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Protocol clarified on representing constituents

Latest update: 23 August 2011
(see below for details)Should I be representing this constituent? S/he doesn’t live in my constituency but has asked for our help.

There is an oft-quoted “strict parliamentary protocol” that MPs do not pursue issues raised by or about constituents of other MPs. Our view on this has always been: “In the absence of any very clear definition of this protocol, you should use common sense and refer any matter concerning someone who is not your constituent to his or her own MP.”

If you receive a letter or email from an individual who is not your MP’s constituent, you should therefore forward the letter to the correct MP and, if you can, include a cover note or compliments slip to briefly explain that the letter was incorrectly sent to your office. To find the MP for any address in the UK, use this website: http://findyourmp.parliament.uk/commons/l/  – all you need is the postcode. Or the House of Commons Information line on 020 7219 4272 will give you the same information. Both these resources are publicly available.

It is good practice to write back to the individual to:

  • thank them for their communication
  • let them know you are not their MP and it is against parliamentary protocol for you to be involved
  • let them know who their MP is and explain that you have passed their communication on

As ever, we recommend staff to use their judgement when forwarding mail on to another MP.  If the constituent has raised a particularly sensitive matter, then the staffer should simply write to them and tell them to contact their own MP themselves, but if it is something fairly ‘run of the mill’, then there is no reason why it cannot be forwarded. An example of the former might be a letter from a constituent who has clearly identified with the political views of your MP; they would possibly feel betrayed if you were to just pass on the letter to a neighbouring MP in another political party.

We have liaised closely with the Data Protection Officer in relation to this subject, and he has confirmed that, unless the subject of the correspondence is particularly sensitive, then there is no reason why, under the Data Protection Act, an MP cannot forward correspondence on to the correct elected member.

If a constituent moves to a different constituency whilst a case is ongoing, you should contact the constituent to explain to them that you can no longer deal with their case.  You should offer to either transfer the details to their new Member of Parliament or to return their case file to them.  Occasionally, you may wish to continue to deal with the case after the constituent has moved.  If you wish to continue with a case, you should, ideally, contact the constituent’s new MP and explain why you would like to retain the case and give them the opportunity to respond.

Rarely, a constituent from another area feels unable to deal with their own Member of Parliament and asks for your assistance.  If this should happen, you should try to ascertain exactly why they feel unable to approach their own MP and then use your judgement to decide whether or not to take on the case.

For more complicated instances,there is a very helpful Standard Note (SN/PC/2028), last updated on 9 January 2009 by Richard Kelly in the Commons Library: “Members and constituency etiquette”, which spells it out.  You should read it in detail and add it to your own collection of essential guides.  If you get things wrong your boss is going to blame YOU when s/he gets it in the neck!

For those who enjoy reading the fine detail, you can see Hansard’s account of the debate which took place on 5 November 2008 on the topic of Constituency Correspondence (Confidentiality).  Click on ‘Next Section’ at the bottom of this link: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm081105/debtext/81105-0014.htm#08110554000001.

You might also find useful W4MP’s:  A guide to Freedom of Information and Data Protection issues

 

List of updates

Update 23 August 2011. The address for that Standard Note, Members and constituency etiquette, has changed again. It’s now at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-02028.pdf.

Update 15 February 2011. We hadn’t realised that the address for Richard Kelly’s Standard Note had changed.  It is now to be found at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-02028.pdf.

Update 21 June 2010.  You may also find it useful, in this context, to look at our recent brief guide to Freedom of Information and Data Protection issues which is here: www.w4mp.org/html/library/2010booklet/foianddp.asp.

Update 25 February 2009. Richard Kelly has updated his Standard Note (SN/PC/2028) which now includes an expanded section on which is the appropriate MP to take up the case of a prisoner. While he acknowledges that “there are no clear rules on which Members should represent prisoners” the new SN outlines the arguments and includes useful quotes from the Prison Service. The latest version is now dated 9 January 2009.

Update 17 November 2008.  We have added paragraphs 5 to 8 above to clarify the issue of forwarding letters and constituents who move home. The Standard Note is now on the public parliament website at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-02028.pdf.

Update 10 November 2008. 3rd and 4th paragraphs above added for clarification.