Parliamentary Communications

Although I do not celebrate my fortieth birthday until later this year I am still old enough to remember office life before the age of the computer. Indeed it is a source of some amusement to people only a few years younger than me when I reminisce about my first office job. Between school and university, exactly two decades ago, I spent almost nine months working just off Oxford Street. Little did I realise as a rather shy and earnest nineteen year old, walking to work every day, that these streets would years later be part of my parliamentary constituency. Although I was working for IBM ? then, as now, at the forefront of technological advances ? this was the era before the word processor and the office secretaries laboured away on typewriters with Tippex in hand. Similarly the office photocopier was still something of a rarity and I was expected to do most of the duplication by using an old fashioned turn-handle, Gestetner machine which made my hands (and consequently my shirt sleeves) pretty messy by the end of the day.

I guess that twenty years on the revolution in office equipment continues apace and that means office communications for us here in Parliament. Even in the three years since my election as your local Member of Parliament I have seen a rapid increase in the use of e-mails. Generally I prefer to correspond by letter, partly because it overcomes a certain indiscipline which often comes with sending notes electronically and also because I believe constituents prefer to see crisp notepaper with a portcullis in responding to their queries. Above all e-mails are impersonal and many messages are sent en masse to all MPs. Also, as I have learnt, there can be no guarantee that the person whose name is on the e-mail is the person who sent it.

To me it is vital that an MP stays in personal touch with his constituents which is why I like to send letters from my office signed by me personally. The e-mail has an enormous part to play in today’s parliamentary communications but only to a certain degree. It is clear that many thousands of constituents, old and young, have their own e-mail addresses (and presumably undertake much of their messaging via computer from their home rather than at the workplace). However they cannot displace the value of paper correspondence which usually means greater clarity and additional background material to be enclosed such that problems have a better and swifter chance of being resolved. One day paperless parliamentary communications may be the norm but it is not as close as some might like.

One other area where there has been radical change during my short time in parliament has been in relation to constituency surgeries. I decided initially to follow the lead of my predecessor, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, and hold surgeries only every two or three weeks at my constituency headquarters near Victoria Station. However, it became apparent to me that relatively few people wished to attend and indeed on many surgeries I would turn up and discover no-one there. All too often a rapid response from my private office to letters and e-mails meant that there was little need to have a meeting face-to-face and I have tried throughout my time as an MP to ensure that my office responds very quickly to correspondence at all times, including during the summer holidays.

Accordingly, what I decided to do was to let the mountain come to Mahomet. Instead of formal constituency surgeries, if constituents wish to see me to discuss matters which cannot be dealt with swiftly by correspondence I invite them to come over to the House of Commons where I am able to book a meeting room and discuss the problem at hand. Certainly I value these face to face meetings, but in a fast moving world I suspect it makes much more sense to dispatch work via letter or e-mail rather than through the traditional constituency surgery which requires the booking of meeting rooms, and my constituent taking time off from work, and more often a delay of several weeks. Who knows, before too long many of us here in central London may well have video telephone conferencing facilities and that will bring yet another new dimension to the interaction between Members of Parliament and their constituents. Equally, the personal touch rightly continues to matter. I hope that even when I write or e-mail replies to concerns and problems that I am properly able to interact with those whom I represent. Understandably, people want representation by a "real" MP not a virtual reality version!

However there is one element of the virtual world that I have taken up – within a year of my election I set up a website. Although I am in the minority amongst MPs in having such a device, I suspect that within five years it will be regarded as faintly eccentric not to provide constituents with this source of information. In my case it was with horror that I realised a few months after my election that I was able to access my own speeches in the House of Commons from one of the many local community websites. This spurred me into action into setting up my own site. I must confess I am convinced that it is a useful tool and that I hope that those constituents who access become aware of some of the work I do on their behalf as well as my views on a range of political issues. It also allows them to see what I have said in parliament although in the fast changing world of politics this facility may prove a somewhat double-edged sword!