How accessible are our MPs?
Our attempts to find out when and where Northants MPs hold surgeries in their constituency has been an uphill struggle
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By Sarah Ward
Northamptonshire’s MPs appear to have quietly dropped their weekly surgeries with some now instead offering appointment-only surgeries in secret locations.
An investigation by NN Journal over the course of four days last week found that none of the county’s seven MPs, all of whom are Conservative, are currently offering advertised weekly drop in surgeries in their constituencies, as has been the tradition of most MPs for the past several decades.
Instead there is on offer to the Northants public a confusing mix of by appointment, virtual and email correspondence, however not one of the MPs contacted by NN Journal would make it clear how their own system works, with Northampton North MP Michael Ellis and Kettering MP Phillip Hollobone proving impossible to get hold of despite several attempts.
Security concerns and the virtual arrangements forced by the pandemic are thought to be behind the shift away from the traditional drop in surgery at which an MP used to hire out a public building and take on issues that were concerning people living in their constituency.
Concerns about the safety of MPs at surgeries have increased in recent years, in the wake of the murders of Jo Cox MP, who was shot and stabbed on her way to her surgery in 2016, and David Amess who was killed during his surgery last October by a religious terrorist.
In the days after the David Amess murder, home secretary Priti Patel said MPs would not stop meeting with constituents.
“We will carry on. We live in an open society, a democracy. We cannot be cowed by any individual or any motivation to stop us from functioning, to serve our elected democracy.”
She also announced a review of MP’s security.
Andrea Leadsom, the MP for Daventry, now has a police presence at her surgery at Towcester Forum, which she said has been instigated on the advice of police.
Asked about what advice has been given and how many of the county’s seven MPs Northamptonshire Police is providing security for a press officer said they had spoken to officers “who have knowledge of this and in the interests of security, we can’t provide details on the specific measures we take to protect any of our local MPs."
However we do take their safety seriously, provide local engagement and support, and frequently review our response in light of any changing local and national information.”
Corby’s MP Tom Pursglove, who is also a junior home office minister, states on his website that he is following official security advice by keeping the location of his surgeries confidential.
However the home office would not confirm whether this was official advice.
A spokesman said:
“The Government takes the safety of all Members of Parliament extremely seriously and their security measures are kept under ongoing review. The Home Office continues to work closely with the Police and the Parliamentary Security Department to ensure that every MP has access to a robust suite of security measures to ensure they can go about their vital work freely and with confidence.”
Pressed twice if it was official advice to keep surgery locations secret, the home office press office said ‘we do not comment on individual security arrangements in place.’
While none of the Northamptonshire MPs are holding weekly surgeries in advertised locations, the practice is still happening across the country by MPs of all political persuasions, indicating the matter now appears to be down to the personal judgement of MPs.
All of the Northants MPs appear to rely on email correspondence as a first port of call for residents.
All publish phone numbers on their website, but during our investigation we found that more often than not these phones are not picked up and instead diverted to voicemail. None of the messages we left on these phones were responded to.
Constituents are then typically asked to send details of the matter via email and given details of how long it may take to respond.
Kettering MP Philip Hollobone, who did not answer any questions from us, says in his generic email response to residents that he has had an ‘unprecedented’ amount of emails recently and will respond as quickly as he can, although no specific time frame is given.
Wellingborough’s Peter Bone says his office aims to respond within 20 days but to get back in touch if the email is not answered within 30.
Tom Pursglove says in bold in his generic response that if the matter is urgent to call his parliamentary office and a member of staff will bring it to his attention immediately. On the number of occasions NN Journal called his office, the phone was not picked up.
Northampton South MP Andrew Lewer gives constituents a prescribed way of communicating with him - requesting name and full postal address - and says if the email is not in the correct format that it will be deleted within 14 days.
Concerns have been raised about how accessible the dropping of the locally advertised and regular surgery makes the MPs who are elected to serve the interests of their constituents.
Deputy leader of the Liberal democrats on West Northamptonshire Council Jonathan Harris says the coffee mornings of Chris Heaton-Harris are a new thing and that historically ‘he has never been very public’.
“It is not easy to understand the regularity of the sessions and where they are held. There is no appointment system and I know of two people who went along to the last one and then left.
“Also there are a lot of people who don’t use social media and would not know how to get in touch with him.”
Corby Labour Leader Jean Addison thinks the remoteness of MPs could harm them at election time.
“I have heard that people have had difficulty accessing Tom Pursglove. Sometimes you want to be face-to-face with someone, as you can’t always explain in a letter or email in the same way you can in person.
