My local constituency advice surgeries: an insight

Most weeks, I hold two constituency advice surgeries – occasions when local people can come and see me with their problems – or just come to give me their views, face-to-face.

Normally, my surgeries last between three and four hours, and I will see between ten and twenty people or groups during each surgery. I tend to hold one surgery a week in my constituency office in Berrylands, and then the second advice session elsewhere in the Borough – from New Malden to Chessington.

While this all takes up a lot of time – and most MPs actually do less than one local surgery a week, let alone two - I think local surgeries are a vital part of a MP’s job, for three main reasons.

First, local surgeries ensure people can easily access their MP in person. While it’s important people can use all means to contact me – and my office deals with waves of letters, emails and telephone calls, normally keeping our heads just above the water! – I don’t think you can beat the option of a face-to-face discussion. Often it is essential – either for finding out exactly what the real problem is, and how I can best help, or to enable me to listen to someone’s deeply held views – including those times when someone fundamentally disagrees with me on a subject, so at least I can try to understand more precisely where and why we disagree. At a time when people feel politics is so distant and unresponsive, it’s even more vital to be accessible.

The second reason is more practical. Local surgeries allow people to take their problems to someone who’s elected. While we have excellent local Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, and while nowadays bodies from the council to the NHS may offer good advice services, people should surely be able to ask the people they vote for to intervene – especially when everything else they’ve tried has failed. It’s not unusual for someone to open up a meeting with me saying “You’re my last hope” because they’ve hit a wall of bureaucracy or indifference up till then. And while perhaps it shouldn’t be the case, my experience is that quite often a letter from the MP gets answers to questions that have previously been ignored. It’s also sometimes true that I can bring some knowledge to bear on a problem – as many issues occur time and time again.

The third reason is practical for me: regular local surgeries ensure I stay in touch with local residents and the problems they face. Ever since being elected the first time in 1997, the most common issue brought to me in my surgeries has been housing: from overcrowded families to people renting damp properties; from homelessness to problems with housing benefit; from nuisance neighbours to high rents. Having a housing lawyer as my wife has often helped me find a solution to a seemingly intractable problem. Often I get to learn about some widespread problem before it hits the press, purely through constituents who have suffered in some way: from failures of the Child Support Agency through to continual mistakes made within the tax credit system. You can then start to raise it early with Ministers, to push for changes.

And it’s because I think being available for local surgeries is so important that it was the first thing I told my civil servants when I became a Minister: they might have control of much of my diary, but they had to respect my constituency work, and above all, my surgeries.

If you want a further insight, you could check out a short film made by a Berrylands resident, Claude Green, entitled “So what does your MP do?” – as at least a short version is available on the net [go to the home page and scroll down to the bottom].

Of course, having read this, you may even want to come to one of my surgeries. So if you want to make an appointment, please call 020 8288 0161, selecting option 2 – or check out the advice sessions on this website. Do call first though, as they can get busy!