MPs are currently in hiding in their constituencies from the silly season. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t encountering some rather silly behaviour themselves as they hold surgeries. Constituency surgeries are normally quite doleful affairs, with local people in dire straits turning to their MP for help with an impossible housing situation, a tangled immigration case, or a row with social services. Depending on the sort of MP you are, you either love your constituency casework so much that it’s the main reason you’re in Parliament, or you secretly think it a bit of a bore and long to return from a lengthy discussion about the bad smell from the local sewer (a favourite topic of angry local tweets from MPs of all leanings) to the safety of Westminster. Commons researchers privately rank the offices around them depending on how much they really care about constituency work. But they also get the occasional silly case of their own to deal with. Constituency surgeries, it seems, are a bit like 999 calls: not always fully sensible.
This week, Conservative chairman Grant Shapps was called by a constituent who wanted him to help load and unload their removal van as they moved house. Similarly, his colleague Alun Cairns was asked to arrange for a constituent’s dog to be fed. Both said they were happy to help, although Shapps pointed out that he still hasn’t fully unpacked from his own house move more than a decade ago and might not be much use. Cairns found a neighbour to feed the dog.
Other slightly less feel-good requests include a constituent asking Enfield MP David Burrowes to sort out a dead pigeon he had seen on the top of a bus shelter. Therese Coffey, more accustomed to dealing with requests for help with housing cases in her Suffolk Coastal constituency, was asked if she could recommend a good dating agency. And while family breakdown can lead to problems that an MP really can help with, East Worthing and Shoreham MP Tim Loughton was left at a loss when he was asked by one local for advice on how to make the man who had dumped her change his mind about their affair. But that wasn’t the strangest case Loughton has had to deal with. Another constituent enlisted his help in retrieving a bearskin rug that had been impounded by customs on the advice of John Prescott’s office. The owner of the rug threatened to shoot two more bears in Canada – which he had a license to do – unless his rug was released. Fortunately Prescott’s office yielded in this instance: ‘a Canadian bear is still walking round without a bullet hole in him,’ says Loughton.
Ed Miliband’s PPS Karen Buck recently tweeted that she’d been asked at a surgery for help with the costs of a wedding, while another MP tells me he was asked for help with the costs of a divorce. One MP’s office whispers that their favourite funny casework request was someone trying to claim back their subscription to an ‘adults only’ website service. Another MP, who didn’t want to be named, received a complaint from a constituent that there were naked ladies sunbathing in the garden next door.
A very determined MP might be able to do something about naked sunbathers, but there wasn’t much Douglas Carswell could do when asked to stop a neighbour’s cat straying into a constituent’s garden. He politely pointed out that no law written by a human would stop a cat wandering around (and as a rebellious Tory MP, he knows full well what it is like trying to herd cats).
But Carswell, like all MPs, doesn’t want to mock constituents who ask their elected representatives to bend the laws of nature, because these represent rare diversions from casework that still pushes the boundaries of what an MP can do. He says he finds himself helping with debt cases, even though it isn’t strictly part of his remit, because constituents often come to him in such desperate circumstances that it is difficult to refuse to help. ‘Often just writing a letter to a creditor explaining that this person is struggling makes a huge difference,’ Carswell explains. Another MP says they were called by an old lady who wanted a visit, not because she had a problem that the parliamentarian could write letters to ministers about, but because she was lonely and wanted someone to talk to.
MPs don’t have an obligation to take up any case, but one survey found that for 33 per cent of MPs, constituency work took up between 50 and 74 per cent of their time, and 35.7 per cent spending between 35 and 49 per cent of their time on casework. 34 per cent of MPs received between 100-200 new casework queries a month, with 29 per cent receiving less than 100 queries, 20 per cent receiving between 20 and 500, and 13 per cent seeing more than 500 a month. The Young Legal Aid Lawyers survey also provided a breakdown of the different problems MPs find themselves dealing with in their surgeries:
Another survey of the 2010 intake of MPs found that constituency casework takes up the largest share of their time (28 per cent), followed by events and meetings in the constituency (21 per cent) and attending debates in the Commons chamber (21 per cent). Research by Shelter found that half of MPs agree that housing is the problem constituents most commonly ask for help with. Most of the cases are gruelling and miserable, and an MP can’t always solve the problems people bring to them. So at least when someone does demand help with feeding a dog, or help with some troublesome naked ladies, their case provides some light relief from the grind.