Someone asked me the other day why MPs use the term advice surgery. Well, I replied, we do give advice but we’re not doctors. But that’s not how one person saw it.
The first person who turned up at my very first advice surgery as a councillor many years ago sat down at the table, put a paper bag in front of him from which he carefully removed bottles of medicines and then asked me if he was taking the right tablets for his condition. He was crestfallen to discover that I was not in a position to give him any advice at all!
When I was first elected as an MP just over 20 years ago, to the previously familiar problems people had come to see me about – pavements, parking, schools and housing – were added new things like tax, benefits, immigration and foreign policy.
It’s the part of my job which is only seen by the person who has come to seek my help and by my constituency office team. It isn’t easy to unburden yourself to someone you have only just met, and sometimes the real problem doesn’t reveal itself until several minutes into the conversation. The most important thing I can do is to listen and to ask questions to get the information I need to try and help.
People come to see their MP for all sorts of reasons. They may have a problem that they haven’t been able to solve on their own. They may have written countless letters and had no reply. The problem may be urgent. They may be in a state of desperation. And from time to time, as the story comes out and the burden is shared, the person who was smiling when they came into the room starts crying. Often they will apologise for doing so, at which point I gently tell them about one of the only two rules I have in my surgery – “Nobody is allowed to apologise for anything” – which sometimes raises a smile amid the tears.
My other rule is to say that I cannot guarantee to solve your problem but I promise to try. I think that’s very important because it puts the relationship I have just formed with someone on an honest footing. And with the help, determination and professionalism of the wonderful team in my office, we have helped thousands of people over the years.
Some cases are relatively straightforward. Others take hours of work, including lots of phone calls. Good news may come in a letter in response to one we wrote, and occasionally, it’s a constituent who tells us when they walk into my surgery with a huge smile on their face instead of the furrowed brow I have been used to seeing.
I suppose in some ways there is a similarity between the work of a GP and an MP. We both see people who are troubled by something. We both give advice. And we both prescribe; in the case of a GP a medical prescription and in mine a letter or representations to the council or the minister.
The thing about being an MP is that you are given a voice on behalf of the people you have the privilege to represent. I know that when I write or raise something, someone in power will feel they have to respond. And that means I can get answers on behalf of people when they can’t.
Doing advice surgeries is a very important part of my role, and at times I feel really angry about what has happened to the person sitting in front of me. But my job is to turn that outrage into help and action on their behalf.
When my father finally decided to step down from Parliament, he was asked what he would miss most about the job. He replied “my advice surgeries”.
I know exactly what he meant.