Constituents often ask, if and when they tune in to the Parliament Channel, why so few MP’s are sitting on the green leather benches. Like children going round London Zoo, spectators are disappointed if the exhibits are not all on view. “They’re having a rest, darling,” may not be the appropriate excuse for the rare species of which I am a member.
We all have our alibis “I was serving on a Committee prescribing the maximum length of a turkey’s claw” – true, believe it or not. Or we are pretending to be Perry Mason, grilling someone on a Select Committee, or showing a school round the Palace of Westminster. Quite often, we are following the debate, but doing so on the television in our offices. Our intellectual capacity is sufficiently developed to be able to follow the thrust of a Ministerial argument in the Chamber, while at the same time ringing the Tax Credit MP’s Hotline to find out why the Revenue have not paid someone the money due to them. (The Revenue are culturally unable to give out money; their whole philosophy is to rake the stuff in.)
To correct the impression that MP’s are not interested in the debates, it has been proposed that, where an MP is following the debate in absentia, a hologram of him or her should appear on the bench where he normally sits, indicating to his constituents that he is following the debate in virtual mode.
But let me explain why I am not always in my place.
If you want to speak in a debate, which may typically last for three hours, you have to be in the Chamber from the minute the debate starts. (If you aren’t, you won’t get called to speak.) You then have to sit through the opening speeches for at least an hour, then wait your turn. You may not ever get called. If you do, as a courtesy, you have to listen to the two people who follow you; and you have listen to the two final speeches at the end of the debate, which hopefully pay tribute to the incisive intervention from the member for Hampshire North West. So we are talking about three hours of time which might be put to more productive use.
Earlier this month, I was in my place, trying to catch the Speaker’s eye in a debate on local taxation. As I sat there, a messenger in a morning suit, and a medallion of Hermes round his neck delivered a note. (OK, so the place is not entirely in the XXth century). Meridien TV wanted to interview me about feudal rights and Newton Common at the top of their 6pm news programme. I turned them down
So what happened?. Some Japanese tourists who happened to be in the Public Gallery had the good fortune to hear my views about a local income tax (I am against it) and a few people who had tuned in to the Parliament Channel were similarly blessed. But millions who were watching the Regional news were robbed of the member for NW Hants . And my speech was overlooked by Yesterday in Parliament.
So there you have it. Three hours for little exposure or three minutes for a lot. It’s a no-brainer.