I have commented on the number of letters received in the Palace of Westminster, but I have not discussed the nature of some of the correspondence we receive. There is a problem not only in coping with the sheer volume, but also at times in knowing how to deal with the content. Some letters are straightforward, commenting on policies or providing briefings on Bills. However, letters from some individuals can be time-consuming and perplexing, and at times harrowing.
The problem is particularly acute for MPs. They receive more letters than do peers and if the letters are from constituents they cannot avoid dealing with them. Some correspondents are prone to write frequently, absorbing a disproportionate amount of time. Some people who write are simply irritating, usually thinking they are the only ones who are right. Some write on what are essentially trivial matters (that is, trivial in context – some matters that to us may appear minor may weigh heavily on some individuals) or cover issues that should be pursued with other agencies. Some, however, are difficult to deal with because the writers are not necessarily rational. The giveaway that there are problems is the presentation: there is the excessive use of capitals and of different coloured ink. Another giveaway is who is copied in to the correspondence: it is usually luminaries such as the PM, UN Secretary-General, the Lord Chancellor, the Queen – the list can be a long one.
Some of the correspondence is fairly harmless and some in any event cannot be replied to as there is no return address – this in my experience tends to apply to religious tracts. Sometimes one is sent no more than a photocopy of a newspaper article, on occasion annotated, but without any idea of what the sender expects the recipient do about it. However, the real problem arises when someone gives their name and address and want you to take action. Some letters start off sounding reasonable, but then become lengthy discourses on the fact that the government and other public agencies are using thought transference to control them or every public agency is engaged in a giant conspiracy to defraud them. Some writers are eccentric, but others clearly have mental health issues.
What, then, to do about them? In many cases, there is no need to respond as one has been copied in and is not the principal recipient. (There is also a danger if one does respond this will trigger even more correspondence.) Should one respond to those who write direct? There is a particular problem, as I say, for MPs where the writers are constituents. But what should other parliamentarians do? Should they ignore the letters, simply acknowledge receipt, or send substantive responses? My general rule is to steer clear, but I do wrestle with the issue.