“I think MPs should be required to hold surgeries and there are ways and means of making it safe. I think it could harm the MPs at the ballot box if they become too remote.”
We began making calls and emails to the MPs parliamentary and constituency offices on Tuesday of last week, continuing throughout Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Each MP received several contacts from ourselves, but in the absence of clear information from many of them we also trawled through websites and social media posts to try to work out what’s happening.
The MP for South Northamptonshire, who was first elected in 2010, was the most prompt in responding.
Within an hour of our first email to her parliamentary office on Tuesday an assistant had replied to say:
“Andrea holds several surgeries a month and they are booked via the office.”
However it took a few more emails over the course of the next two days to gather more information, and we’re still unsure whether Andrea Leadsom’s surgeries are held on a regular weekly basis.
A second email from her staff when asked for more detail said:
“They’re held in person and at various locations in the constituency.”
And then a further email from us prompted this response:
“As an elected representative, Andrea still feels it is still important to provide access to people. However, on advice of the police, surgeries are now held in the Towcester Forum in a secure area and with the police in attendance.”
We asked if the surgeries are held every seven days but did not receive a response.
We have no dates for these surgeries and her facebook page or website does not display them either.
Daventry MP Chris Heaton Harris
The government’s chief whip doesn’t hold weekly surgeries, instead preferring to host monthly drop in ‘coffee mornings’ across his constituency.
A note on his website says he does not hold surgeries because due to the size of the constituency he found this was hampering accessibility.
He also hosts quarterly members-only business breakfasts in his constituency.
Our first email to his office received a generic response, which did not include any surgery/coffee morning information and said:
“I receive hundreds of emails each week and it is administratively difficult to respond to everyone immediately, but I try to do so within 2 working weeks.”
After a follow up email we were told due to his role as chief government whip he did not speak to the media. This includes the local media we were told by a member of his staff.
Northampton North MP Michael Ellis
Our emails to Michael Ellis, who is a cabinet minister and holds the office of paymaster general, did not receive a response, nor did a number of phone calls made to his parliamentary office.
There are no mentions of surgeries on either his social media sites or website, therefore it appears unlikely that the government cabinet minister holds face to face weekly surgeries for his constituents.
Kettering MP Phillip Hollobone
Known for having one of the lowest expenses costs in Westminster Phillip Hollobone runs a lean operation and does not have a constituency office, or any known staff. He does not have a website and it appears that he does not hold face to face surgeries, instead corresponding with constituents largely via email. He also does not have a social media presence.
Our initial email enquiry received a generic response which included:
“Over recent weeks I have received an unprecedented amount of e-mail and written correspondence on national and local issues as well as complicated and urgent casework on serious individual cases across multiple issues. I am doing my best to respond to constituents' enquiries as quickly as I can.”
We called and left messages on three phones, including his personal mobile and did not receive an answer.
As reported by the Northants Telegraph last month one of the MP’s constituents was jailed for harassment after bombarding Hollobone with calls and emails concerning a matter he wanted his help with. It even led to the MP having to hide in a wood when he was accosted by Marcus Ambrose while out jogging.
Wellingborough and Rushden MP Peter Bone
We were told by his constituency office that Peter Bone holds surgeries by appointment in his constituency. However attempts to gather further information were thwarted as the phone conversation was quickly ended with his staff when we did get through, without us being able to even ask the questions. We also left voice messages.
A generic email response said any emails from constituents would be responded to within 20 days
“We aim to respond to all queries within 20 working days. However, Mr Bone receives a large volume of correspondence each day and as such correspondence will be replied to in the order it is received. Please contact us if you have not received a response within 30 working days.”
Northampton South MP Andrew Lewer
While Andrew Lewer’s website says he holds advice surgeries we could find no details of these and numerous attempts to call his office and clarify the situation proved fruitless. When we did manage to speak to a staff member at his constituency office on Friday, they said they were new and so were not sure whether he held surgeries, but that they would speak to a colleague who would respond. We heard nothing more.
The generic response to any email enquiry to the MP says:
“Please note that for all constituent correspondence I will require your name, full postal address and a short summary of the issue, in order for me to respond.”
Corby MP Tom Pursglove
The times and locations of where the MP holds his weekly surgeries are confidential. The MP says this due to ‘official security advice’ however, the home office, for which he is a minister, could not confirm this.
It is unclear whether the MP is holding face to face surgeries in a community location or whether his contact with constituents is virtual. His office did not respond to any of our enquiries and his parliamentary office phone was not picked up on the occasions we called.
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