Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

MP pastoral duties - Let's have a heated debate!

During a rather frenetic Twitterfest around the subject of potential electoral reform, I tweeted that I thought that the primary function of an MP should be to legislate and scrutinise the government and that the pastoral work could be balanced a bit more with this.

I had a couple of responses from Darrell Goodliffe and Caron Lindsay who both think that the pastoral side of things is very important. I said I would blog about this to explain what I meant a bit more clearly free of the tyranny of 140 character limits!

The dual role of MPs to legislate and hold the government to account while at the same time performing a pastoral role for their constituents seems to me to be a slightly quirky thing. It has evolved over the years to where we are now but with the advent of electronic communications, most MPs nowadays get much more correspondence from their constituents than they ever used to. I suspect with the decline of deference over the last few decades that they also feel more entitled to attend surgeries and discuss their problems with their parliamentary representative.

Now, I need to be careful here so that I am not misunderstood. Keeping in touch with your constituents as an MP is very important. Actually, I would go further than that and say it is a vital part of our democracy. However I wonder if things may be swinging too far and that MPs can sometimes be swamped with case-work and issues that in some cases they are perhaps not the best placed person to deal with. Councillors should and do perform this function and there are lots of other people and agencies who can help but I think that the local MP is the most high profile and visible politician which is why they can become the first port of call.

There are some issues that MPs should and must get involved with if it relates to national issues and/or requires representation to government. I also think surgeries are a very good thing but I wonder if there might be a way to arrange things so that MPs do not necessarily become the first port of call for things and instead only get issues that they are able to help with.

The reason for all of this is because an MP only has so much time and energy and I feel that a good proportion of it should be put into holding the government to account and scrutinising what they are doing as well as contributing to legislation. God knows we need it, especially with some of the half-baked laws that have ended up on the statute books in the last few years!

I am not sure how many MPs agree with me about this. It would be hard for them to say anything I guess because what MP wants to be heard talking about reducing their constituency case-work? I think this is an important issue though and as I say, I am not advocating a massive change, just a rebalancing to the way I thought things were supposed to work perhaps with the public advised better as to where the best place to take their issues to initially is.

I would be interested to hear other people views from all parties about this and am certainly open to persuasion that I have got this wrong and the balance is actually about right.

UPDATE: Costigan Quist has drawn my attention to an article he wrote last November that talks about this issue too.


Costigan Quist said...

My thoughts on this are in a post I made last November at (and everyone ignored *sob*)

I'll have to read around the current discussion and see if it changes my opinion.

Unknown said...

This is a good post - but I completely disagree with you:-). I don't have time right now to give this posting the considered response it deserves, but I will later, over at my blog.

BTW, Darrell has reservations about STV while I am completely in favour of it as well as recognising the important pastoral role of MPs. I think it's possible to preserve both roles under STV.

I think we can have a debate that has more light than heat in it:-)

Richard T said...

Part of the issue seems to me to be the deliberate centralisation of power under successive governments, most acutely, over the last 30 years. Local government has been reduced in scope; many, if not all the regulatory bodies which had councillor involvement have been abolished and replaced with policial nominees; there is no effective local oversight from a consumer perspective of the privatised energy sector and so on.

The effect has been to aggravate the usual habit of starting off a complaint grievance at the hughest level so MPs get pulled into matters which a councillor would have managed previously - just look at the subjects of adjournment debates on the parliament channel. This is not to decry the pastoral role but if an MP has a huge case load, the ability to get involved to control the executive is weakened through overload.

On this specific, the balance of power needs shifted away from the centre to elected authorities - called councils - and not to 'community' bodoes which have no power and little influence.

Darrell said...


I agree with Caron that this deserves a considered response which I may well do tomorrow. However, to be going on with a couple of points.. it's often not MP's directly who do the pastrol care directly as much their staff.

I am not even convinced you are right MP's are the first port of call; they might be where the councillors are poor but that is not always something the MP can change if they are not from their own party.

In short, what is lacking from this debate is a concrete proposal. Since you are presumably not in favour of cutting surgeries....and Caron is right, my main reservation about STV is the damage to the constituency link...

Mark Thompson said...


Yes, I am sure you are right about it being the MP's staff who are at least the interface with the public and can advise where best for them to go if the MP is not the right person, or perhaps deal with issues themselves.

As for a concrete proposal, well I do not really have a proper answer for this. I suspect as Richard T above suggests, if there is a problem here then the solution might require some fundamental changes and proper redistribution of power to local communities.

Happily though, the Lib Dems have some very good policies in this area which I think would help.

I think Costigan makes some good points in the article he mentions above. I will link to it in the main post.

And also, Caron and Darrell I will link to both your posts when you do them in the main body. Just let me know in case I miss them (as if I would dare ;))