Local Democracy Notepad

Democratic perfectionism as a political method

Should MPs and councillors take up cases on behalf of individuals?

with 14 comments

Chewing over Parliamentary reforms, here’s Jenni Russell from the Guardian last week:

“One experienced Commons civil servant is blisteringly critical of the way in which most MPs have accepted the culture in which they now operate. While some committees and chairs are excellent, many MPs can’t be bothered. “They’re just not interested in the core tasks of parliament, scrutinising legislation or working in committee. It’s too much hard work – they’d rather be social workers for constituents. …… They don’t spend three hours in the House of Commons library reading bills or papers themselves; they wait for Greenpeace or Liberty or a lobby group to tell them what to think. That whole culture of thinking, challenging, debating – that’s what’s been discouraged. Because, for them personally, what’s the point?”"

There are a number of conclusions one can draw from this, some of which could be justifiably homicidal. Other trades have a set of professional ethics that would, for instance, preclude them from relying upon lobbyists for information, or coming up with a transparent means by which they conduct their research.

Once you have a coherent view of what representatives are for, and how they should work, surely this would be very straightforward?

But the interesting line for me is this one:

“…they’d rather be social workers for constituents”

MPs expend a substantial amount of their resources on casework. They do it because the public expect them to do so – and they do it because they beleive it will make a difference for them at election times. But the question is, should they do it at all?

An MP, and to a lesser extent, a councillor has a job to frame legislation in such a way that we can all expect fairness before the law. If an MP offers legal advice, or tries to extract favours of one kind or another for individual constituents, surely this will lead to more sloppy legislation – and less of a willingness to represent the interests of the nation as a whole?

On the other hand, doing casework keeps MPs alert to the failings in the law as it stands. It’s hard to think of a better way for MPs to stay in touch with the failings of their own legislation than for them.

I’d suggest that – if we were defining the role of an elected representative from scratch – based upon an understanding of representative government should work, that some protocol would have been established confirming that MPs don’t meet lobbyists except in open hearings, and that they should never do casework for constituents.

Instead, they would make a point of meeting local lawyers – especially the local Citizens Advice Bureau – to discuss failings in the law.

Written by Paul Evans

June 30th, 2009 at 9:32 am

14 Responses to 'Should MPs and councillors take up cases on behalf of individuals?'

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  1. This is a really good post.

    There is a dichotomy – Paxman picks it up in The Political Animal – in that we need people to scrutinise legislation and to take our grievances forward. MPs want to be ‘good constituency MPs’, and so the first need gets lost.

    Would it be possible – at the same time as a general election – to elect for each local authority a ‘people’s champion’? That ends up leading to an argument for an elected mayor.

    Perhaps giving more power to councils or regions and making…

    don’t know.

    Dave Cole

    30 Jun 09 at 10:07 am

  2. In the mid 80′s when I was a local Councillor, I was told off by a local community activist in Bootle for doing too much for individual constituents, writing their letters, chasing officials etc. Her reasoning was that I was effectively deskilling them, making them dependent on me. In retrospect I agree with her and I still believe that applies today to both MPs and local Councillors.
    I would go further now, in Sefton there are 3 Councillors per ward making a total of 66. I would argue that there should be 1 per ward, and the savings made in allowances for Councillors be used for a ‘local’ caseworker to provide advice and help in guiding local constituents around the loopholes and barriers of officialdom.
    This would also have the effect of introducing a more rigorous selection process for elected members, more competition, perhaps enhanced salaries to attract competent candidates. I’d also insist that a proportion of candidates for any Council and perhaps Parliament should be independent.
    Too many elected members focus on the ‘social worker’ function at the expense of leadership, vision, policy design, championship and challenging the whole process of local and national governance. If they are ‘party animals’ they also tend to start any action with the question, ‘what’s the party policy on this issue?’ Or worse, ‘how will this affect my chances for advancement in this form of governance?’

    Sean Brady

    30 Jun 09 at 10:27 am

  3. For me, the question reawakens those ones I asked in an earlier post about ‘jurors’ as politicians: http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/2009/05/19/politicians-as-jurors/

    I suppose what I’m struggling towards is the fact that we are really currently deconstructing the notion of ‘politician’ very slowly in a very public way. We may end up back at the place we started out at but with the elements of the role more agreed and quantified.

    I’ve always believed that MPs spend too long on casework and they’re not really cut out for it anyway. And some councillors just don’t do it at all (and some – whisper it – aren’t capable of doing it). This is not a scenario that is likely to endear people to democracy – when they raise a problem and get an inept response.

    And, of course, those in marginal seats may do more than those in safe seats.

    All of that said, there has to be a mechanism by which politicians flush out what the real issues their electorate have – opinion polls, focus groups and doorstep work aren’t enough – and they particularly don’t help dealing with low-level problems – the individual little injustices that don’t effect large lumps of people.

    Maybe the role should be closer to that of a judge than a jurist?

    Paul Evans

    30 Jun 09 at 11:01 am

  4. What a complete load of cobblers! Look up the term “representative” in the dictionary. What we need is more engagement with the public, not less. Your idea of Local Democracy is more like Stalinism – Only the elite few get to meet our hallowed officials and the common man is completely excluded.

