Tuesday 15 November 2011

Shadowing my MP: constantly switching topics

For two days during the Royal Society MP/Scientist Pairing Scheme I shadowed my MP. He's Mark Williams, the MP for my constituency, Ceredigion. His interests are mostly in Welsh issues, human rights issues, education issues, and general matters raised by his constituents, which are not usually science issues. However the shadowing experience was certainly an eye-opener for me.

Parliament sits from Mon-Thurs and then on Friday the MPs travel back to their constituencies and have surgeries, meet the public, attend events, open buildings, etc. Sometimes they do this at weekends too. Then back to Westminster during the week. While at Westminster it seems to be a hectic run of meetings and debates, and these constantly switch from one topic to the next. How do they do that?

On Thursday 3rd November we started with a press conference about Camp Ashraf in Iraq (a refugee camp for Iranians that the mass media seems to be ignoring for some reason, but that would be another post). After this was a session in the Commons Chamber, for Urgent Questions: the raising of anything and everything that MPs think there's a pressing need to ask for a debate about. Questions ranged from traffic problems in Bradford to student visas, metal theft, solar panel feed-in tariffs and the VAT threshold for micro businesses. After this, quickly back to the office to finish preparing a speech for the afternoon's debate on the Silk Commission which will be set up to look at Welsh Devolution issues. I watched part of this debate (which was surprisingly interesting) and then mid-afternoon moved to Westminster Hall to catch part of a debate about a report on shale gas extraction and 'fracking'.

As an MP, it's not possible to be an expert in all of these areas. It's not possible for them to have time to be an expert. It looked as if it was hardly possible to have time to grab a sandwich at lunch! So they have to rely on their office-researchers, on the information packs provided by POST and other parliamentary bodies, and on the information they receive from their constituents and the public. And from this information they have to raise topics for discussion, join in with informed debate on a huge range of issues and then be able to vote on detailed legislation, which provides the laws by which we all live. I found this idea somewhat scary.

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