One of the most essential elements of the role of the MP is the one-to-one relationship with constituents.
There is a profound sense of duty to the people who elect us, but there is also a practical side: when things start to go wrong, MPs will pick up on problem areas very quickly. As soon as the mailbag, or email inbox, begins to bulge.
There are some areas that will always feature: problems with taxes and benefits; housing repairs or people trying to get into social housing, which is more difficult since all the council houses were sold off.
I am seeing more concerns about bus provision, and not just from the rural areas. Sadly, the government turned down a bid for more bus service money from Cheshire West & Chester Council despite ministers describing that bid as “excellent.”
But more recently we have seen a huge spike in complaints in two areas.
The first was driving licences. Last year every MP started noticing constituents were facing huge delays with the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. The DVLA had made all its workers come in during the pandemic with little added workplace protection. Lo and behold, lots of them caught coronavirus. The staff unions complained and were blamed by the DVLA management – who would have been better fixing the problem, not assigning blame.
Straight away MPs’ inboxes were full, and yes, we do discuss these things in the Commons tea room. Plus we can grab Transport Ministers and ask them what on earth is going on.
More recently I saw a spike in complaints about the Passport Office. Applications sent off weeks ago had still not been processed, with family holidays booked and work travel planned.
Again this was a national problem, with colleagues asking each other “are you getting many passport cases at the moment?” before deciding to ask Mr Speaker to grant an Urgent Question, which forces ministers to come to the Commons, make a statement and answer questions on the subject.
People accept that in an emergency, like Ukraine, it will take time to get visa systems up and running. But a government that can’t get the basics right like driving licences and passports is skating on thin ice.
And since the government has just changed the law to make people show photo ID before they vote – something I oppose – it is essential that these systems work smoothly or our democracy will be damaged even further.