“People write about many things”
AND THEIR M.P. REPLIES
How Mrs. Margaret Thatcher's duties are shared between her constituency and the House of Commons
The “Finchley Press” has pleasure in presenting the first of a series of special articles by Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, Member of Parliament for Finchley and Friern Barnet, who since her entry into the House of Commons following the last General Election has become a national figure.
Mrs. Thatcher's contributions to matters of moment began even before she took her Parliamentary seat, when she was rapidly introduced to the country by way of radio, television and the Press.
Whilst many new MP's are said to be “introduced to Parliament” , in Mrs. Thatcher's case it was said with truth that “Parliament was introduced to her!” This arose from the impact of her maiden speech in which she presented the “Press Bill” , a unique initiation into the House.
Her sound views on a variety of topics, not only political but appealing to the mother and housewife (she is both) make her today a sought-after speaker at hundreds of events.
In short, Mrs. Thatcher has put Finchley and Friern Barnet “on the map” but although her activities take her to many parts, her constituents find—by correspondence or personal interview—that she still puts their interests first. Evidence of this is revealed in the first of her articles, by the careful thought she gives to individual problems emerging from her constituency. Mrs. Thatcher writes:
“It is nearly a year since I was elected to represent the people of Finchley and Friern Barnet in Parliament, and I should like to report to them through the Finchley Press about my activities on their behalf.
Correspondence: A considerable part of each day is spent in dealing with constituents' correspondence. People write about many things:—
First: They ask me to raise cases with a Ministry or with the local council. In this group of letters the difficulty of finding good housing accommodation predominates. As far as Council property is concerned I have no jurisdiction over the allocation of houses or flats. This responsibility is placed by Act of Parliament upon the local authority; my function is limited to putting through an enquiry about any particular case.
Second to housing difficulties are pensions. The regulations governing entitlement to retirement pensions, widows pensions and ex-Service pensions are complicated and often confusing, but are readily sorted out by the Ministry in response to a query. The hardest cases of all are those which are just on the wrong side of some borderline. For example a woman who was just under the age of 50 when her husband died is not entitled to a widow's pension after the initial few weeks of widowhood. Moreover she has to pay the full weekly contributions to National Insurance if she is to get a retirement pension at 60. I should like to see some change in these regulations.
Pension problems have only a short lead over Town Planning protests, which are growing monthly. The initial responsibility there again lies with both the local and County Councils, but Middlesex may turn down a plan approved by the local council, or vice versa. In any event an appeal lies to the Minister, and, as we have seen in the last few days, a public enquiry may be ordered before a decision is reached. Alternatively the Ministry may look into the matter without such an enquiry. When an application reaches the Appeal stage I either write to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, or sometimes seek an interview with him if an exceptional point is in issue. The official returns show that the number of appeals made to the Minister is rising annually. Last year out of 5,673, slightly more than 3 in every 10 were allowed.
Next in order of importance, judging by the number of letters I receive, are complaints about the running of buses and Underground rail services by London Transport. Questions cannot be asked at Question Time in the House of Commons about any of these, but the Members of Parliament can write to London Transport with a request that the complaint be investigated. Judged by experience of the past year the constituent is rarely satisfied with the reply.
At the present time repairs and developments are being carried out on some trunk roads in the Constituency and there are plans in hand for more. While these are generally welcomed by the motorist they are often fiercely criticised by those whose properties are adjacent or whose land may be affected by the scheme. This is one of the occasions when there are obviously two sides to the question and the persons against whom the decision goes are naturally aggrieved.
Other letters have raised queries about the operation of the National Health Service, divorce laws, and the question of key money on entry to a flat.
