I recently attended a talk by the Outreach Officer of the Houses of Parliament, organised by Reading Voluntary Action Group, on behalf of a project that I’m involved in (related to women’s Olympic equality). Armed only with an ‘O’ level in English Law (yes, that ages me, I know), I would normally recommend that clients call in specialists for professional Government lobbying activity, but with no budgets to talk of on a campaign I’m working with, the talk came at exactly the right time.
I imagine that others will be in the same boat, and, given the reasons for the talk, asked for permission (granted) to share my notes here. I have spread over three day’s blogs as there was a LOT of information.
(I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.)
The talk itself was part of a greater move toward transparency in UK government – not an alternative to MPs, but an initiative to help people and campaigning organisations to navigate Parliament.
In the UK, our ‘Hung Parliament’ makes life more exciting for campaigners. We are in times of genuine democracy when one person (our representatives) can make a difference, albeit with some ‘horse trading’ going on behind the scenes.
If you are interested, anyone can arrange a tour of the Houses of Parliament via their MP, and any debate can be watched without booking. If you have missed a debate, but want to know what happened, Bothe the BBC democracy live and Parliament TV have viewable archives.
What is Parliament for?
Parliament (where our MP’s ‘sit’) makes and passes laws, holds government to account and enables government to set taxes.
How to engage with your MP
Your local MP is always the place to start – go somewhere else and you will always be asked if you have spoken to them. It’s a protocol that works.
To find out who your local MP is, go to www.parliament.uk, your town hall or library. You should be able to garner intelligence on their issues of importance. All MPs have a website with their contact details and ‘surgery’ details. Sometimes they will get case workers to see you rather than see you themselves if they are busy, but this shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.
If your issue is not specifically local, you could approach other MPs who have expressed an interest in a topic, but it will speed things and make life a whole lot easier if your own MP has already been made aware of your issue. (It’s protocol that they automatically ask your local MP – they are, after all, the ones with the responsibility for people in their local area.)
Using social media networks like Twitter, we are currently in a ‘golden age’ of engagement, because it will become bombarded later, but at present, it’s an easier way to grab attention than email. However, 15% of the UK population have no access to the Internet : all will have a telephone number available and can receive information by post as well.
The House of Lords
If you get nowhere with MP, the House of Lords can be useful. It’s a permanently ‘hung’ chamber, and there are more life peers than MPs – 92 hereditary peers remain. With 25 Church of England bishops in their midst, religion is hotly debated. They can make a difference. In principle, they are more easily contactable as they don’t have constituencies, but sometimes contacting can prove harder, so it’s a case of ‘keep on trying’.
All have biographies available, so you can find their interests. Hansard is the official report of everything said in Parliament – this makes it easier to search. (I tried this out for ‘equality’ and ‘sport’ and it proved useful.) Simply attending can be an indication of interest as House of Lords’ peers only usually attend and speak when issues they’re passionate about are being discussed.
Hansard gives you information on the right people to contact. Letters are the best way to get to members of House of Lords – they receive less letters than emails, and as they take time to produce, letters show a level of care and importance that an email doesn’t.
(On a personal, rather than reporting, note, I used the site and delving into gender issues found some uncomfortable reading on trans-gender alignment, but finding things on male/female gender equality was harder. On the basis of my searches, I’d say stick with it – even though what you want may not be organised in a way you’re accustomed to, (like Google!) the information is there.)
Lords of the Blog was also recommended as a useful site for seeing how things work in the House of Lords.
This activity come’s with a warning: it’s very hard, albeit effective, to approach the appropriate minister (in government). You need to be prepared to follow up with pester calls, and use a variety of methods to get a response – there’s a limit to how much people can physically do, ESPECIALLY with email.
Using the 10 Downing Street website helps identify the right one. It’s not always clear who does what amongst ministers (there is some ‘cross over’, but the ‘departments” bit of the site will help. The Information Office can offer history around a particular topic.
Getting representatives to ask a (Parliamentary) question is usually very successful. Questions can be asked in writing, and have to be answered
How questions work: the representative writes it down and takes it to the table office. They have a shuffle, and they are then put on an order sheet. Every department has questions, rotating. You can go on to ask more on the same topic based on response.
At the end of the hour set aside for questions, there are topical questions on department specific issues.
The Speaker tries to get a balance between parties and age groups. If a question isn’t tabled, they can try and attach it to another debate. To get someone to table a question you need to supply both the data and the key points. It’s a good way to get a commitment – all can be held to account over the promises they make. Note however, that they can’t be asked about party or private issues, only to request information or press for action. They can’t get involved with legal issues.
One question may not be enough to make a difference, but several will be effective at raising awareness and possibly even pushing for action.
Top tip: for ministers and MPs alike, try and give them something easy to deal with (simple to explain, simple to understand if you have little time and lots to do), framed in the right terms. Sounds like communication in general!
(Links to later posts have been added in after publishing.)