Let local democracy take the strain

The single most practical piece of advice I received on arrival at Westminster as a new MP in June 1983 came from my Chief Whip, Alan Beith: "if you're stopped in the street in Leeds by a constituent who thanks you for your letter, the best reply is 'it's the least I could do.' It covers every eventuality!" The point being that as with just about every MP it was my staff who dealt assiduously with all the constituency casework. They knew much better than I did how to handle the corridors of power. I just signed the letters. And it took a lot of extra strain off my shoulders.

What couldn't be avoided, however, were the local surgeries each weekend when, on a rota, I attended two venues each Saturday morning to hear constituents' problems in person. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though almost all the issues raised were actually within the purview of local not central government. The local councillor would have had more influence on housing and education matters, but the need to appear a "good constituency MP" dictated that I had to write the letters.

The concept of the single MP dealing with all his or her constituents occasionally took a bit of a knock. One of the minority of individuals who did come with a problem relating to national government was both a lawyer and a doctor and one of Sir Keith Joseph's constituents! Keith, being a Minister at the time, could not table parliamentary questions and had therefore authorised his constituent to come to me - every Saturday!

Also any idea that one gained recognition through the process was effectively undermined when I held surgeries at Burley library. This was near the edge of the constituency and the people living in the streets called the "Harolds" were in a different constituency. But they would still come and tell me very warmly that they always voted for me - even though it was impossible!

All this is far removed from the life of an MP a century ago. In the British Library archive I came across a letter to my predecessor Herbert Gladstone from his constituency party chairman saying that as "it was now two years since he had been to the constituency, perhaps it was time to pay a visit"! Even in the 1960s Duncan Sandys told his constituency Conservative party, when it complained of his absence, that he "was the Member for Streatham in Westminster, not the Member for Westminster in Streatham".

I regale you with these stories because times have changed dramatically and an MP would be in serious trouble if he took the Duncan Sandys line today. Also, more and more decisions are taken by Ministers that would earlier have been dealt with further down the line, and, worst of all, the Prime Minister regularly feels it necessary to "take control" of a particular problem rather than leave it with the departmental Minister - the latest being the current immigration spat.

At the same time we are increasingly in the throes of speculation about the health of the Prime Minister. The strain, we are told, is showing on Mr Blair. I am, of course, concerned but it needs to be said that a significant part of it is self-inflicted. If, of all people, the Prime Minister cannot so regulate his time to enable him to concentrate on those key over arching issues of state that cannot possibly be dealt with by a departmental Minister, then it is hardly surprising that the inexorable pressures will take their toll, to the detriment of the individual and to the quality of his decision making.

If Mr Blair publicly and consistently took the line that, of course, he was kept informed on immigration issues, but that these were the day to day responsibility of the relevant Ministers in the Home Department, in whom he had every confidence, at least initially the press would scream, but they would get over it within a short time, and everyone would benefit.

Alan Milburn's sudden resignation as Health Secretary last June took the political world by surprise but he sounds a much happier bunny when he is interviewed nowadays. He should have taken a leaf out of Ernie Bevin's book. Christopher Mayhew, who was one of Ernie's junior Foreign Officer Ministers, told me that on the Friday when Bevin was appointed as Foreign Secretary, his Permanent Secretary left a pile of briefing documents on his desk, with a note saying that "the Foreign Secretary may care to read these documents before his briefing on Monday." When the Permanent Secretary arrived back at the office on Monday morning, the pile of documents was still there and, in Ernie's hand, an additional sentence at the bottom of the note: "a kind thought, but no."

I accept that society is more complex and that the overall burdens are greater but they always will be when powers are shifted upwards. Local government today has hardly any powers left. Leeds City Council no longer controls directly even housing and education, once the life blood of local government. If government is genuinely concerned about the stresses and strains on Ministers, and particularly on the Prime Minister, then let us have more devolution, not less. Let us have genuine Regional Assemblies that derive powers from Westminster and not from local government, and let us have less of the control culture. Other elected representatives can well share the strain if they are allowed, but if they continue to be frozen out then the PM and his senior Ministers have only themselves to blame.

7 April 2004