Thursday, 22 July 2010

Animal Magic & The Unseen Postcode Lottery: An Impression of a Mad Constituent.

Thank God today is fairly quiet. The usual stuff about dog poo, violence on television and rejected lovers wanting their exes reported for tax or benefit fraud. The highlight is Miss Emms, who writes in to say this:

Dear Mr Sinclair,
I am writing to you to complain about my irresponsible and inconsiderate neighbours, who live in the flat beneath mine. They are always smoking cannabis, and the smoke seeps into my flat and is causing serious problems. I have eight guinea pigs, and exposure to this drug is affecting them psychologically. I don't know where else to turn, as my Housing Officer doesn't seem to be taking any notice, and the RSPCA aren't interested either.
Can you please do something to help my poor, defenceless animals?
Yours hopefully,
Janice Emms (Miss)

Greg spends an inordinate amount of time trying to emulate a psychotic guinea pig, and then tries to persuade me to write back and ask Miss Emms for further details. I don't want to encourage the poor woman, but he says he has decided to re-train as a guinea pig whisperer if The Boss ever sacks him, or fails to get re-elected next time around. I hand him Miss Emms' letter and tell him to do whatever he thinks best.

Apart from that, there are quite a few calls about Nick Clegg's series of ill-advised comments at PMQs* yesterday, including one person who wants to get PMQs repeated, this time "with someone who is authorised to speak on behalf of the Government at the dispatch box." No-one is more pleased about the Deputy PM's cock-ups than The Boss, who prefaces every call he makes to us today with "I'm speaking in a personal capacity." This quickly ceases to be amusing, and eventually I give up bothering to even pretend to be laughing. Not that that ever bothers him. He's just like Dad.

In the afternoon, Jen phones. It's the first time I've spoken to her in weeks, as she's been busy winding up*  her MP's office, as he lost his seat at the General Election. She sounds pretty low, and says that when she went to sign on for the first time, she was confronted by one of her office's usual suspects as soon as she walked into the Jobcentre. He was working there - as a security guard, for God's sake. She says he was one of their most violent and unpredictable constituents.

Jen's MP was replaced by a young guy with no experience of anything much, and she's already absolutely sick to death of receiving letters from constituents whose cases she used to handle, saying that they wrote to their new MP months ago and haven't had anything other than a holding reply since. It turns out that he hasn't even interviewed any prospective staff for his constituency office yet, and so the casework has just been piling up since May. Some of the cases are really urgent too - with pressing deadlines - and Jen says she can't help wondering if constituents would have been half so keen to elect a fresh face if they'd realised that this might mean that they had no effective advocate for the next few months. Meanwhile, there's nothing she can to do to help the people who'd come to depend on her and her old boss.

This starts me thinking about what the public expect from their MPs. It seems to me that the quality and type of service that constituents get is far more varied than they probably realise. If you went to any other agency operating in the public sector, you could at least be fairly sure that they they were all required to aim to deliver a broadly similar service - but, in the case of MPs, there really is a postcode lottery in operation. I've dealt with loads of different constituency offices over the years, whenever I've had to hand over or take up a case of a constituent who has moved area, and I've met a large number of staff at training courses too. I'm always amazed by the wide variations, both in the calibre of MPs' staff, and in what their MPs expect of them.

Some MPs' offices still seem to be staffed by their spouses, or other family members, or even their election agents - regardless of whether any of them have the necessary skills and experience to be effective as caseworkers. Other MPs provide as many highly-qualified staff as their staffing budget will allow.

There are the MPs who don't even bother to have a constituency office, but instead expect their constituents to phone them long-distance whenever they wish to raise an issue. Others won't even stoop to having a residence in their constituencies. And then there are those "caseworkers" who aren't anything of the sort, but are instead activists, illicitly being paid by the unwitting taxpayer to do party political work under cover of a non-political job title.

Even when an MP agrees to take up a constituent's case, the variations continue. How hard your MP fights on your behalf isn't only down to whether your case is perceived as valid or bonkers, but is also affected by what each MP has decided is an appropriate level of service to provide to his or her constituents. For example, if you live in X, you'll receive a copy of any letter your MP has written on your behalf, so that you can check what has been said about you and your case, and correct any errors. If you live in Y, you'll just be told that your MP has "raised the matter on your behalf." You'll have no idea whether he summarised your case accurately, or whether he even indicated that it was urgent.

Then, when the reply eventually arrives from the ministerial department, or the relevant agency, it's often quite dismissive in the first instance. If you live in Y, you'll probably just get sent a copy with a compliment slip, and that'll be the end of your MP's caseworker's efforts on your behalf. If you live in X, though, your caseworker will have taken the time to study the details of your case at the outset, will have decided what is achievable and will immediately recognise an unsatisfactory response. He or she will continue to argue your case for as long as it takes to reach a successful outcome. I am one of the X types - not that you'd know it from my pay packet - and so is Greg, even though he can be such a f*ckwit. I am quite sure that our X status has something to do with The Boss' otherwise mysterious ability to keep bucking electoral predictions and getting re-elected.

As if all that inconsistency isn't quite bad enough, there is no set frequency for surgeries, no standard time for dealing with constituents' enquiries, and the chaos in some offices has to be seen to be believed. One MP's office manager told me recently - and with apparent pride - that her office deals with all correspondence in "strict date order." She seemed to think this was praiseworthy in its egalitarian idealism, and had no idea how to respond when I asked her how on earth this affected constituents whose problems were urgent or subject to deadlines. God knows how often the worst is already happening to some constituents while she and her staff are still sorting out dog poo and psychologically-damaged guinea pigs for the others. I have a recurring vision of letters bearing the HOC* crest dropping onto the doormats of empty houses whose occupants have been deported, evicted or murdered by their dangerous spouses, all because of smug dingbats like her.

I rant about this for so long this afternoon that first Greg says that I have officially turned into a mad constituent, and then he suggests that I contact Working For An MP to suggest that they employ me to tour the country training all the new MPs and their staff. He's joking, but I think it's a pretty good idea - especially if I could go on tour during Recess.

I am so distracted by this very attractive notion that, before I know it, it's time to go home - before I've even replied to Johnny's latest email, which offers a virtual massage amongst other equally-pleasant suggestions. Having just woken up from a drool-inducing snooze on the sofa, I plan to watch Question Time, and then to take him up on his offer - if Max doesn't offer a real-world alternative, of course.

*PMQs - Prime Minister's Questions, as usual - except that this one was taken by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick "Calamity" Clegg.
*HOC - House of Commons, also as usual.
*Winding Up - Period allowed for the business of closing down an MP's office after he or she has failed to be returned at a General Election.


  1. * point of order. The plural of 'cock-up' is 'cocks-up'... & I bet you'd have sniggered when you typed it.

  2. I deliberately avoided it. @molesworth_1 are you SURE you are not Josh's alter ego?!