The appalling death of Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, generated considerable reflection on the role of an MP. There was recognition that MPs are generally dedicated public servants. Jo Cox was a remarkably able and dedicated Member. She was one of many. There has been a tendency to generalise from the unworthy few rather than the hardworking many. MPs work long and unsocial hours and the demands of the job have got greater over time. If there is one positive thing that may possibly come out of this tragedy (other than the amazing public response in donating to Jo Cox’s favoured charities) is a better public awareness of what MPs do. It may provide some balance to the cynical and generally ill-informed view taken of MPs and the work they undertake.
The other reflection has been on the specific constituency work of the MP, not least casework undertaken through constituency surgeries. Such surgeries are a post-war development. They are taken now as a given part of an MP’s role. Discussion in recent days has focused on whether or not security at surgeries should be stepped up. Jo Cox was not the first MP to be physically attacked at a surgery, nor the first to be killed at a surgery. MPs are reluctant to have too much overt security, as they don’t want to put up barriers between them and their constituents.
This discussion, though, is premised on the value and continued existence of such surgeries. Constituents look to MPs to put the constituency first. Constituency work takes up an increasing volume of an MP’s weekly schedule. However, there is a difference between pursuing constituency interests and the interests of particular constituents. MPs are well placed to make the case for the economic, environmental and social benefit of their constituencies. Constituents look to them also to take up their particular grievances, even if not related directly to matters for which government has responsibility. Demand is matched by supply. MPs are reluctant to say no to constituents. They see casework as keeping them aware of the problems faced by constituents – it keeps them in touch with the real world. However, most MPs are not trained social workers. Many of the problems brought to them could be better dealt with by professional agencies or by individuals trained to deal with such issues. Insofar as issues could still be pursued via Members, there may be a case for more resources to hire additional caseworkers or someone trained to refer the constituents to the most appropriate authorities. As things stand, the more constituency casework an MP takes on, the less time there is to devote to the particularly important cases and to pursuing the interests of the constituency. There is also an opportunity cost in terms of fulfilling the tasks which only MPs collectively can fulfil and that is calling government to account and scrutinising legislation.
I am not saying MPs should give up constituency casework. (Many years ago I encountered an MP who argued that MPs should be statute-barred from undertaking constituency casework. He was subsequently deselected.) However, given the increasing pressures of such work, and the sheer demands it makes of Members, I think there is a case for a serious discussion as to whether MPs should simply continue on their present trajectory of dealing with all the matters brought to them by constituents. We need to stand back and think about an MP’s role rather than simply plough on regardless.