A while back I wrote to my local MP, Jeremy Wright about the conflict in Syria on behalf of Oxfam. I didn’t receive a reply, and so I emailed him asking whether he had received my letter. This got his attention, but unfortunately he was in such a hurry to get back to me (or more likely, his researchers were) that he forgot to actually answer the questions that I had asked him in my letter and email. This got me slightly miffed to say the least, but I was unsure of whether this merited any kind of complaint. But as I was pondering the pros and cons of retaliation, my friend Jonathan Lindsell / Jaime Lynch-Staunton (he goes by many names…) posted this blog in which he explains that Jeremy Wright wrote to him about a recent consultation on prison Sentences for Dog Attacks Causing Injury or Death. The problem is that Jonathan didn’t write to him about dog attacks. Jonathan wrote to him about the Anti-social Behavior, Crime and Policing Bill. (You can read Jonathan’s extremely accessible critique of the bill here – and I strongly recommend that you do, given his overriding complaint is that the bill ‘represent[s] a genuine threat to UK freedoms, not least the right to protest and right to assembly’.) The response I received from Jeremy was far less insulting than the one endured by Jonathan, but it seemed to me that it committed the same sin: It completely ignored the questions being asked. As such, I was moved to write an open letter to my MP – not to provide material for a blog, but because this is an issue that concerns all of us, and this is one of the few forums in which I can raise my concerns publicly. If our democratic representatives fail to engage with us then they are not taking the necessary steps to provide a fair and just representation of our needs and interests. As such I present my letter below for your consideration:
Dear Mr Jeremy Wright MP,
I wrote to you on the 25th of July about the Syrian conflict. I asked whether you supported provisions for an end to the crisis through international, peaceful diplomacy – specifically, whether you would write to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague urging him to make the Syrian peace conference, Geneva II a reality. I know you are extremely busy, but as you state that you aim to reply to all letters and emails within 10 working days, when I had not heard back from you over a month later, I decided to email you asking whether you had received my letter. You then replied very quickly. What I received in response was a detailed letter outlining your reasons for voting in favour of military intervention in order to remove the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, if necessary. Whilst I appreciate the swift response, I am slightly troubled by our correspondence for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the letter I received from you is dated the 3rd of September. However, I emailed you on the 9th of September. The problem is then, that either your letter was backdated, or else, this date was carried on from the entry on your website (from which your letter was copied and pasted). In itself, this is a simple and excusable mistake. However, it is emblematic of your failure to actually engage with the issues I raised in my original letter, and leads to my second concern: Rather than responding to the specific issues that I raised, you replied with a generic response detailing the answer to a question I did not ask. The main body of the email I wrote to you read as such,
I wrote to you some time ago about the conflict in Syria. I appreciate that you are very busy, but I have yet to hear from you. I have a fairly good idea of your position on the issue based on how you recently voted in parliament, but it would nice to know whether you received my message.
Whilst I referenced your vote in parliament, I was not seeking any kind of explanation of why you voted as you did. What I did ask, is whether you received my original letter. And although extensive, your reply actually failed to answer this very simple question. I can only infer that you did not receive it, given that your reply focused on something I only mentioned in my later email (the vote in parliament which had not taken place at the time I wrote the letter) and because you did not say whether you would write to William Hague (what I had originally written to you about).
The reason that I write to you today then is not to discuss Syria, but to urge you to enter into an engaged and responsive dialogue with your constituents. I do not expect you to carry out whatever I ask of you – clearly this is not the way that a democracy works. What I do expect though, is for you and your staff to take the time to actually listen to what I am saying, and to respond to the specific issues and requests I raise – even if it is only to say that you disagree with me or that you are not willing to oblige me in my requests. Indeed, in the past you have acted in this way; agreeing to meet with me, and sending cabinet members campaigning materials you yourself did not endorse, but recognised as your democratic duty to pass on in my name.
I am aware that you are extremely busy, and I am not so naïve as to think that you have the time to personally respond to all letters and emails – however, I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect you and your staff to respond properly. I write this as an open letter precisely because I recognise that this issue extends beyond my own concerns (indeed, I understand that you recently replied to a friend’s enquiries about a potential limitation of freedoms with a letter about dogs). As such, I ask that you provide an acceptable quality of correspondence not just for myself, but on behalf of all of your constituents.
On your website and in your letter to me you write that,
At the outset, it is worth recognising that Prime Ministers are not obliged to consult Parliament before taking military action and the urgency of some situations might prevent it. Not every Prime Minister would have sought a Parliamentary vote on such an issue as this and indeed few have done so in comparable circumstances in the past but the Prime Minister chose to recall the House of Commons and submit a motion for debate. I think he was right to do that.
I urge you to see that just as it would have been wrong for David Cameron not to enter into a process of rational discussion and deliberation with parliament, it is wrong for you to ignore your constituents’ attempts to engage with you in thoughtful and sincere dialogue. I hope you will take the time to reply more carefully in future.
Benedict Peter Veasey Walshe