Coffee House

MPs on holiday: the truth about what they really get up to

15 May 2014

MPs are now in recess. Again. Cue plenty of moans about them escaping the zombie parliament and jetting off on holiday. There’s not much you can do about the former, but the latter is not, as any MP will angrily remind you, quite true. If you’re a type with a big majority who is a bit fonder of the Westminster game than you are of your constituents, then a holiday might be an option. But at this time of year, MPs are more likely to be found canvassing for the European and local elections, or holding extra constituency surgeries to catch up on time lost to Parliament.

The Conservative whips have told MPs, via one of their many text messages that they send throughout each day, that they are expected to visit Newark three times before the by-election, and that few exemptions will be allowed. Some MPs are planning to exempt themselves from this. One tells me that ‘I have no desire to be promoted, so I don’t need to get extra points on their little list of visits.’


But what’s life like for those plugging away back in their own constituencies? I wrote a blog a while back on the weird things parliamentarians are asked for help with, but more often than not, constituency surgeries are quite dispiriting affairs, as most people who come along for a meeting with their MP are in a dreadful tangle, often as a result of something the state has done to them.

I recently accompanied Labour MP Tristram Hunt on one of his constituency surgeries in Stoke-on-Trent. It was a textbook surgery, held at a small trestle table in a huge gymnasium. A rank of spinning bikes watched as people filed in and out to discuss their problems with Hunt. One or two had come for the wrong MP, and so their meetings were very short indeed: parliamentarians can only deal with those who live in their constituencies, and pass other cases along to the relevant colleague.

Most arrived with letters, bills and documents from court hearings, all setting out the ways in which they’d somehow been wronged, mostly by the state. There’s something intensely dispiriting about the mess in which our clunky and inefficient system of government departments, quangos, schools, local authorities and NHS bodies can leave perfectly innocent ordinary people. And that mess is embodied in these piles of papers. The piles often aren’t small piles, either. They’re terrifying, confusing piles of papers that have been stuffed into plastic folders or carrier bags. The MP and his constituency workers have to unravel their story, which doesn’t often set out the real problem in the first few paragraphs, and those piles of paper, before trying to intervene on their behalf. Children excluded from school because they have learning difficulties, housing problems, benefits stopped and then re-started at the wrong level: it’s an MP’s job to try to right some of those wrongs, if they can.

This is just another one of the jobs that MPs do week in, week out, that barely ever get reported on. But after watching Hunt talk to his constituents in Stoke, I realised that one of the charges levelled at MPs – that they are part of the ‘Westminster bubble’ – is quite unfair. Most of them meet more ‘ordinary’ members of the public than those who level that charge ever will. And many of those members of the public they meet are in acute distress: you’re less likely to make an appointment with your parliamentarian if you’re rolling in dosh. Some of the most acute observers of the political scene are MPs in marginal seats because they view it through the eyes of their constituents who they spend as much time with as they possibly can in an attempt to hang onto that seat at the next election. But their colleagues with safer seats do still leave the bubble to work week in week out with some of the saddest examples of our messy government and our messy society that you can find. No wonder they grow a little grumpy when everyone jokes that they’re disappearing off on holiday during the parliamentary recess.

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  • global city

    The EU now controls so much of what Westminster used to, that is why MP’s have so many gaps in the parliamentary year now… zombie term has nothing to do with it.

  • Druth

    My understanding of the situation was that once they’d done with the business of the day they liked to kick back and organise a gay orgy.

  • HookesLaw

    The fact that parliament is in recess should not be equated with a holiday. As you say the MP should be wedded to his constituency and any other committee matters he is involved in. whether he is or not might well be another story but the notion that parliament should be sitting all the time is plainly silly.
    And as you point out the notion of the ‘westminster bubble’ is only perpetrated by people stuck in a bubble of their own.

    • Sapporo

      Of course those living in the bubble see to deny it. I guess you deny it because you, either, want to sustain it or you just want to oppose anyone offering an alternative view to yourself.

