Writing to your MP & departments – with a view to getting a decent answer

I have written this blogpost for the benefit of Members of Parliament and constituents alike.

I became aware of UKUncut shortly before Puffles appeared on Twitter. As a member of the PCS Union at the time which had indicated it would be supporting UKUncut, I submitted an article on how to lobby politicians. This is a refreshed version of that article but may be of use to those who want to get in contact with your local MP for whatever reason.

You have the constitutional right to lobby your local MP on issues that affect you. Your MP has a constitutional responsibility to handle constituency issue of all his or her constituents – irrespective of how they voted.

For the ministers that I have worked for, all of them have underlined the importance of their responsibilities to MPs. One of the key conventions of our Parliamentary democracy is that MPs are able to hold ministers to account on behalf of their constituents. (Hence why every department has divisional “league tables” regarding the efficiency of handling ministerial correspondence).

If you want to write to your MP, use the simple tool at http://www.writetothem.com/ Alternatively, have a look at http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/ The first thing to remember when writing to an MP is, irrespective of the issue, to keep your correspondence polite. You wouldn’t respond to rude letters and emails, so why should they? Hard-pressed constituency offices will more often than not ignore long and “shouty” correspondence.

When writing to your MP, you should do so with the premise of:

  • Asking a question on a constituency or personal issue
  • Asking your MP to undertake a specific action in response to a constituency or personal issue.

To increase the chances of your letter getting a response, consider setting it out as follows:

  1. Salutation (e.g. Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms)
  2. Introduce yourself a. I am … b. I live at [insert name of address – this confirms to your MP that you are a constituent]
  3. State why you are contacting him or her [I am concerned about X,Y,Z]
  4. State how this issue is affecting you and/or your family
  5. Ask the question/s or state the action you wish to be carried out (E.g. “Please can you advise me on what I should to regarding…” or “Please could you write to the minister responsible asking him/her for a response on this issue)
  6. Closure (e.g. Yours sincerely)

Similar formats apply to your local councillors when writing on an issue that involves the delivery of public services by your local council. In a nutshell, the easier you make it for the administrative staff of your elected representatives, and for the latter themselves, the more likely you will get a response.

If you are interested in further information and insights on the processes, continue reading…

MPs and their hard pressed staff receive thousands of pieces of correspondence every year – that volume having increased as a result of increasing accessibility due to email, the internet and social media in particular. Therefore if you can set out your letter or email clearly, it will increase the likelihood that it will be acted upon.

In terms of holding ministers and departments to account, the most effective forms of correspondence are ones that enable MPs to place what is in effect a covering note on top before forwarding to the relevant minister or department. This is particularly useful for MPs who may have a special interest in a given issue, but with an 85 hour week when Parliament is in session find themselves with little time to focus on that issue. In a nutshell, you provide them with the questions (that have been fully researched and evidenced) and they get the answers from those in power.

In paragraphs 2-5, your MP and his/her staff need to be able to identify a) that you are a constituent, b) that the issue you are raising is one that they might be able to have an influence on, c) that the issue is one that is having an impact on or is one that reasonably concerns you & those close to you, and d) that the questions that you are asking are reasonable ones that will produce constructive answers. If they can get through those in a matter of minutes, a covering letter can be drafted by your MP’s admin staff, signed by your MP and whisked off to the department responsible very quickly.

When you and your MP’s letter arrives at the department, it is logged and cascaded to the policy team that has responsibility for the issue you are writing about. At this stage, the minister responsible will not have seen the letters. But before it gets to the civil servant responsible for drafting the response for the minister’s approval, the letters have to be read by the departmental correspondence unit, the senior civil servant responsible for the policy area and team leader responsible for the particular issue before policy officials will set to work drafting a response. Hence your letter needs to be clear to all of these people too.

As for policy officials (similar to what I used to be), in general they LOVE getting correspondence like this. (My view is that any official who doesn’t is in the wrong job). If anything, it shows that someone is taking an interest in your policy area – even though it might be a view contrary to that of your minister. Having a set of well-researched and challenging questions I think makes the job of a policy officer worth doing. There’s little worse than having to deal with a poorly-researched rant where you have to use a microscope to try and identify the question being asked.

In my experience, most of the delays in responding to MPs’ correspondence is due to the challenge of finding which is the correct department, division and policy team to handle the specific piece of correspondence. I have wandered many-a-mile in the Whitehall jungle to try and find who is best placed to respond to MPs’ correspondence. I never liked chucking stuff back at the system for some other poor soul to deal with the issue – every extra day stuck in the correspondence system was one less day for the policy team to research a decent response.

I also spent a few days helping out in a correspondence unit responsible for allocating the several hundred letters and emails that my old department received on a daily basis. (There were more than a few classics but no, I’m not going to divulge!) It was that experience that made me wonder why no department had put guidance out for people on how to write to your MP or to a department of state with the purpose of getting a factual and useful answer back. So this is my short attempt to make up for it until someone does.

If you can write your letter that makes it easy for people working in a correspondence team to identify who needs to answer it, you are more likely to get a speedy, concise, factual and useful reply.


8 thoughts on “Writing to your MP & departments – with a view to getting a decent answer

  1. I think this is cultural capital at it’s worst. If a letter or email is ‘shouty’ it may be due to circumstances to choose – not to answer will just exacerbate matters. Ministers and their officers should not be answering mail based on whether it’s phrased as they like or has the correct tone.

  2. This is true, but if it just rambles and I can’t make out what the point or question is then I’m afraid I’m likely to just copy and paste the standard lines and hope for the best.

  3. As an employee of the constituents who employ him/her we have a right to expect the individual concerned to act appropriately on our behalf.

    Admittedly the message could sometime be sweetened but usually by the time someone has got to the point of approaching an MP/Councillor the situation is nearly at meltdown.

    The main problem is that MP/Councillors are usually so full of their own hubris that they cannot engage with there constituents.

    Other issues arise with the party 1st constituents 2nd that they all have, to summarise you have very little chance of fully engaging their attention no matter which tack you take so have a good rant and dont take a blind bit of notice of this patronising article.

  4. Useful advice – a similar approach benefits those making FOI requests. To those who say that MPs/Ministers should answer come what may- you’re right in principle. But in practice a polite, well researched letter/email will result in useful answers. Rants/generalisations/confused letters/emails tend to result in neither party getting what they want. Not because anyone is deliberately reacting to your tone – though that can happen – but just because it isn’t clear what outcome you’re looking for.

  5. A good and useful post – as fellow Whitehall traveller, anything that helps explain how we work is a good thing. We try and answer everything, shouty or not, but it helps us a lot if a letter is focused.
    However, I feel you’re missing one point: most people write directly to the relevant Minister themselves as they believe this is more direct. They don’t realise that the vagaries of the system mean their letter will then be allocated to an official who will respond directly to the correspondent, without the Minister even seeing it. If you want a Minister to see your letter, and the response, ask your MP to write on your behalf.

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