Secondly: People write to let me know their views on particular topics. It may be a subject that is to be debated in the House of Commons or one that has hit the headlines in the newspapers, or one that the writer feels strongly about. For example I receive letters about the abolition of the means test on parents in connection with grants to students, apartheid in South Africa, the future of the white settler in Kenya, the liability in the event of an accident of dog owners who allow their dogs to stray on the roads, whether the cost of education should be barne in full by the Exchequer and not in part by the rates, a simplified alphabet, the Wolfenden proposals on homosexuality, noise abatement with particular reference to noisy neighbours and also motorcyclists, reform of the present intestacy laws, vice in Stepney, why certain films are passed by the Film Censor, relations between the police and public, the differing sentences imposed by magistrates courts for similar offences, drugs on the National Health Service for private patients, why legal aid makes no provision for paying the costs of the defendant who suceeds against a legally aided plaintiff, pollution of rivers and estuaries, caravan sites for holiday purposes, taxation of married women, Government grants to the Arts, etc., etc.
In the past ten months I have written some 1,970 letters on behalf of constituents, taking up their cases and replying to their views. This takes no account of the many letters I have received and answered from other parts of the country and the Commonwealth. My own Parliamentary Bill also involved over 600 letters.
Interview Evenings. I hold an Interview Evening at 267 Ballards Lane at least once a month, and sometimes twice. These are for constituents who want to see me about their personal problems. I start at 6.30 pm and continue until the last constituent has been seen. Usually there are at least 10 people who come in during the course of the evening, and often more. Some of these cases are most distressing, and one is often able to put the people in touch with one of the voluntary organisations who can help them. Here I must pay tribute to the Finchley and Friern Barnet Councils of Social Service who are always ready to assist. Anyone who wants to see me urgently can always do so either by 'phoning the Conservative Office at 267 Ballards Lane (HIL 4292) for an appointment, or my Secretary at the House of Commons (WHI 6240, Ext. 579). People who work in London often prefer to come to the House of Commons on their way home.
House of Commons: When Parliament is in session the daily round is very busy. Committees to consider Bills meet on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 10.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. A new Committee is appointed to deal with each Bill. I have been on four such Committees in addition to my own Private Member's Bill Committee, of which I was in charge. Question Time in the House begins at 2.30 pm and lasts for an hour, and general debate follows from about 3.30 pm until the day's business is concluded—sometimes as early as 10.30 p.m. but sometimes very late indeed. The business of the week is not announced until the previous Thursday so we do not know very far in advance which Bill is to be brought forward or issue debated.
Visitors to the Galleries are often puzzled why so few Members are present in the Chamber during the middle of Debates. It is because so many other things are going on at the same time. A series of Committees meets each evening between 4–7 p.m. They may be addressed by well-known men and women visiting this country. For example, Mr. Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister, spoke to one such meeting, and Mr. Mboya, Dr. Hastings Banda to others. Alternatively Ministers of the Crown may come to hear Members' views on a subject about which legislation is going to be introduced or about which a Royal Commission has reported. Or again scientists may come to explain the technicalities of projects upon which Government money is being spent. One is also expected to attend and speak at a large number of functions in the Constituency, and here a conflict of duty sometimes arises. I like to be about the Constituency as often as possible, but have sometimes had to leave an important Debate to do so. On one such occasion I received a sharply critical letter asking why I had not voted on a particular issue!
Tour of Homes
When the House is not sitting one has to get through an accumulation of reading matter, to spend more time in the Constituency and to pursue more thoroughly topics which have been raised in letters. In a week or two's time I hope to do a tour of the homes of people who have written to me about rent increases. I am at present trying to gather as much information as possible in preparation for the debate which is to take place when the House reassembles. I should like to have the following facts about any particular rent increase:
(a) The rent and rates in 1939.
(b) The rent and rates immediately after the Rent Act. 1957.
(c) The rateable value now—this is on the Rate Demand Note.
(d) Proposed new rent, the length of the new lease and any onerous terms thereunder; whether inclusive or exclusive of rates.
(e) Whether any similar property in the vicinity has been sold (either leasehold or freehold) on the open market recently and what price it fetched.
From time to time I shall be writing further articles in the Finchley Press devoted to matters exciting public interest in the Constituency.