Member of Parliament (UK)

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The term Member of Parliament (MP) refers to a person who has been elected to the United Kingdom's House of Commons. The professional career of an MP often begins when he or she finds a parliamentary constituency in which the selection committee of the local branch of a political party is willing to adopt him or her as their prospective parliamentary candidate. After being elected, parliamentary loyalties are acquired, but constituency loyalties cannot be set aside and constituency work typical occupies around half of their working time. Parliamentary duties are typically divided between attendance in the Commons chamber and membership of committees, most of which scrutinise the activities of government departments.

Getting elected

In principle, anyone can become a Member of Parliament provided that he or she is aged 18 or over, a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, and not a disqualified person (such as a government employee, or a member of the House of Lords). All that is necessary to stand for election is a nomination paper signed by ten voters, and a £500 deposit. Membership of a political party is not necessary, but it is almost impossible to mount an effective election campaign without party support. Selection as a party candidate is a two-stage process because the central organisations of United Kingdom political parties maintain lists of people who have passed their vetting procedures, from which local party committees are expected to choose their prospective parliamentary candidates. Election campaigns last three or four weeks, during which candidates and their supporters do what they can to get their message across to the voters. There are legal limits of £10,000 to £12,000 on the amounts that can be spent for that purpose[1], so campaigning depends heavily on volunteers. Voting is on a simple first past the post system.

Constituency work

"... in my 10 months as an MP, my office dealt with over 39,400 pieces of communication (c24,000 emails, 9,600 letters, and 4,800 telephone calls) as well as 2,183 constituents' cases."
Craig Whittaker MP in evidence to the Committee on the House of Lords Reform Bill

A Member of Parliament is elected by the voters of a defined geographic area termed a constituency. He or she is then known as "the member for" that constituency, but there are no rules that define that relationship. Practice varies, but many MPs feel obliged to do what they can in response to their constituents' requests for help. According to a survey of new MPs elected in 2010, Members spend an average of 49 per cent of their working time on constituency work, and give it higher priotity than their parliamentary work[2]. Many people go to their MPs for information about their legal rights and duties, or for help in dealing with local officials. MPs are also expected to support local campaigns on matters such as the need for a by-pass or the location of a hospital. His or her parliamentary contacts also enable an MP to serve as the only available channel of communication between local people and central government. A familiar institution is the Member's "surgery" - at which people with problems line up to consult their MP in the manner in which they consult a medical practitioner. Most enquiries are made by mail or email, however, and most are dealt with by the MP's office staff. (In April 2010, an MP was entitled to recover about £100,000 toward the wage-bill of his or her constituency and parliamentary office staff[3]. Those payments are now determined and paid by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority[4]).

Parliamentary duties

Survey results indicate that new Members spend an average of 35 percent of their working time in Parliament, made up of 21 percent in the Commons chamber and 14 percent in committees[2]. Members of Parliament are expected to comply with the House of Commons Code of Conduct [5], compliance with which is monitored by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards[6]. Party members are also expected to comply with party instructions as conveyed to them by the Party Whips[7] Those instructions concern many of their activities in the Commons chamber, and especially that of voting at divisions. A document called "The Whip", containing a list of forthcoming divisions, goes weekly to every party member. The items on the list are all underlined: once indicating that the Member's attendance is optional, twice that it is important, and three times that it is essential. Failure to comply with a "three-line whip" is treated as mutiny, and usually puts an end to the Member's prospects of promotion to ministerial rank. Attendance at debates is nor regarded as compulsory, and most Members do not attend most of them unless asked to do so by their whips. At least half of the Members of Parliament are elected by their fellow-members to serve on Select Committees [8], most of which monitor the activities of individual government departments. Around a hundred of the 650 Members are on the government's payroll including about 20 Cabinet Ministers and 60 Junior Ministers[9].

Pay and prospects

The annual salary for a Member of Parliament is ₤65,738, in addition to which they receive allowances to cover the costs of having somewhere to live in London and in their constituency, and of travelling between Parliament and their constituency[10]. For 56 percent of new MPs surveyed in 2011, this was a cut in salary, and for 31 percent of them the cut was £30,000 or more. They worked, on average, around 70 hours a week, plus 10 hours travelling. 82 per cent of them wanted to make politics a long-term career, and 55 per cent aimed to become ministers[2]. For a member of the ruling party, appointment as a junior minister [11] is a prospect of taking a modest part in the creation of policy, and of an increase in salary from £65,738 to £89,436 a year (as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State). For a member of an opposition party, promotion to junior shadow minister is an increase in status and responsibility, but not in remuneration. Election to the Chair of a Select Committee offers an increase in annual salary to £80,320.

Public perceptions

Among participants in discussion groups organised by the Hansard Society [12] there was widespread acceptance that being an MP is a difficult job, and one that many nonetheless do well. Many participants did not know the name of their MP, but those who did generally felt that they were doing a good job, mainly because they felt they were representing their constituents well. Many suggested that MPs should be holding regular constituency meetings, but few had attempted to look for such meetings, and most were unaware of their MPs' surgeries.