Thursday, 30 July 2009

Recess not holiday

In case people hadn't realised I am still very much here and working, despite what you may hear about MPs having an 82 day holiday. In fact on Monday I was at an event with three other local MPs - Doug, Roger and Stephen Williams - and on Tuesday I was with Dawn P, and Jim Knight and Liam Byrne - so that makes at least seven of us who aren't on holiday at this precise moment. And Andrew Gwynne who is busy fighting - and winning - by-elections in his constituency. I'm sure there are many more of us.

There are two questionnaires doing the rounds at the moment about MPs' holiday plans, one from the 38 degrees campaign, to which I have yet to respond, and one from the Telegraph which asks in rather brusque fashion a series of questions along the lines of: are you going to party conference this year? are you staying the whole week? (Because if you confess you're only going for a couple of days they will be able to add a couple more days to your 'skiving off' total).

Here's the Telegraph's full set of questions, the results of which were meant to appear in last Sunday's paper but didn't, I suspect because the vast majority of MPs told them where they could shove their survey, and they don't have enough material yet. They are apparently running it this coming weekend, with all MPs listed, including the 'No comments'. Anyway, here it is.

The Daily Telegraph is conducting an investigation into MPs’ plans for the summer recess. As part of this investigation, we would be very grateful if you could answer these short questions about your own plans.

1. Have you made plans to take any overseas vacations during the Parliamentary recess?

2. If so, where will you be travelling to, and for how many days?

3. If you have not yet made plans to take any overseas vacations during the Parliamentary recess, do you consider that it is likely that you will make such plans later in the summer?

4. If so, where do you anticipate travelling to, and for how many days? Please provide a broad estimate (ie “roughly two weeks / somewhere in Europe) if you are unsure.

5. Have you made plans to take any vacations within the British Isles during the Parliamentary recess?

6. If so, where will you be travelling to, and for how many days?

7. If you have not yet made plans to take any vacations within the British Isles during the Parliamentary recess, do you consider that it is likely that you will make such plans later in the summer?

8. If so, where do you anticipate travelling to, and for how many days? Please provide a broad estimate (ie “roughly two weeks / somewhere in Scotland) if you are unsure.

9. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in your constituency during the Parliamentary recess?

10. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in London or elsewhere on Parliamentary, party or ministerial / shadow ministerial duties during the Parliamentary recess?

11. How many days or part-days do you anticipate spending in London or elsewhere on non-Parliamentary, party or ministerial business during the Parliamentary recess? Please elaborate on your activities. (ie work as a director / spending time in London second home working on book)

12. Will you attend some or all of your party conference? If so, how long will you attend for?

13. Do you consider that your plans this year are broadly similar to those of previous years?

14. If not, what are the reasons for the change?

And here's the email from 38 Degrees:

Dear MP,

Thankyou for representing me in parlement , to help do this effectively i ask the following: Please be transparent about how you're planning to spend your time away from parliament this summer by filling in this survey from 38 Degrees: [http://confirm.38degrees.org.uk/MPSummerWorkSurvey]

I hope you'll be using the break from parliament to focus on other parts of your job as an MP, taking the chance to spend time in our local area working hard for our local community. I am concerned though that some MPs may use the time to take excessively long holidays and work on extremely well paid second jobs.

Please fill in this survey
http://confirm.38degrees.org.uk/MPSummerWorkSurvey
to reassure me and other voters that you are working for the people that elected you this summer, and let me know when you have done so. I'll be checking back on the 38 Degrees web site in a few weeks to see what you've said.

I'm asking you to complete the survey because I think we have a right to know what our elected representatives are working on. Please let me know if you disagree and explain your reasons why.

Thank you...

I confess, both these emails made me a little angry. They are predicated on the notion that MPs are lazy, unmotivated, and couldn't care less about their constituencies or - if you insist on being cynical - given where we are in the electoral cycle, getting out and meeting the voters.

I think the Telegraph has a cheek to ask such questions. It's up to my constituents surely to decide whether they think I'm doing a good job and putting in the hours, and seeing as I have a blog and a website and am fairly often in the local media I think they're in a pretty good position to judge whether I am actually working during recess or sunning myself on a beach somewhere from July 22nd to October 12th. And of course people soon realise whether you're turning up to events or not. But -what next? Publishing our time sheets online at the end of every week? Clocking in at the beginning and end of every day? Electronic tagging?

OK, the 38 degrees email was purportedly from a constituent (although I don't think they've confirmed that yet by providing an address), and I will of course be helpful and point them in the direction of where they can keep tabs on me should they wish to do so. Or even meet them if they want to. But I'm not signing up to a website which encourages people to submit photos of their MPs working or not working over the summer. (What is working, anyway - if I go to St Marks Road street party and am pictured with Paul Smith and his son eating icecream, is that work or me having a good time? Answer: it's both. But that's why it's so difficult to quantify how many hours a week an MP works. I've spent the entire evening looking at emails, blogging and on Twitter. Soon I'll be going to bed with a copy of today's Guardian I haven't read yet. So am I working? Skiving? Or something in-between?

