When I was first elected to Parliament 16 years ago, I made a pledge that if anyone would agree to invite round all their neighbours I would join them to discuss their interests and concerns.
Over the years I have held hundreds of these ?House Meetings?. I find them an invaluable way of keeping in touch with constituents. Recently half a dozen people have taken me up on my pledge so I have held a spate of House Meetings. I was trying to explain to a young MP what makes these meetings so valuable.
First, is that people who would never to go a ?political? meeting in a village hall do come round to a neighbour?s house.
Second, people of all political persuasions and none come because these are not ?party? meetings. I am there as the constituency MP whose job is to represent and respond to everyone in my patch. Most MPs of all parties spend most of their time talking solely to their own supporters. That can easily give you a distorted and complacent view of the political debate. I find it refreshing to be challenged by people with totally different political views from my own. It is surprising how often we end up agreeing on a wide range of issues.
Third, you get to know local issues street by street. Traffic speeding dangerously along the Redbourn Road resulting in a horrific accident; heavy lorries speeding down the hill into Wheathampstead; telecom masts right next to people?s bedrooms in Harpenden, Little Wymondley and Hitchin; infill building in Harpenden; burning waste in Appspond Lane.
Sometimes these are issues which only local councillors can solve and I rely heavily upon their help. But it is important for an MP to know what is going on not least in case a pattern emerges ? as on lack of planning power over telecom masts ? which needs action in Parliament.
Fourth, you get to pick your constituents? brains. MPs cannot know, and should not pretend to know, everything about every issue. But in this area there is no need to. I am always amazed by the range of expertise among my constituents. During the Kosovo crisis, I met at one House Meeting a lady with Church contacts in Serbia who were able to give me a view from the ground ? often disturbingly different from what Robin Cook was telling us.
At a recent House Meeting I was struck by the fact that there was an expert able to illuminate every issue people raised. When the issue of mobile phone masts came up, a telecoms engineer was able to tell us why they cannot always be put on the same site. When someone raised concerns about the standard of care and hygiene in our local hospitals, our discussion was illuminated by a lady who has worked both for the Health Authority and a Primary Care Group. I shall incorporate her ideas in my next pamphlet on the NHS! The seriousness of the problem was then brought home by another lady whose mother died after twice being infected by MRSA in a local hospital.
Then we discussed the recent petrol crisis. An oil company executive explained the problems of using the armed forces? equipment to overcome shortages if the ?blockades? resume.
Even when someone mentioned the flooding in Kent, there was a couple present who had recently moved here from Tunbridge Wells and had been flooded in the past. So these floods are not a one-off phenomenon. I made a mental note to check that, after years of worrying about the River Ver drying up, we won?t face future problems of flooding here, too!
Finally, the meetings do keep me abreast of what people are actually thinking and saying rather than what the media would like us to believe are their concerns.
I find these House Meetings such a valuable sounding board for people?s views that I used to quote them in Cabinet. I probably rather irritated my colleagues by referring to what people at a House Meeting in Harpenden or St Albans were saying about such and such. So much so, that on occasion Mrs Thatcher referred to me as Secretary of State for St Albans instead of for Trade and Industry.
So, if you want to hold a House Meeting anywhere in the constituency to make sure your MP knows about your local issues and your neighbours? views, please let me know. You can write to me at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA