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MPs work for us – do they?

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LAST Friday, new anti-virus restrictions were imposed on a number of areas in England. The guidance (on which ministers have since backtracked) was published online without a public announcement; the slide into a ‘Simon says’ regime is bound to happen when you have to report to the House of Commons only every six months. Parliament is failing to safeguard our liberty, and this shines a spotlight on MPs’ responsiveness to constituents.

A month has passed since I wrote to my MP asking her to put a question in the Debating Chamber, urging more frequent reviews of pandemic rules. Conscious that newspapers and politicians scorn those who write to them as being generally ill-educated and semi-lunatic, I added a touch of humour, scribbling on the back of the envelope, ‘This communication is also available in green felt tip.’ Even so, no reply; and the law does not insist that there should be one.

It’s bad enough when your MP ignores you, but sometimes it’s worse when they don’t. Like Peter Hitchens, who worried about it in this week’s Mail on Sunday,  I have been concerned for a long time about the destruction of our savings by inflation.

The Con-Lib coalition took over on May 11, 2010; Cameron’s PPS wrote to Cabinet Ministers that ‘the Prime Minister wants to ensure that the Government as a whole is giving the highest priority to addressing the cost of living’, yet on July 19 National Savings and Investments (NS&I) stopped issuing Index-Linked Savings Certificates (ILSC) for the first time since 1975. The latter were briefly made available again in May 2011 and the window re-closed in September.

I emailed my then MP, asking him to raise the matter in Parliament. Instead, he promised to write to the Treasury and got a response from its Commercial Secretary Lord Sassoon which was a two-page tissue of irrelevancies. My question was about the duty to protect savers who shouldn’t have to gamble on the stock market to keep pace with price rises (note that today the FTSE is still bumping around the 7,000 mark it reached in 2000, and that it approximately halved twice in the intervening period – 2003 and 2009). The noble Lord wittered on about inflation coming down, fuel duty increases being deferred, incentives to save via ISAs and pensions, the Money Advice Service etc. Apparently ILSC had to be withdrawn because there was so much demand (er, a message from the public there?) and in any case the scheme was to help government finance (not ours, it seems.)

I emailed my MP in March 2013 to register my dissatisfaction with that reply and to ask for an oral question at PMQs or Questions to Ministers, noting:

·       the British Government creditworthiness has been downgraded by Moody’s;

·       the pound has dropped;

·       inflation looks set to rise further, especially for imports.

I wrote: ‘May I also draw your attention to two passages in Hansard from 1975 (esp. Michael Neubert MP and Lords Lee and Jacques) that make it perfectly clear that Government recognises the moral obligation to protect the value of savers’ money?

The MP replied:

‘I tend not to do Oral questions. They don’t have any real effect on government policy and it is a lottery as to whether you have the opportunity to ask one.’

So much for PMQs in general, then. Or is it relevant that the MP’s party (LibDem) was then sharing power with the Tories, and so a pointed question had the potential to embarrass one’s friends?

Still, he invited me to work with his researcher to frame a question. Having given the latter more information and background to explain why the issue mattered, I received a massive waffly draft question of 157 words offering maximal wriggle-room for the Minister. I can’t think an MP’s researcher is stupid, so I suppose he thought I was.

I persisted, and got a written answer from Sajid Javid MP (July 8, 2013):

‘National Savings and Investments (NS&I) purpose is to provide cost-effective debt financing to the Government by issuing and selling retail savings and investment products to the public.

‘In meeting this objective NS&I follow a policy balancing the interests of their customers, the taxpayer and the stability of the wider financial services market. In line with this remit NS&I do not anticipate new sales of Index-Linked Savings Certificates this year.’

I submit to readers that the ‘balance’ here is like that between two thieves and their victim.

I asked a second question about the threat of bank bail-ins and the reply from Greg Clark MP made reference to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme’s £85,00 insurance limit for depositors, without addressing the point that in the Cyprus bank crisis of 2012-13 the latter originally faced partial loss of even their insured deposits.

My MP was kind enough to explain it all to me: ‘What they are basically saying is that they don’t want to issue any more index-linked debt at the moment. They are also saying the 85K is safe.’

I was kind enough to respond: ‘I understand that. Please don’t think that you’re the only grammar school-educated boy in South Birmingham. I also have a degree in English from Oxford.’

With pushing, a further reply from him, with a request for me to supply him with the 1975 Hansard references again: ‘I accept that there are issues about access from time to time. I will write to the minister about this. The table office are very picky about how questions are put to ministers and normally edit them.’

Poor, sensitive table office! On receipt of the links, he then said:

‘I will ask [my researcher] to put these points to the minister with the suggestion that a small number of index-linked bonds should be made available with a limit as to how much any one person can hold.’

Why he took it upon himself to qualify with ‘small’ and ‘limit’, I don’t know. So grudging! Not that even this got an official response (if it was sent at all). So, after more than a year, I got nowhere.

They work for us, do they?

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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