“So where were you on Monday?” What your Bristol West MP does.
There was a mild furore this week when some people incorrectly assumed I had abstained on a vote against the Trade Union Bill, when in fact I was both legitimately absent from the chamber and, more importantly, I had made arrangements to ensure that my lack of presence to vote would make no difference to the overall differential voting. This is done via the whips, who organise voting for each party. Whenever an MP – front or back bench – has to be away from the House of Commons at the time of a debate and vote, they ask their party’s whip to arrange with the other party’s whip to make sure that one of their MPs also doesn’t vote. This is called ‘pairing’. I have no idea which Tory MP I was paired with – it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that my constituents are represented in votes in Parliament even if I can’t be there in person.
But the furore occurred none the less, because of the way the votes are recorded – absent is ambiguous, so it could be interpreted as me being in the chamber but not voting against the Bill. This reminded me how little information there is for members of the public, even very political ones, about how Parliament works and what an MP does, other than turn up to vote. This is a very small part of what we do. But why would anyone know that? I rang round and discovered that even party members often don’t understand what an MP does, especially in Opposition, other than turn up for debates and vote (or not). Hence this blog. Please bear in mind that there is no job description for MP – that’s both a strength and a weakness of our job and the public’s understanding of it. So I am setting out what I am doing and some of what I aim to do in the coming years, as your MP, and what you can expect of me. Do let me know what you think.
My aims as your MP for Bristol West
I aim to use every bit of influence, power and knowledge I have to help to make Bristol West (and Bristol generally) a place where everyone has a decent, affordable home, and a healthy, clean and stimulating environment to live and work in. People deserve access to a good job with prospects for the future, transport which is reliable and non-polluting, high-quality education, and a cultural life which is stimulating, accessible and enjoyable. And people in our city desperately need protection from crime, outstanding health care free at the point of delivery, and childcare which helps to combine and support work and parenting and children’s needs. I want to work towards a world in which poverty is being eliminated, where equality of opportunity a reality, where carbon emissions are being reduced and climate change tackled. I can’t do it alone. It’s harder in opposition than in government. But under every one of those headings in our constituency workplan my team and I are developing, there are things I can and am doing, or will do, to help improve things for Bristolians, whether I act locally or nationally, or in some cases, internationally.
In summary, you can always expect that my team and I will do the following.
- I will advocate on your behalf, wherever and whenever I can. I’ll use my influence as your MP locally and nationally towards making sure everyone in Bristol West is free from poverty; has good housing, jobs and employment conditions; has access to high-quality, free health care and reliable affordable non-polluting transport; enjoys excellent education, a safe and healthy natural and built environment and outstanding and accessible cultural life in our wonderful city. This will always be my primary function.
- In particular, I will do everything I can to bring more high-quality job and apprenticeship opportunities to Bristol and to sort out the housing crisis in our city. See more on how I’ll do this below.
- I’ll be a champion for Bristol West and all the groups, organisations and people who live and work here. Whenever I can, I will celebrate with you, thank you, cheer you on, commiserate with you, listen to you, be with you. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
- We’ll help individual people who need assistance, or contact me for the specific help an MP can provide, and make sure they get a helpful and courteous response.
- We’ll respond to your petitions, emails and letters. Some may take longer than others, but you will always get a response.
- We’ll analyse the patterns of your contact with me to get a good perspective on your priorities for my time.
- I’ll follow up issues from your contact with me with questions to ministers – lobbying them for changes we need, speaking out in Parliament or in the media.
- I’ll prepare well for everything I do on your behalf – reading briefings, checking facts, consulting people with different points of view or expertise.
- I will actively develop national policy development responsibilities using my existing areas skills and knowledge and developing new ones.
- I will always act following the Nolan principles of public life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
Below, I have written in more detail how I do all of that. Thankfully I have staff to help me, a dedicated team who work with me in the constituency and a part-time parliamentary assistant to keep me organised in Westminster.
In the House of Commons
In the House of Commons chamber we do our debating, where we vote (until someone updates the system to join the 21st century, we vote simply by walking through either the ‘Aye’ or the ‘No’ lobby and having our names marked off, hence the problem when we aren’t physically there to walk through either), where we listen to government statements and where we question government ministers. I represent my views and yours, through the blogging I do on policy matters (we MPs read each others’ blogs to share information and expertise). I can submit oral and written questions to ministers. I can follow these up by lobbying ministers more directly if there is a specific situation which affects us in Bristol West, or a national matter of concern which I haven’t had satisfactory answers to. I meet with colleagues in the Labour party to discuss policy and to work out how we can best hold the government to account and provide an alternative vision.
These are another critical way which Parliament holds the government to account, through cross-party select committees which follow a specific department or topic. So, there is one for foreign affairs, one for defence, one for public accounts (Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, sits on that one, making sure our money is accounted for and giving government ministers a thorough grilling to account for it), and others. At the moment, while I am having treatment for cancer, I did not pursue election to any of these – but as soon as I am properly back in action and a space becomes available I will put myself forward. However, I still get to suggest topics to chairs of select committees, or provide information to MPs on a particular committee. I’ve done that a couple of times recently and will report back when these come up.
