A towering investment

By Jonathan Bartley
February 15, 2010

Watching Channel 4's Tower Block of Commons on Monday night, I was struck again by how little is invested in our MPs.

It's an odd thing to say given the expenses scandal, and by all means we need more accountability (a separate debate), but it would be a mistake to associate the financial abuse with investment. We have still to equip them to do their job properly.

A good constituency MP can make a huge difference to the lives of local people, in the same way a bad one can leave them without hope. I experienced that myself whilst working for a whole range of different MPs in the 1990s, but also as a constituent with my own local MP. I found my 'representative' no help whatsoever in getting my disabled son into our local school after he had been denied admission on the grounds they felt they could not accommodate his wheelchair and other special needs (yes it does still happen legally in this day and age). After a visit to the school, the MP wrote to me saying he was dropping our case, with no explanation at all. My subsequent request for a reason for his decision has to this day never received a reply.

I was fortunate though. Unlike most, having worked myself in Parliament for four years, I knew how the system worked. I asked a sympathetic peer to advocate on my behalf instead. Having been a very good constituency MP himself before going to the Lords, he was only too happy to help. He lobbied the Secretary of State, who subsequently intervened, achieving a positive outcome. My son is now settled at the school happily. But this is something any good MP could, and should, do.

Most MPs and peers have to learn on the job. In most other careers, employees would receive at least a degree of training. But this is conspicuous by its absence when it comes to employment in Parliament. As was clearly evident in Tower Block of Commons, many MPs have some great ideas, can be very practical, well meaning and hardworking. But that on its own is not enough. They also need the skills to put their motivation into action.

The role of MPs could be enhanced significantly for example if they were equipped in such skills as nonviolent communication and mediation for example. They are uniquely placed to help build bridges in divided communities. But they also need awareness of the techniques necessary to do this.

They also need to be fully aware of how they communicate with a diverse array of constituents, in order to put them at their ease, understand them and work with them. Educational awareness of issues of inclusion, equality, religion and disability would be a tremendous help. And whilst there are a few placements that MPs are offered, they could be increased drastically in variety and scope to include experiences of many other contexts - be they housing estates or rural villages - to experience first hand what the life of 'the other' is like. The work of their staff too could also be hugely enhanced by such encounters.

Of course this takes investment, and most crucially time. Many MPs aren't even aware of their shortcomings. Most, even if they did, simply wouldn't have the space to fit such things in between constituency engagements, committees, casework and Parliamentary business. They have no time to learn as it is. Bad habits and coping strategies develop, and important areas are never addressed. Personal development which they may have focused on in previous careers, comes to a grinding halt.

It's a situation which no reform on the table so far comes close to addressing, but could clearly make a huge difference to the lives of many.

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