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'What Do MPs Really Do?' - In Defence of Politicians

15/04/2016 10:39

Members of Parliament are acutely aware of the derogatory public image of politicians as a profession, yet individually the public are, in general, more satisfied with their own individual local MP.

Many factors are claimed to have contributed to this disenchantment. One common recurring example given is Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs). We frequently hear that PMQs is a spectacle that is off-putting and feeds an anti-politics, anti-politician mood. Yet hundreds of thousands of television viewers watch PMQs each week, and it is the envy of citizens around the world whose countries leaders are rarely, if ever, held to direct account in so public a fashion.

Much of the work of MPs is filtered through Westminster-based journalists, which means that work done in constituencies and when the House is not sitting is often ignored or presented as 'holiday time'. If only! As a result, it's easy to end up buying into what seems like a constant stream of negative reporting about the failings of politicians.

There is a different story that goes largely unreported and unrecognised.

As part of an ongoing programme of research commissioned by the House of Commons Administration Committee, more than 50 departing Members were interviewed at the 2015 General Election. They included Members who chose to stand down and those not re-elected.

Seeking feedback from a defined group of Members in this way presents a particular angle, of course, but it also had the advantage that participants could look back and consider their role in the round. They could be very open as they were not facing the ballot box again.

The report, published today, paints a rather vivid picture of what being an MP entails and the implications for MPs' lives beyond the job. What shines through is that across the party spectrum MPs are unified in their desire to serve the public they represent in the best way they can.

So, what exactly do MPs do?

Everyone spoken to described busy and hectic lives that involved balancing a range of responsibilities. Across their 70-80 hour working week, they juggled the pressures of working both at Westminster and in the constituency; speaking in the Chamber and fulfilling other parliamentary roles such as being on select or legislative committees; and running an office, which brings with it staffing and budgetary responsibilities. MPs have frequently been described as 650 small business managers, which is apt.

The job is truly unique. As one interviewee remarked: "As an MP, your interview panel is made up of thousands of people with different expectations and there is no job description." It's a constant challenge to meet everyone's needs and to get the balance right with so many conflicting expectations.

It is also worth noting that constituency caseloads are rising, with MPs in larger or urban constituencies receiving between 500-1,000 letters or calls or emails a week - and sometimes considerably more! It was also felt there was an increase in very difficult cases that needed their attention and support - "for example, child protection, domestic violence, threats of suicide, people with no money and nothing in the cupboard". One MP spoken to described feeling like a "last resort social service". Members' spoke about how crucial their staff were, allowing them to be effective and maintain the balance between Westminster and constituency.

Then there are the human pressures of balancing a public and a private life.

My colleagues and I recognise that we are privileged to do our job. Nobody becomes an MP expecting the role to be a '9-5' job, but the toll that long hours and splitting time between Parliament and your constituency can have on family life may be underestimated. Feedback from MPs will sound very familiar I'm sure to many people working in high-pressure, high-profile jobs:

"It has been difficult being away part of the week and so busy. My husband has had to manage alone with the difficulties of having a teenage daughter. Although my daughter has not said so, I felt she has resented her mother being away such a lot. Family life has suffered."

"I was also astonished at the level of press intrusion into my life... I had not expected them to offer my kids money for stories or to launch clear personal attacks."

In fact, the most common reason given for standing down was the impact being an MP had on family life: "I wouldn't have done it [become an MP] if I had realised how hard it was to be an MP with young children in the constituency."

My view is that a general lack of knowledge about what Parliament does and how it works helps to perpetuate the uncritical belief that politicians are lazy, looking to their interests and neglecting duties to their constituents.

The Hansard Society's Annual Audit, published earlier this week, showed some positive shifts in attitudes towards Parliament. There has been a post-election bounce in political engagement, particularly among youngest and oldest citizens, and the public claim to be more interested in and knowledgeable about politics. We have the highest ever percentage (73%) agreeing that "Parliament is essential to our democracy", and similarly, the highest figure recorded (58%) agreeing that Parliament 'debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to me'. And while we are yet to see this translate to reality, a notable finding is that the percentage of 18-24 year olds saying they would be certain to vote in a general election is up from 16% to 39% year on year.

I am delighted that engagement levels are increasing and people are more satisfied with their local MP (35%), but recognise that we need to do more to open up the work of the House to help explain the work of MPs - particularly what happens beyond the walls of the main debating Chamber in the Commons - and to enable and encourage participation.

Steps are being taken to make these much needed improvements.

A number of changes made in recent years, such as the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee and the increased use of Emergency Debates and Urgent Questions, are having a positive impact with backbench MPs visibly holding Government to account.

The 2015 intake of MPs, while still not representative of the British public, is the most diverse ever. The percentage of women MPs rose from 22% to 29%, from 2010 to 2015, and the percentage of BAME MPs from 4% to 6%.

My committee recently heard from the House's Outreach and Engagement Service about the many pubic programmes and events it runs, enabling people to find out what Parliament does and how they can take an active part. In 2016 they are focusing on building better links with Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

My final plea to all readers would be: the next time you see an image of an almost empty Chamber, take a moment to consider where else MPs may be and what they could be doing - whether scrutinising the Government on Select Committees, raising issues for debate in Westminster Hall, working on behalf of individual constituents facing difficulties, dealing with party matters, campaigning, or running a busy office as an employer. Indeed, Members will often be following debates on TV or online from wherever they are during each sitting day.

I would also invite you to consider ways in which you could, or would like to, get involved in your parliamentary democracy. As MPs we represent everyone in our constituency, even if you didn't vote for us. In order for us to represent your views, we need you to tell us what is important to you. You can find out how to contact your MP, sign a petition, submit evidence to a committee, and search for free events taking place in your local area on our website: parliament.uk/get-involved

Sir Paul Beresford is the Conservative MP for Mole Valley and chair of the House of Commons Administration Committee

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