    No wonder you’ve got Leader Listens in your list of favourite blogs

    Rog T

    30 Jun 09 at 8:26 pm

  5. If you look around, Rog, you’ll find dozens of posts exploring the question of what ‘representative’ means.

    Here’s a helpful link:
    http://blog.localdemocracy.org.uk/category/representation/

    You plainly don’t understand what my position is on practically anything. No wonder people don’t respond to your comments. Opinions are like arseholes, Rog. Everyone’s gone one, and no-one really wants to hear them.

    Paul Evans

    1 Jul 09 at 9:10 am

  6. Great post and very interesting – love the debate over on Rogers site – shame he just does not get it. But then if you look through all of his posts, he spends his time attacking rather than debating.

    Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

    1 Jul 09 at 4:43 pm

  7. Yup, that’s me, completely thick. I do however think that you are the only blogger I know who says of other people

    “Opinions are like arseholes, Rog. Everyone’s gone one, and no-one really wants to hear them.”

    Most bloggers like to hear other point’s of view. I think that if that’s your attitude to other people, you’ve got the wrong hobby.

    Rog T

    1 Jul 09 at 6:44 pm

  8. I’m not very interested in unsupported opinion unless it’s funny.

    I can’t imagine why anyone else would be. I’m sure that some people blog for therapeutic purposes – better out than in – but I’d hope to avoid having to look at it much if I could help it.

    Paul Evans

    2 Jul 09 at 1:09 am

  9. Yup, well having read a few of your blogs, I could certainly learn a thing or two about writing interesting blogs from you, he he he. Mind you I stopped being a painter and decorator when I got fed up with watching paint dry.

    I suppose you have total contempt for everything I’ve written regarding future shape of Barnet Council & The Sheltered warden cuts then, because I don’t refer to some obscure political journal published on an obscure website.

    It take the view that the purpose of my blog is to give issues which I consider to be important a wider audience. Whether you like my blog or not, I can assure you that the stats are pretty high. I can also tell you that the the Councillors of various shades take it rather seriously (more so than I ever expected). I completely understand why you don’t like it, as it’s a bit too low brow for you, but people regularly go out of their way to get in touch to either tip me off about stuff, tell me it’s great or thank me for bringing issues to the table. You claim it’s not for the universal good. I don’t claim to be Jesus Christ, but I think it’s a pretty positive force for good. I campaign against the BNP, dodgy Tory policies in Barnet, Boris Johnson & his cronies & other politicians who take the piss. I’m surprised you object to that.

    Am I right in concluding you support Manchester United? explains much if you are

    Rog T

    2 Jul 09 at 8:07 am

  10. Christ Rog, where will it end? Each comment of yours is like a visit from http://www.passiveaggressivenotes.com/

    Now I have “total contempt for everything [you've] written”?

    And I know we’ve traded a few insults lately, but ‘support Manchester United’ is about as low as it goes. So far, you’ve surmised that I’m probably a Tory who hates the Irish – I’d give up on this tactic of yours – supposing some personal flaw in the hope it reflects badly on the arguments.

    Paul Evans

    2 Jul 09 at 9:22 am

  11. I was going to let this rest, but I simply can’t let your complete distortion of the facts pass without comment. You live in Barnet, you are keenly interested in local politics, therefore you must be aware of Brian Coleman’s comments regarding Irish Travellers (a subject I blogged) and their lifestyle. You suggested on my blog that I was “sympathetic to flytippers”. I merely asked you if your comment was a reference to my Irish ancestry. I passed no comment on your opinion of the Irish. In light of what you said and Coleman’s previous comment it was a fair question. Did I say you hate the irish? No – I asked a fair question

    As to accusing you of being a Tory. Again a gross distortion. I suggested that your view of how a councillor should conduct their business – no voter case handling – would fit rather well in with some of the practices of our local Tories. I also commented on the fact that the only local blog you linked to was the Tory Leader Mike Freer’s. Not only is this rarely updated, but Freer never posts comments that criticise him.

    As to the Man United question. Being a City fan, I can understand that this may be a bit insulting, but I genuinely thought that you’d realise it was an attempt to lighten the tone with a bit of humour.

    If you say you’re a Labourite, Irish loving, United hater, then that’s fine by me. I just think that your blog readers deserve to be treated to some degree of context for your rather distorted take on what I’ve said.

    Rog T

    2 Jul 09 at 5:43 pm

  12. I think you missed the levity in my last comment.

    Paul Evans

    2 Jul 09 at 7:05 pm

  13. Paul,

    If you’d spent the day reading through the Future Shape cabinet briefing you’d miss the levity in Life of Brian, Morecombe & Wise and Blazing saddles put together.

    I’ve no idea whether you’ve read it or what you think of it, but I think it could spell curtains for local democracy if Cameron picks up on the principles. It takes all the representation out of the process.

    Much as I love indulging in tiffs with other like minded lefties, this is where the real action is.

    Rog T

    2 Jul 09 at 8:08 pm

  14. [...] question and that post returns to a theme that Jenni Russell picked up on a few weeks ago (covered here at the time, and subsequently as the subject for a session at Reboot Britain) albeit with a focus [...]

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