All Party Parliamentary Groups
These are less formal but still very influential groups of backbenchers across all parties, coming together to work on a specific topic. I am vice-chair of the APPG on Autism, vice-chair of the Performers’ Alliance (for performing arts) and chair of the APPG on Refugees, as well as member of a few others. As chair of the APPG on Refugees I have helped to ensure that there was parliamentary debate last week on the current situation for refugees trying to get to Europe, pushed for a rethink on the changes to allowances, and I will be leading a public enquiry into the UK’s treatment of refugees early in 2016. This in turn is helping to inform public policy on refugees but also on related issues such as foreign policy. (Trying to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place is vital.)
Constituency casework – helping individuals
People contact their MP when they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes that is because they have used other sources of help and they don’t feel they are getting anywhere. Sometimes it’s because they don’t even know how to get started with their particular problem. Sometimes it’s for something very specific which an MP can do. And sometimes it’s not about an individual problem but about a matter of policy which they are concerned about.
My team helps people with problems ranging from facing deportation to dealing with noisy neighbours or overflowing bins, from personal debt to discrimination or worries about a legal process. The majority of our casework in Bristol West is either immigration or housing. With immigration, there are sometimes things we can do when the processes have not been followed properly. Sometimes this ends in a decision being changed. Sometimes it doesn’t and we really feel for people who can’t stay in our wonderful city when they clearly love it. We do our best to make sure that the processes are properly and legally followed and to treat everyone with compassion.
When it’s something like bins or housing or noisy neighbours, the difference we can make is because of the influence an MP has. People will answer my calls. This can often help get a response to what seemed like an intractable problem. Sometimes this also helps improve things for the next person who has that problem. Sometimes it raises policy issues which I can then take up in Parliament or with the minister or local councillor responsible.
Answering your petitions and other policy emails
We get hundreds of these every day – Bristol West has one of the highest rates of engagement with MPs using petitions. I’m delighted and honoured to represent a constituency where people contact me every day about issues which don’t necessarily affect them personally or not right now, but are an expression of how you want the world to be a better place for all. It’s an honour, but it is also time-consuming for my staff, so we do have to prioritise casework and urgent parliamentary business sometimes before responding to petitions. We always respond – it just might take us a week or two.
Making sure I am as well informed as possible
As an MP I have access to a seemingly infinite amount of information and people who can brief me on any subject. I also have a duty to make sure I am as well informed as possible in order to act effectively. I load my tablet and phone up with documents to read whenever I have a spare moment. In the last 24 hours I have read: a briefing from the House of Commons on unemployment in Bristol West; one from the Children’s Society on refugee allowances; three academic papers on the German Social Partnership model of employer/employee relations and the impact on productivity; a briefing on the Education and Adoption Bill going through Parliament; briefings on the arms export licensing system; three Foreign Office reports on countries of concern for human rights. I’ve skimmed this week’s Economist and articles in various other newspapers and information from some of my colleagues on how their constituencies are dealing with the housing crisis. I’m also reading Tony Juniper’s book ‘What’s Nature ever done for us?”. I can recommend it!
When I am in Parliament I also have briefings in person from various organisations – for example, in the last few months these have included the Royal Society of Chemistry, 38 Degrees, Breast Cancer Now, the Refugee Council and the National Autistic Society. When I am not able to be there, I can and do request reports to be sent to me – and that’s why my summer reading list was definitely non-fiction!
I am developing expertise in various specific subjects so that I can be as useful as possible to developing policy within the Labour Parliamentary Party and beyond. I came to Parliament with 26 years of experience, knowledge and expertise in preventing and responding to domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. I also had expertise in music, some knowledge of refugees and autism and skills in research and evidence-based policy making. I am developing these as much as I can, and am currently focusing on productivity (what would help our nearly stagnant rates of productivity to improve?); the arms trade; biodiversity and the European Union referendum.
Working with people in the constituency to bring about the changes I seek
Obviously I can’t solve problems on my own! I spend time in the constituency meeting with people and organisations who have specific roles – sometimes bringing them together as I did recently with my Housing Summit, to try to get progress on a particular problem such as the lack of housing. That summit was the first of several events, bringing together the key people who can help get things moving. We have already had some progress on housing, and there’s loads more to do. Working with organisations like ACORN on ethical lettings, the council to get their housing strategy right, housing associations and local people who want to see progress on the empty site in St Paul’s (1 Dove Lane) and others such as Brooks Dye Works and the Carriageworks. And knowing who can help with the development and planning and making sure they are involved. That’s the work my team and I are doing and will continue to do.
I’ve prioritised using my previous expertise to help to eradicate child sexual exploitation in Bristol. So far I am getting to know more about how the current system is working and where the strains are, so that I can advocate for more funding, for example, or identify problems in the system and the people who can help solve them and also be a strong public campaigning voice for changing attitudes.
There’s loads more – such as visiting small, medium and large businesses to find out what they need from me or from government or others to be able to grow and employ more staff or take on apprenticeships. I’ll be working with the National Autistic Society in the next eighteen months to organise a jobs fair and other events to help the one in hundred people who are on the autistic spectrum. Sometimes, just having the influence that the office of MP has can be the critical factor for bringing people together and getting things done.
From opposition to government
While I have laid out things I can do as an opposition MP, obviously I know that the aims I have for being the Bristol West MP can be much better fulfilled if Labour is in government. I built up a strong campaigning organisation structure in Bristol West and recruited many new members while I was a candidate. And obviously since then we have had many more join, which is great. Part of my role as a Labour activist is to continue to support that campaigning force, to inform and influence Labour policy using my knowledge and expertise but also to involve as many others as possible in campaigning and policy development.