Learning From Constituents

Whenever constituents ask me about life as an MP, many think it must be very exciting to meet such a diverse range of people in my everyday life. Alternatively, others say that the one thing they would hate most in my position is having to be on one’s best behaviour at all times whenever meeting people whom you represent in Parliament.

Like everyone else, there are days (most, I am glad to say) when I wake up feeling full of the joys of Spring but others when I would prefer to remain hidden in my office so as to clear the correspondence and get up to date! It was one such day that I realised to my dismay that I had booked a meeting at eleven o’clock in the morning with a resident from the City of London who wanted to talk to be about disability rights. So it was with some impatience that I wandered down to the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament to meet up with my expectant constituent.

I must admit that my mood sank a bit further as I caught sight of him holding large files under each arm. The usual reassurance I am given in such cases is that my problem is really very straightforward although I have to confirm that there is at least some link between the weight of paperwork and the likely amount of time it will take in solving the problem.

"So what do you know about the Disability Discrimination Act 1995?" he asked.
Unfortunately one of the key difficulties that MPs face is the assumption that we must know everything there is to know about each and every law that has ever been passed by parliament. I could scarcely admit that my knowledge of the Disability Discrimination Act could be written on the back of an envelope, and a fairly small envelope at that but I’ve learnt that the best strategy in this position is not to bluff. Instead I did something which many of us in politics find instinctively difficult – sit back and listen.

For the next twenty minutes or so I was treated to a highly informative analysis of the difficulties facing those with learning disabilities whose needs are catered for by the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act but not in its practical operation. This is not an uncommon situation and it is one of the reasons why here in parliament we go to such pains to analyse legislation that we are bringing in.

For example, at the Standing Committee stage of any new piece of legislation there is a line by line scrutiny of every new law which the Government is proposing to introduce. Although this is one of the less glamorous aspects of parliamentary life in that it is very time-consuming, equally it is of crucial importance that the full implications of a proposed new law are properly considered.

My constituent had become something of an expert in this area partly because of the personal experience of bringing up his own son who suffers from learning disabilities. Amongst the bulging files which he had brought to our meeting he produced detailed government proposals for amending the means of access to and use of buildings. To cater for the physically disabled there are sensible rules covering access to new buildings, including lifts and ramps, but my constituent’s concern was that these rules failed to take account of an individual with a learning disability who might be able to open the front door of a building, walk in but would then be unable to find his way around or engage in conversation even with a trained and sympathetic receptionist. There is a lack of consideration for a person with a learning or mental disability because no understanding has been brought to the subject to the same degree that has been given to the problem of physical disability.

I was fascinated to hear more and more about this issue and realised the important implications of what I was being told. Although there is still a long way to go, I have been able to take up this constituent’s case directly with the relevant Government Departments and alert them to the real issues facing those with learning disabilities. I now find myself working closely with a number of groups in this area with a view to formulating some clear and agreed ideas on fairer treatment for those with various degrees of learning disability.

Little did I imagine a few months ago when fixing up this meeting just how much could flow from a twenty minute chat with a constituent. However, it provided me with a fascinating insight into the everyday frustrations faced by an important group in our society. It also added to my growing appreciation that an MP can make a difference, however small, and at a time when the general public is very cynical about politics – often regarding it as simply a shouting match between men in suits standing up for their tribal loyalties – that much useful work can be done in a quiet and determined way by individual MPs behind the scenes.