Have MPs become ‘super-councillors’ when they should be legislators?

By: Peter Heaton-Jones

Members of Parliament are under scrutiny as never before. Social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the growth of restless political activism all conspire to ensure our elected representatives can never be off duty. These factors have another effect too: MPs have to be extremely vigilant when it comes to dealing with constituents’ casework. Any perception of delay in replying to a resident or dealing inadequately with their issue, and soon the wider community knows all about it. Local Facebook pages, campaigning websites and even neighbourhood WhatsApp groups are fizzing with criticism of MPs who are seen to be failing in their duty.

Quite right too, many people might say. A backbench MP receives a salary of £86,584; government ministers – 108 of them at last count – are paid extra. And that’s before all those perks and expenses, isn’t it? So of course MPs should be held to account when it comes to their record of helping constituents.

It’s a reasonable point of view. But there are increasing signs that the growing demands being made of our MPs is starting to fundamentally change their role. The sheer volume of incoming correspondence is one thing, but there’s another factor which needs urgent review: the nature of the casework that MPs are now being asked to handle.

I was elected to Parliament in 2015. For the previous five years I’d worked for two MPs, and so when I arrived at my attic office on the parliamentary estate, there was no great surprise as my inbox began to bulge. Fortunately, I had fantastic staff – three of them, to start with – and we set up a very efficient system for handling the casework which came pouring in from day one.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when that correspondence became a flood, but it was around the time of Brexit. After the 2017 general election it became clear that three members of staff was no longer enough. We went up to four, then four-and-a-half, and often had interns on top of that. Colleagues from across the political spectrum were doing similar. Of course, much of the increased workload was due to Brexit itself, with constituents understandably wanting to have their say on that most divisive of issues. But as growing numbers of local residents contacted their MPs – and discovered the myriad online tools which make that possible with just a couple of clicks – so parliamentary offices noticed a trend. Constituents now had us on speed dial and were increasingly getting in touch to raise matters which hitherto had not been part of the core remit of Members of Parliament.

I’d previously been a councillor on a large unitary authority, and my chief caseworker had extensive experience in that sector too, so my office was pretty well versed on the roles and functions of the various tiers of local government. We knew that many of the issues being raised by constituents were not matters over which MPs have any direct say, but rather the statutory responsibilities of local councils. Planning. Parking. Rubbish collection. School places. Noise complaints. Rubbish collection. Housing allocation. Speed limits. Tree cutting. Did I mention rubbish collection? The digital postbag started to strain at the seams as more and more issues which should have been directed to the local authority 200 miles away came instead straight to Westminster.

From talking to MPs’ offices today, it’s clear history has repeated itself since I stepped down in 2019. Covid is this cohort’s Brexit. As an anxious, confused and angry public reached out to their MPs during the pandemic – many contacting Westminster for the first time – so the ‘speed dial’ phenomenon was re-energised. Volumes of correspondence have increased again, and the issues being raised are often council-related. One parliamentary staffer I spoke to put it very neatly: ‘We’ve become the first port of call, but we should be the last resort’. Many Westminster offices feel they’ve become a cross between a Citizens Advice Bureau and a mail forwarding service. At least one large council has had to establish a special department just to deal with incoming correspondence from MPs’ offices.

And this is where the intense scrutiny under which modern MPs find themselves plays its insidious part. The efficient and factually correct response to council casework would be a single-sentence reply telling each correspondent this is not a matter for their MP, and they should instead contact the local authority. Problem: on receiving such a reply, the resident will use every available means to broadcast their disgust at your ‘lack of action’, ‘failure’, ‘laziness’ and worse. And with social media being what it is, that means large numbers of people (voters) will develop a hugely negative impression of their MP. And so, rather than the ‘correct’ response, MPs are instead compelled to take on the case. They must reply to the constituent promising action, contact the local council, forward correspondence in each direction, and usually undertake many chasing letters and follow-ups. Multiply that many times, and soon the workload increases beyond capacity.

There are several legitimate arguments, of course, for saying that MPs absolutely should be dealing with these sorts of cases, beyond the cynical need to maintain a positive impression with voters. Councils are struggling because of years of under-investment by central government; MPs may not have direct powers, but they do have influence and should use that to help their constituents; and, once again, MPs are paid quite a chunk of taxpayers’ money, so can jolly well get on with it.

The problem, however, is that MPs and their offices have limited capacity. Each member is only allowed to spend a capped amount on staff salaries. Provisional figures for the upcoming financial year set this cap at £268,550 for MPs in the London area and £250,820 for members outside the capital. These are the totals for the parliamentary and constituency offices, although it’s up to individual members how they split resources and work between the two. That sounds a lot of money. But that has to pay not only for the headline wages, but also employers’ NI contributions, pension entitlements, and any back-filling required because of factors like illness or maternity leave. The staff budget has failed to keep up with the increased workload, despite extra investment during the Covid years. Take into account the need to attract the right calibre of staff in the current competitive jobs market, and the minimum salary levels laid down by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and you soon find that the money doesn’t stretch very far. The pressures on staff were admirably covered nearly a year ago in this blog by my colleague Laura Gherman. Nothing has changed since then. Rates of burn-out are said to be high, and turnover is seemingly rapid. A quick glance at the most popular Westminster recruitment website currently shows nearly 40 MPs simultaneously advertising staff vacancies.

And what are they dealing with? Conversations I’ve had with various MPs’ offices all tell the same story. The volume of incoming correspondence has risen inexorably. Some of the reports I’ve been given include: one MP with 10,000 outstanding constituents’ cases; a newly-appointed staff member who was presented on day one with 6,000 unactioned emails; a parliamentary office handling 18,000 cases in one year; and an MP who has just done an analysis showing 35,000 individual cases formally logged since the 2019 election – and that often means complex cases where multiple actions were required. It’s a huge workload. And yes, a lot of the caseload consists of council issues over which the MP has no direct jurisdiction. I asked one well-connected staff member how many MPs’ offices were sagging under the weight of large numbers of council cases. ‘100%’ was the answer, followed by the exasperated comment, ‘It never ends’. In short, legislators in the House of Commons are increasingly expected to behave like ‘super-councillors’.

This matters because while MPs and their staff are dealing with emails about recycling and parking, they’re not devoting their time to the bigger issues: legislation, parliamentary scrutiny, holding ministers to account, discussing and developing ‘big ideas’, formulating policy…in short, doing the actual work of a Member of Parliament. If something is not done, MPs will be overwhelmed by the need to prioritise every last item of correspondence which flows into their offices, even when it’s a matter for the local council, and the traditional role of our elected representatives will change forever. And that raises fundamental questions about the functioning of our parliamentary democracy.

Peter Heaton-Jones.

Peter Heaton-Jones served as an MP for two terms from 2015, standing down in 2019. He was parliamentary private secretary to the lord chancellor and the secretary of state at the Department for Work & Pensions. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.