I know most MPs were pretty cross about the Telegraph email, but I have a particular reason for regarding it as an intrusion. Those who have read my posts from a month or two ago will know that some people close to me have had/ have serious health problems at the moment. My holiday this year, if you can call it that, will consist of going to Ireland to see one of them, with the timing, length and even the number of my trip(s) dependent on how he responds to treatment and his operation and, to be frank, whether he makes it through the next few months. I told the Telegraph this and said I had no wish for it to be put in the public domain, and they ought to respect my privacy on this (and yes, I know I am blogging about it now, but I am trying to be as opaque as possible whilst still getting across to you what the issue is and why I feel so strongly about it). The response came back, saying we're sorry to hear of your circumstances but we're going to record an entry for every MP so do you want to be a 'No comment' or a 'Dealing with personal family issues' or some variation on that? Well no, I didn't want to be included in their damn survey at all. I want them to leave me alone. In the end I said to put me down as 'I have no holiday plans, but I will be attending Labour conference and visiting family'. I now feel this was an error on my part. But they really have you over a barrel, don't they? "No comment" could easily be interpreted as four weeks in the Caribbean followed by a cruise in the Greek islands on a Russian oligarch's yacht. "Dealing with personal issues" sounds like you're being packed off to the Priory. So you end up co-operating... or at least I did.

What would be great would be if instead of recording people as 'No comment' the Telegraph recorded MPs actual responses - which I suspect would in many cases be along the lines of "Mind your own ******* business!"

I should add that virtually every MP I've spoken to is having a very modest holiday this year, with the most common destinations being Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, France, maybe Tuscany at a push. Some are even going camping or caravanning. So it's not that they've got anything to hide - and none of them have lucrative second jobs either.

So - if you've managed to read this far, what do you think? Are people entitled to have a blow-by-blow account of what their MPs are up to this summer? Are MPs wrong to feel hounded and harrassed on this issue? Is the Telegraph performing a valuable public service, or can we trust constituents to hold their MPs to account? Your thoughts please.

16 comments:

Atticus Finch said...

Why not say you will complete the surveys when those individuals who sent you it do.(n.b. INDIVIDUALS not organisations)

Atticus Finch said...

Why not send an initial response saying that you will answer it when those individuals who sent you them do. (N.b. individuals not the organisations, ask for a name). I should imagine there is a lot of hypocrisy here.

dreamingspire said...

The 38degrees web site has dealt with a little of its illegality - it now gives the registered number of the company behind it (6642193) but I still cannot find where it identifies its registered office address. From a Companies House search:

Name & Registered Office:
38 DEGREES
8 ANGEL GATE
CITY ROAD
LONDON
EC1V 2SJ
Company No. 06642193

That address is of course also its trading address.

The clearly identified registered No and Registered Office address should of course also be in its emails.

David Love said...

In the current environment and with the widespread confusion of MPs recess (like teachers' school holidays) with relaxing on the beach, it is probably helpful to say something. Whilst some sectors of the media are clearly pushing "hang an MP" for all it's worth, it's also not true that how an MP spends their time is only of interest to constituents. There is this sort of collective disenchantment of the public with politicians as a class (and here I do mean a class per Marx but that's another story). It is in everyone's interest that the "MPs on holiday doing nothing eating expenses" story is shown to be completely false - although presumably there are some who do that...

"Are people entitled to have a blow-by-blow account of what their MPs are up to this summer?"
Not exactly, but it's in your interests and ours that you tell us.

"Are MPs wrong to feel hounded and harrassed on this issue?"
No. Smacks of collective punishment. There's probably even people in Luton who manage to get Kelvin Hopkins and Margaret Moran confused... "they're all the same"...

"Is the Telegraph performing a valuable public service"
this comment has been deleted by the poster before he posted it - as this is probably not the right forum for me to say what I think of that august publication...

"or can we trust constituents to hold their MPs to account?"
Not only them - the issues of MPs and the public are broader than local MP and their constituents.

How would be up to you. One option (which I imagine some MPs do already) is to put your calendar online - at least what city you'll be in what week. That's helpful in general for constituents and stakehodlers who want to invite you for meetings. Of course, in your case Kerry anyone who is interested can compile the stats from your blog and tweets... The point is that it is in the Public Interest, the public's interest and probably the Members' interest (maybe even the Member's Interests in some cases) that the myths on this are falsified in general - and presumably proved in some cases.

Remember Remember said...

The surveys are justified because they inform us of our employees, the government. It's particularly important that we keep a close eye on you with a poised stick because, unlike most other jobs, you can't be fired for laziness and incompetence by us for a number of years. If you take such a safe and well paid position in public office, you place your life in the public domain. It's part of the deal.

Edgar said...

[The e-mails] "are predicated on the notion that MPs are lazy, unmotivated, and couldn't care less about their constituencies."

Yes, they are. I wonder how such a notion could arise?

