Parliament can often seem a rather complex and anachronistic place, with its ancient conventions and arcane language, and those looking in from outside will be forgiven for not knowing precisely what happens in this august building on a day to day basis. Indeed, even understanding the role of a Member of Parliament isn’t as straight forward as one might imagine.
Members of Parliament
Members of Parliament are elected to the House of Commons to represent the interests and concerns of all the people who live in their constituency, whether they voted for them at the General Election or not. They are only able to deal with issues raised by their constituents. To find out if I am your Member, please enter your postcode in the search box on the homepage.
Members consider and vote on legislation and use their position to ask government ministers questions about the issues of the day. We generally split our time between working in Parliament and working in the constituency.
In Parliament, Members spend their time fighting for the interests of all their constituents by attending debates, scrutinising and voting on legislation, and attending meetings. If a constituent is happy for the issue to be made public, Members can ask an Oral or Written Question, secure a debate or even petition Parliament itself. Alongside this, we also hold advice surgeries for constituents where they can come and talk about local or national issues, attend meetings and community events, as well as visiting local organisations and businesses across the constituency.
Oral or Written Questions
Once a month, each minister from each government department answer questions from Members at the Despatch Box in the Chamber of the House. There is a limit to the number of questions that can be asked but Members can also table a written question to the relevant government department. This can all be viewed in the official report of all parliamentary debates, Hansard.
Members may be able to raise a constituent’s issue in a half-hour Adjournment Debate. To get an Adjournment Debate, Members must be successful in a ballot or have the subject chosen by the Speaker. The debates are usually the last business of the day and a government minister responds at the end of the debate.
Early Day Motions (EDMs)
EDMs are motions tabled by Members, formally for debate ‘on an early day’, but which are only in very rare instances debated. They allow Members to express an opinion on or draw attention to a very wide range of subjects, and give other Members a chance to show their support by signing the motion. A freedom enjoyed by EDMs, compared to the restrictions on Questions and Adjournment Debates, is that they do not need to be confined to matters for which ministers are responsible.
Members can present a petition to Parliament on behalf of their constituents. The format and wording of the petition need to be in a particular way. Click herefor more information or guidance.
A wonderful aspect of our politics is the relative closeness between the public and government ministers. In not very many countries can one write to their local representative on an issue close to their heart and expect a response directly from the minister responsible within weeks.
When a constituent writes to their Member, they will make representations on their behalf to the relevant department, official or minister. Many problems are solved in this way and I always aim to respond within seven working days, although sometimes more complex cases may take slightly longer.
Members are generous with their help and advice, and they will generally try to assist their constituents with a wide range of problems. There is no job description for a Member of Parliament and it is up to an individual Member which cases they take on.
Members are very often approached by constituents who wish for them to assist in areas which they are not permitted or not best placed to. Members are more likely to be able to help with problems concerning central government services such as, benefits, pensions, National Insurance, and other matters dealt with by the Department for Work and Pensions; immigration and other problems dealt with by the Home Office; tax problems involving HMRC, problems with the NHS; problems with the Child Support Agency; school grants and closures.
Members do not have any jurisdiction over local council decisions and issue of this nature should be raised with your local councillor. We in Westminster are extremely lucky to have some tremendously dedicated and experienced councillors who work on a most effective and responsible council. Should you need to contact your local councillor, click hereto find all the relevant information.
Naturally, Members will generally do everything he or she can to help constituents but will not be able to support every cause and may feel that they are not the best person to help. If they are unable to help they may refer you to someone more appropriate such as, your local Citizens Advice or another similar organisation. For legal advice, you may be referred to a solicitor.
As a Minister
Since my appointment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in June 2017, my ability to participate in the Commons Chamber has been significantly altered due to the constitutional principle of collective responsibility. The restrictions on the participation of ministers in the Chamber are decided by convention rather than prescribed in standing or sessional orders.
Collective responsibility is the convention whereby the government is collectively accountable to Parliament for its actions, decisions and policies. Decisions made by the Cabinet are binding on all members of the government. This means that if a minister disagrees with a government policy, he or she must still publicly support it. A minister is able to express their views and disagree privately, but once a decision has been made by the Cabinet, it is binding on all members of the government.
The Ministerial Code sets out rules for the conduct of ministers and it includes details of how ministers should raise constituency matters given the restrictions that collective responsibility places on their actions in Parliament, and conversely the possibility of increased influence or access given their ministerial role. Ministers are free to make their views about constituency matters known to the responsible minister by correspondence, leading deputations or by personal interview provided they make clear that they are acting as their constituents’ representative and not as a minister.
Ministers are advised to take particular care in cases relating to planning applications in their constituencies or other similar issues. In all such cases, it is important that they make clear that they are representing the views of their constituents, avoid criticism of government policies and confine themselves to comments which could reasonably be made by those who are not ministers.