not on the number of e-mails received by Members.  Electronic communication is growing and there is an issue as to whether MPs’ resources are such as to be able to cope.  In the present environment, seeking additional resources for parliamentarians is not likely to be politically feasible.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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14 Responses to Constituency work

  1. Dean B says:

    “Electronic communication is growing and there is an issue as to whether MPs’ resources are such as to be able to cope.”

    This implies that at least some emails are received by those who wouldn’t previously have written a letter. I’m sure that’s true, but presumably research needs to be done into the extent of this before drawing any conclusions with regard to resources? At the extreme, it could be that everyone who emails would simply have written a letter were email not available, in which case no extra resources are needed at all.

    It is also worth stating that email and other technology allows all of us, including parliamentarians and their staff, to work far more efficiently than before. I worked for an MP in 1996-97, and as I think back to my daily duties, modern technology would probably have saved a couple of hours every single day, so perhaps their is an argument for MPs now having fewer resources?!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: My experience is that e-mails are coming in that would not have been submitted by letter. E-mails, of course, are easier to send to everyone – as well as cheaper – than paper communications. Technology can ensure one is more efficient in replying, but one is replying to communications that would not otherwise have been received.

      • Dean B says:

        Yes, I am sure that your experience is typical and that many or even most of the emails that make their way into parliament would not have been submitted by letter. I’m simply pointing out that you seem to be advocating an evidence-based approach rather than anecdotal, yet the evidence you have cited is not complete and so, on its own, would not be suitable as the basis for a decision.
        On the subject of how technology is helping parliamentarians, I was not only referring to replying to emails. Much of the other communication involved in a parliamentarian’s workload can now be performed much more quickly – sending documents between offices, communication with ministers and other government departments, issuing press releases, etc. I spent hours at the fax machine, trying to send 100 page documents from the London office to the constituency. The line would be engaged, the machine would run out of paper, or ink, or the results would appear ineligible, and of course this was only suitable for black and white A4 sized documents anyway. The alternative was an hour at the photocopier (crossing your fingers that you wouldn’t get the dreaded ‘paper jam’ which could add another 20 minutes to the task), before packaging up the copies to post, so that they would arrive at their destination perhaps 2 days later. None of this stuff, I assume, now happens. Documents are now emailed around in a split second.
        Communication is not the only area of work affected. Most MPs’ offices now have case management software that was not available 20 years ago. Laptops, tablets and smart phones now mean that they and their staff can work from any location, cutting down on travel time and allowing work during the travel time that is necessary.
        I am a supporter of more resources for parliamentarians and am not denying that their workload has increased due to the rise of email, quite possibly to an extent that outweighs the benefits I have mentioned – I am just pointing out that if you seek to justify increased resources on empirical grounds then research would have to consider far more than simply counting the number of emails received.

  2. Parliamentary Staffer says:

    It’s probably worth pointing out that the volume of correspondence received is such that many staff members have to ‘filter’ it for the MP and act as gatekeepers. Otherwise, an MP would spend all of their time dealing with correspondence.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Parliamentary Staffer: Indeed, this is common practice. One of my students did his research project some years ago on who opened the mail in MPs’ offices and the results confirmed your observation.

  3. ladytizzy says:

    It might be useful to compare the quests within emails and letters eg how many were junk/spam, round-robins, constituency based or specific to the MP’s declared (or not) interests etc.

    If I may expand the point, luck would have it that I have more often than not lived in constituencies represented by MPs who also held senior government positions. Understandably, constituents are unlikely ever to see them, especially if they are the PM or Speaker although attempts are made to stage at least one surgery per annum.

    The constituency work load is normally syphoned off to a hierarchy of local councillors, and very effectively too, but during the MP’s tenure I remained feeling short-changed. Apart from the oft made comments on the contents of the work load rightly belonging to councillors in the first place, would it be feasible, warranted, and/or desirable for certain MPs (such as party leader, and Speaker) to stand for election on a dual ticket in a similar way to the US President and VP?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Indeed, my impression is that e-mails are used on a significant scale for commenting on policy, much more so than letters. On your last point, there are obvious resource implications.

  4. maude elwes says:

    Not sensible to complain about being inundated with mail. E or otherwise. The job of MP is to act as representative for his/her constituents. They are servants of the people after all. And surgeries, you should be so fortunate, where I live they have never heard of such a thing.

    That said, I can verify the staff in my MP’s office are quickly responsive, should it be a matter of urgency.You simply e-mail. And they usually get the reply they want once in action. It is a finely tuned machine with a lot of experience.

  5. maude elwes says:

    The first tool being a good functioning brain that fully understands the responsibilities taken on in certain positions of trust. The job of MP being one of them. My MP relies on his dedicated staff to do his constituency work, which really suggests his staff should run for office in his place.

  6. maude elwes says:

    I shall. Thank you for the response and direction.

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