Edgar said...

Ah, moderation! Typical.

In-Sense and Sensibility said...

If you have nothing to hide then surely there is nothing to fear? This request for information seems to simply reflects your party's argument for ID cards, databases etc....

Have you decided then that as an MP you are not required to explain/justify your role/actions to those that employ you - I know of no other profession where this is the case...

Kerry said...

It's not a case of having things to hide, it's a case of wishing to keep certain things private. There's a difference.

Bristol Dave said...

It's not a case of having things to hide, it's a case of wishing to keep certain things private. There's a difference.

Yes, precisely my argument for not wanting ID cards. FINALLY an MP that understands!!! Thanks Kerry.

Maybe you could explain this principle to the Home Office where so many have failed?

Cal said...

Well you know Kerry, there's certain things we wish to keep private too but it's becoming increasingly difficult with all the surveillance your party impose upon us.

I'm not sure why you oppose our knowing what you actually do for the excessive amount you (all of you, not you personally)cost us, we are after all your employers. A lot of us have to clock in and out and some employers make us clock out if we need the loo, this is considered normal working practice for the working class why not you? Why do you consider yourselves to be different with different rules?

PS I didn't mean you have to clock out for a wee, I think that sort of employer is taking it, but you should, like us, provide evidence that you actually put in the work expected for the huge renumeration you expect. The *huge* is relative, to you it's probably a pittance, to me it would mean living like a king!!

In-Sense and Sensibility said...

Surely someone who has managed to rise to the level of MP has the wit and intelligence to respond giving enough colour to your intended actions whilst also maintaining a reasonable level of privacy. A privacy I may add that as a party you don't seem too bothered about protecting for the rest of us...

Kerry said...

The analogy with ID cards doesn't stand up at all - (a) ID cards only include information which is already held in one form or another anyway and (b) it's not being published.

As for the more general point - I'm not saying at all that MPs should not be accountable and should not 'report' to their constituents so that people know what they've been up to. But we do that already, in many different ways.

Also, the Telegraph survey is ridiculous because it's asking us to confirm what we'll be doing between now and October 12th. I don't have any plans to go into Parliament at all between now and then, but who knows, I might end up doing so. I don't have any holiday plans - but you never know, I might decide in September that I've worked pretty hard and deserve a few days off. I might intend to spend the whole week at conference, but then end up returning to Bristol early...

Bristol Dave said...

The analogy with ID cards doesn't stand up at all - (a) ID cards only include information which is already held in one form or another anyway and (b) it's not being published.

There are a number of issues here which I must highlight:

1) Information on ID cards isn't being "published" per se, but we still have to rely on the government to keep the information safe. An area where your track record is hardly a shining example, I think you'll agree. Also the DVLA already sells personal data to anyone who'll pay for it.

2) The data may already be held elsewhere but you're collating it, some might say "packaging it neatly into one bundle for the identity thieves", and then providing access to the most bizarre list of Quangos who previously did not have access to such info, like the Food Standards Agency. Note we are not told who is on this list (some have been revealed in the media).

3) We have no choice over what data is stored on there. If there are some things we, like you, would like to keep private then it seems in the case of ID Cards the answer is "tough shit". More importantly, we are not told WHAT is being stored on the National Identity Register. Name, Address, DOB, granted. Ethnic group? Voting habits? Credit history? Political beliefs? The government might try to persuade us otherwise, but we don't actually KNOW and I for one certainly don't trust them. Just because a Minister with a crib sheet says it, it doesn't make it so.

4) The justification for ID cards has, so far, been piss-poor. Even ministers have been forced to admit that benefits re: combatting terrorism have been exaggerated, but only after they finally realised nobody believed them anyway.

5) I have nothing to hide, but I just don't think half the things the government wants to store about me (and grant/sell access to) is any of their ****ing business.

dreamingspire said...

Agree totally with you about the nasty questions from the Torygraph and wish you had told them where to put their questions (and also you could have asked them to follow your blog...).

But, since ID cards have crept in, surely you understand that it was originally a surveillance society project, but sensibly Brown's pressure in 2006 had that taken out of it? Trouble is we now have something that illustrates the incompetence of Home Office in technical matters: a smart card for which the smart bit is useless. Meg Hillier said at a conference last autumn that 'we have to walk before we can run', but the fact is that HO persistently refuses to learn what most of the people present there (including DWP people) already know about ID technology.

cowbutt said...

Kerry said...

The analogy with ID cards doesn't stand up at all - (a) ID cards only include information which is already held in one form or another anyway and (b) it's not being published.

a) No, because a unique identifier allows someone to trivially cross-reference data held on different government-administered databases and go on 'trawling expeditions' for citizens with certain attributes. From such results, assumptions and conclusions can be drawn that are likely to be very accurate.

b) You're right; government agencies aren't publishing our personal data. They're merely leaving it lying around on CDs and memory sticks in car parks where any old Tom, Dick, Harry, eBay-er or ID fraudster can pick it up.