Friday, 26 October 2007

MPs expenses - the questions that need to be asked!

So the annual media frenzy around MPs expense claims is underway. The Daily Mail's coverage is particularly infuriating: "MPs are now picking up an average £200,000 for working 34 weeks a year". But that will be saved for another blog!

I haven't looked at my expenses in any detail yet, but think I had a fairly average claim, apart from higher than average postal costs (the second highest amongst local MPs). And that's because I respond to everyone who contacts me on an issue, whether it's through traditional letters/ emails/ surgery appointments, or through postcard campaigns, email campaigns or petitions. Bristol East constituents being what they are - a pretty clued-up, politically aware, politically active bunch of people - I get more of the latter type of correspondence than many MPs. Many constituents are members of organisations like Greenpeace, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, and take part in their campaigns by lobbying MPs. The 'standing in St. Mark's Road on a Saturday afternoon' type of campaign always results a heavy postbag for me, with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign holding the current record of about 800 or so postcards. Although the local bingo hall wasn't far behind, with about 500 cards calling for a change in bingo taxation.

I respond to them all, usually with a letter from me setting out my views and often an enclosed letter from the relevant Government Minister, after I've written to him/ her on the constituents' behalf. Sometimes I will follow up again at a later date, if there have been important developments, for example, with the Climate Change Bill being published. To give another example: I recently received a petitition from churchgoers and some local residents in Brislington, calling for me to oppose attempts to tighten the law on smacking children. I wrote back, explaining why I was supporting the Children are Unbeatable alliance. (I don't just write to people when they're going to like what they hear!) The Goverment announced yesterday, however, that it had decided against changing the law, so I sent another letter out to all the signatories, updating them on this. Occasionally, if someone comes to a surgery and raises a local issue, I also write out to local residents asking them if they think it's a problem too, so I can be sure I'm representing everyone, not just the person who has come forward. So if someone says there's a parking problem in their street, I'll write to everyone in the street.

I think this is what an MP should be doing; if constituents take the trouble to let us know their views, or raise concerns with us, we owe it to them to respond. That's our job.

So the questions that should really be asked about the MPs' expenses tables are: just how come some MPs have managed to get through an entire year without spending any money at all on postage? They all seem to be claiming the full - or virtually the full - allowances for staff, so what are their staff doing all day? They can't be doing everything by telephone and email. (I probably sign about 100 casework letters each work for a start; that's just casework, not policy).

The press have pointed out that many of the highest spending MPs are in marginal seats. I'd turn this on its head and point out that many of the lowest spending MPs are in very safe seats. Are their majorities so big they can get away with taking their constituents for granted, year after year? Would you rather your MP spent taxpayers money on replying to your letter - or do you think they should just throw it in the bin?

Later on this evening - why we don't get 91 days holiday a year. (And why we're not 'picking up' £200,000 either!)

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