how to get the most from your MP

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The Independent Culture
Being an MP requires the sort of personal dedication which makes divorce lawyers and funeral directors rub their hands in anticipatory glee. Most MPs work exceptionally long hours and virtually every weekend. Most do not even have a proper desk, let alone an office, and research support is often provided by untrained volunteers.

We expect our elected representatives to live personal lives beyond all reproach. If they slip so much as an inch, we feel fully entitled to demand their resignation. As Sir Julian Critchley once ruefully observed, "The only safe pleasure for a politician is a bag of boiled sweets".

So if MPs do get the wallet-warming 100 per cent pay raise demanded in last week's motion, ask yourself are you getting full value out of them? Have you avoided sitting down with your MP for fear you might be treated like a poor relation or an idiot? Have courage. You pay their salary, expenses, and, though they have a secure job for up to five years, when elections come, you can still swing that swing-o-meter and cast them into the wilderness.

So, before the election comes, here are three suggestions for getting value for money:

l. Your MP can get you free tickets to sit in the gallery for Prime Minister's Question Time - the last great vaudeville theatre in London, offering a wonderful matinee show of old-time knockabout fun and crude name-calling.

2. If you are in business, ask your MP to help you out with advice and contacts (eg how to go on international trade visits) and ask questions on the floor of the House. He or she can also set up meetings with ministers and VIP factory visits.

3. And if you find yourself in a battle with one of the departments of the state or the legal team of a large company, you may need the help of a powerful, well-connected friend.

A recent case illustrates how your MP reaches the parts ordinary appeals cannot. One of Sir Teddy Taylor's electors was being threatened by the Child Support Agency for non-payment of his child's upkeep. The poor man has no children, but the CSA's nasty letters took some explaining to his partner. Despite the man's best efforts (he even hired a solicitor to protest his innocence) he kept receiving Kafkaesque replies acknowledging his letters but issuing more threats. Then Sir Teddy waded in, and, before you could say "Maastricht", all was straightened out.

There are three main methods of contacting your MP. You can telephone your local town hall, or the Palace of Westminster (0171-219-3000), write (House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA), or drop in to one of their surgeries.

Tony Benn, Chesterfield's MP, has met an average of 20 constituents a week, 45 weeks a year, since entering the Commons 45 years ago. He is available to his electors 24 hours a day by telephone, and says his surgeries keep him grounded. "The problems I hear are compelling, like 'Grandma needs a new hip', not 'Who will be reshuffled?' I would go mad if I spent all my time in the House of Commons."

As I phoned Nigel Evans, MP for Ribble Valley, he and his secretary were trying to identify the author of an unreadable letter by comparing a scrawled signature with names on the electoral register. Evans suggests, "Type or carefully print your letter, use bullet points to itemise the issues, and say what you want the MP to do. A good MP has open ears and a big mouth, but we need to be able to understand the problem."

Remember that although you may only get a card from your MP indicating that your letter has been received, this does not mean that your MP has done nothing. Frequently they have written to a minister and are waiting for a reply. Telephone them to see what is happening before you brand them a callous oaf in the local paper.

"We are largely postmen," says Sir Julian Critchley, MP for Aldershot. "We receive letters about which we can do damn little, but we do pass them on to people who can help. We are a useful key to Whitehall, but please try to remember that the lock can turn very slowly."