Gale`s View – 7th March 2012
For nearly twenty nine years my office has endeavoured, with modest success, to respond swiftly to the communications that we have received on, originally six, and now seven, days of the week. Save for the green ink” letters and repetitively obsessive correspondence (in fact very little) that all Members of Parliament receive, it has been our aim to react to enquiries and, particularly, to calls for assistance, within forty-eight hours. I have always taken the view that a problem shared is, at least, a problem alleviated if not halved. Those with pressing personal issues have, I believe, a right to know that somebody, somewhere, is at least trying to assist them.
In the high days of snail mail” we were receiving and processing in the region of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty letters a day. The majority of those were requests for help with a myriad of difficulties, while a relatively few were directly political and, in some cases, party-political in content. Mail sent to the House of Commons has, it may surprise some to know, always been opened, read, and replies dictated to , by me personally. Enquiries made through my only parliamentary office, which is located in Birchington, are dealt with locally where possible or, when appropriate, referred back to me for attention.
Then came e-mail. I continue to answer as many communications as possible by post and under my own signature, but the volume of letters that we receive has dropped to around fifty a day while the number of e-mails that are sent to my parliamentary and Thanet addresses is now running at between two hundred and two hundred and fifty a day. I still try to reply to these personally but that is, inevitably, at the expense of other parliamentary business and we are, I think, reaching the saturation point where MPs generally are going to have to choose between pastoral work and the proper scrutiny of legislation.
Into this equation has also been injected the e-mail computer generated round robin” originated by mainly, but not exclusively, left-wing campaign groups and sent out, usually impersonally, at the push of a button from a centrally stored database. Some of these missives reveal the name and address of the alleged sender and others do not. I have found it necessary , in tandem with many colleagues on both sides of the House, to take a view that while personally written and signed-off letters deserve the courtesy of a personal response, the electronic equivalent of the old-fashioned campaign fill in your name and address and send this to your MP” postcard can only, reasonably, warrant a similarly circular reply.
The most worrying aspect of this, however, has only relatively recently emerged. In reaction to acknowledgements that I have sent in reply to one national campaign it has become clear that the constituents under whose names the e-mails had been sent were, in fact, unaware that their names were being taken in vain and that they had not endorsed the campaign in question. This is almost certainly a breach of data protection legislation and a matter, I think, that will have to be taken up with the Data and Charity Commissioners. While it is right that people should be able to use whatever tools are available to them to communicate with their elected representatives we, in turn, must surely be allowed to be reasonably certain that the views being endorsed, even if duplicated many times and transmitted unread by the sender” are, at the very least, from our own constituents and the shared opinions of the author”. It would be very dangerous indeed if we were to allow the democratic process to be hijacked and abused by extremists of whatever political persuasion seeking to propagate not the view of the masses” but their own unrepresentative agenda.