  • Alex

    So MPs spend a lot of time and effort helping people whose lives are being damaged or destroyed by the government.
    They then return to Westminster and demand that the government adds more regulation, writes more legislation, creates more taxes and intervenes more and more in our personal lives.
    If it wasn’t such an appalling waste the hypocrisy would be amusing.

    • HookesLaw

      No … schools housing benefits etc are the machinery of govt. Schools are in fact to do with local govt. Its the constituency job of MPs to ensure genuine problems are put right and use their experiences in framing any future legislation.
      Your notion of what MPs actually do is just that your notion. Any process of government is going to throw up problems and MPs are there to hopefully deal with them. They may or may not do it very well but sorting that out is down to the processes of democracy.

      • Alex

        That doesn’t disprove my point. It is reasonable to think that the greater the scale of government involvement in people’s lives the more problems are created by that involvement. It is also reasonable that a smaller volume of involvement will allow fewer unintended consequences, fewer unpredicted conflicts between legislation, a greater understanding of the rules by both the government and the general public etc etc etc.
        I am suggesting that lives would be better, and MPs time would be saved, if government tried to do x things well, rather than 10x things badly. (Not to mention the benefit in money saved and added personal freedom. Or the probably improvement in innovation and economic activity.)
        Can I prove it? No. But you haven’t disproved it either.

      • Sapporo

        Local Govt implements regulations and laws and attributes funds for Education on behalf of Central Govt. There’s is very little they can do.

    • telemachus

      As one who has personal experience of detailed and practical help with results from my (Tory) MP I find your charge unfair
      Whatever political persuasion we are we have to agree that our Government Machine is one of the fairest in the world
      And our MP’s most likely to help us whatever our education or means
      When I hear of a Patrician like Tristram at a trestle table I rejoice

      • Alex

        I think you may misunderstand me; I’m not arguing that MPs don’t help constituents; I’m arguing that they wouldn’t need to help constituents so much if government wasn’t so intrusive in our lives and the economy. The more the government does, the more it will need to intervene to sort out problems due to unintended consequences, bad regulations, public ignorance of the law, conflicting laws, misinterpretation of the law, etc etc. For one thing, I fear that the sheer volume and rate of change of regulation makes many decent people (especially people running small businesses) unintentional lawbreakers. And that has to be bad for everybody.

        • telemachus

          I simply do not believe we have more governance than other Western Countries
          Most laws are there to pct us from Mustardian Anarchy

  • Sapporo

    The problem with the media and politics at present is that the two professions have essentially merged. We have PR politicians and politicised journalists. Far too many hacks become MPs and far too many ex-MPs are employed in the Media. Essentially, the likes of Isobel Hardman cannot write freely and independently because she is not prepared to risk her future prospects in political circles, whether that be as an MP, a
    quangocrat, a Lobbyist or a leading journalist.

  • swatnan

    … and they have the nerve to complain about teachers holidays. MPs are a disgrace.

  • Sapporo

    Unfortunately, Isobel you are in the Westminster bubble and hence, your views are disfigured. You cannot judge all MPs on one hardworking example. Many rarely hold surgeries, some have not done for years. Of course, many do regular surgeries. Far too many seem to have extensive outside interests. Several have recently written books. Kwasi Kwarteng has written and published two books since he was elected in 2010. I wish I had time to hold down a full-time job and write books.

    • Nothing’sstoppingyou

      Maybe spend less time commenting on blogs during the day and more time writing that book…

  • Blindsideflanker

    MP’s are elected to be representatives, not social workers. Yes they can martyr themselves by involving themselves in the minutiae of their socially deprived constituents lives, but they are only doing that because they had disenfranchised the electorate, and made themselves irrelevant in the Sovereignty they have wholesale given over to Brussels.

  • Swiss Bob

    So I am banned from the Spectator, must be doing something right.

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