Mark Lancaster-fromthehouse: Scribbling on the coalition’s to do list

Mark Lancaster
Mark Lancaster
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IF you don’t ask you don’t get. That is the general rule with questions, and none more so than Parliamentary questions – one of the most useful tools at MPs’ disposal.

Avid watchers of the BBC Parliament channel – if there are any such people – and constituents that my team and I have been helping – there are many such people – will be aware that I recently had a record run of Parliamentary questions. Within four days I managed to pose six questions to six different Ministers. Considering there are 650 MPs, that is a fair bit of Commons airtime.

It takes its toll on your muscles, standing up and sitting down repeatedly until you ‘catch the Speaker’s eye’. This really is the legwork of a politician; because when you do get your turn, PQs, as they are known, are the oral equivalent of scribbling something on the Government’s ‘to do’ list.

All my questions were based on issues brought to my attention by constituents: from our broadband black spots to school admissions crisis; from vacant land to the minimum wage and train overcrowding. Quizzing the Prime Minister about capacity building in Afghanistan was even prompted by lobbying by a group of Afghan constituents.

Despite sitting on the other side of the Chamber now as part of the coalition, I am delighted to continue holding the authorities to account on behalf of Milton Keynes. For example, I very much welcomed education secretary Michael Gove’s announced changes to schooling and the curriculum, but I wanted him to also heed the admissions chaos we have in the city.

These PQs are not posed in isolation. For example I am following up the admissions issue by applying for a debate on the matter. The Leader of the House also hinted at granting us a debate on broadband problems following a question. The Citizen has kick-started a fantastic campaign over this and I hope to draw the Government’s attention to it when the debate comes up, as well as proposing how the deficiencies can be resolved.

Moreover, since the Coalition reformed various quangos – including development body Milton Keynes Partnership – there has been uncertainty over who will own the public land in the city and determine its future. I posed this question to communities secretary Eric Pickles, inviting a delegation to the city to discuss the future options. He accepted. (Here is a tip: if you are inviting someone to do something, do it in the House of Commons Chamber – it makes it hard for them to refuse.)

It is vital we ask such questions of the Government. One good example is an issue that was sadly brought to my attention by Rachel Clark, who volunteers for the MacIntyre charity. There, staff with learning disabilities were given an allowance of £2 a day as a ‘therapeutic allowance’. This was greatly appreciated – but then suddenly stopped. While I would never support an Act that could encourage unscrupulous employers to exploit their employees, this was certainly not the case in this situation. This is a grey area in the law which has hitherto been overlooked, and I was pleased to see this therapeutic wage reinstated last week.

On one particularly prolific day, I concluded my question ‘hat trick’ by representing our frustrated commuters, positing how we can ease overcrowding on the mainline. This activity wasn’t just a one-week wonder: I was back in the Chamber the following Tuesday asking the health secretary how he will address inequalities in life expectancy, as we see a staggering discrepancy of 12 years between estates.

So it is no surprise that it is not just my legs that ache now but also my voice, which, understandably, has gone a bit hoarse.

> My Parliamentary appearances are regularly uploaded on my website, www.lancaster4mk.com, where you can also find my contact details and dates for my next surgeries.

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