Tom Richmond: We must decide what kind of MPs we really need

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WHO do you contact if you have a housing benefit query? Your MP? Local councillor? Or a local advice centre?

An acquaintance did – and they were given the runaround. They tried their councillor who put them in touch with their MP.

A Parliamentary researcher sent them to the CAB who, because of pressure of work, advised them to write to their councillor or MP.

It wasn’t satisfactory, but my point is equally serious: what is an MP’s role in contemporary politics?

For, after the Commons vote on military intervention in Libya, MPs voted themselves a pay freeze. They frankly had no choice, given the expenses scandal and the spending squeeze.

Common sense prevailed, even though I firmly believe that it is the system of allowances, rather than the basic pay, that was allowed to spiral out of control.

Yet this is not just a Westminster phenomenon; it has happened at town halls across the land where a new political class of councillor views their duties as a paid vocation rather than voluntary public service.

Given this, and the cost implications, a reappraisal of the role of MPs and councillors should actually precede any decisions on electoral reform – or cutting the number of Parliamentary boundaries. One should follow from the other.

And, rather than tinkering and hoping the issue will disappear, it needs to be tackled decisively.

Should the casework aspect of public life be done at a local authority level – while MPs concentrate on being legislators in the national interest?

I ask this after watching the intervention of Kris Hopkins, a former soldier and the ex-Bradford Council leader, in the Libya debate.

He used his military experience to question the “end game” in Tripoli and the role of the United Nations.

He said: “Let us hope that the positive responses from the United Nations are a sign of something to come because, fundamentally, it is the weakness of United Nations members that has created so many international disasters in the past.”

It was a profound point – the type more MPs should be making, so they can genuinely influence the national debate, instead of becoming even more entrenched as de facto social workers, and without the time to consider matters of such importance.

And, if this did become the priority, it might mean that Westminster politicians do not require so many support staff to assist them – and that Parliament may become more appealing to those talented people afraid to stand for election at present.

Either way, the status quo is no longer serving the public interest.

ONE of the abiding news stories of 2011 remains the police search and manhunt that followed the discovery of the body of architect Joanna Yeates in Bristol.

As well as uniformed police, TV reports showed dozens of forensic officers scouring the neighbourhood for clues. The Home Secretary should take note.

For, in maintaining the pretence that “front line” police jobs should be preserved, Theresa May is effectively saying that these scientific support staff, and others, are of secondary importance.

They are not. They are as vital as the detective leading a major missing person’s inquiry and such like.

Perhaps Ms May would like to reconsider after the Home Office decided, after months of procrastination, to reveal its definition of “front line” in response to a Freedom of Information request.

It said: “There is no formally agreed definition; although these are terms in relatively common use across the police service.”

When Ms May next speaks, perhaps she could enlighten police chiefs – and the law-abiding public – on her definition of “front line”, and how she expects it to be applied during the spending squeeze.

WHEN will Northern Rail appreciate that they are in the business of serving the public and, where possible, getting the trains to run on time?

Last December, its chief operating officer, Steve Butcher, promised passengers “up-to-date” information following public anger over the “on time” trains that never arrived on popular commuter routes serving Leeds.

On January 17, after a colleague encountered problems at Menston Station on the Wharfedale Line, Butcher said the PA system fault would be rectified “within three weeks”.

Imagine the same colleague’s frustration on Friday last week when trains at Menston were being advertised as “on time” when signalling difficulties at Ilkley meant there were delays of 30 minutes or longer.

Given how a parcel can be electronically tracked through the postal system, surely it is possible to monitor trains – and then provide accurate information to passengers awaiting the arrival of the service?

Either way, it continues to bemuse me that Northern Rail remains in the dark ages over customer care when organisations, like Welcome to Yorkshire, are imploring visitors to use public transport as part of its tourism agenda.

The firm’s latest excuse/response (delete as appropriate) is awaited with interest.

For what is the point of espousing train travel when such operators have such a cavalier disregard for the notion of public service?

STOPPING at a new hand car wash centre in Leeds, I was – again – struck by the ethnicity of those working there. A Lithuanian. A Kosovan. A Pole. And others.

They certainly worked hard for their fiver – and the queue backed out on to the main road. But why were those employed Eastern Europe?

Are they being exploited because they are cheap labour – or could it be that they’re more willing to undertake such work, however menial, than their English counterparts?