'Bedlam': MPs receive masses of emails daily in clamour for coronavirus answers
MPs have described a dramatic rise in their workload since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis with traditional casework all but falling away.
In a situation compared to hospitals seeing a drop in attendances at A&E for ailments unrelated to Covid-19, parliamentarians have reported a plummeting in non-coronavirus queries.
With some saying that to begin with they were receiving more than 1,000 queries a day, it has never been a busier time to be an MP, but representatives said they were still there for all queries.
“I’ve never had so many queries where I’ve thought, I just don’t know,” Colne Valley Tory MP Jason McCartney said.
“The ministerial channels are so busy, it’s the busiest I’ve ever been. I genuinely am working every day and constituents will see that they’re getting messages from me on Sunday evenings, at half 11 at night, because it’s people’s health, it’s people’s livelihoods, it’s people’s welfare.”
Labour’s Holly Lynch, MP for Halifax said there was an “initial tidal wave of enquiries”. She said: “Now what we’re starting to see is that Government made these bold statements about people who they were looking after but they’re almost now that the details are coming out there’s a little bit of backtracking in one or two areas.”
Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake said he was receiving “three to four times as much correspondence”.
The Conservative said: “It is exceptionally busy, a whole range of different issues but almost exclusively related to the current crisis so that might be anything from Universal Credit, to being furloughed or furloughing staff, to business interruption loans.”
Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker described the first few weeks as “bedlam”.
Many politicians had been dealing with constituents stuck abroad - “Yorkshire people are well travelled,” joked Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis - and others had been consumed with supporting local businesses.
Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, said: “It was absolutely mad for the first couple of weeks, I mean really mad, now it has quieted off a bit. We spent a lot of time doing two key things - one, helping businesses and two, helping people who are between jobs.
“I was personally ringing up companies about the furloughing and offering to help them, so that sort of trickles along now.”
Mr McCartney said: “One of the local pubs emailed me saying it’s too late, don’t bother replying, but we just wanted to let you know our grant’s come through and so then I can go to bed knowing there’s at least a couple of my constituents who will have a better night’s sleep than the previous few days.”
Mr Hollinrake said there were still some gaps to fill with business interruption loans.
“So I’m feeding that back to the Chancellor and the Treasury to make some changes,” he said.
“Initially, with the business loan scheme there was a personal guarantee required, there were lots of delays and the Chancellor came in to fix them.
“There's been other measures brought forward such as help set out purely for the individual self employed, and there's a furlough grants for businesses, all those things have come as a consequence of the Chancellor’s good work, but also lots of MPs like myself pushing to make sure we meet some of the challenges that businesses are facing.”
In Dewsbury, Tory MP Mark Eastwood had set up a business owners Whatsapp group which he said was “working fantastically well”.
He said: “All we do is we keep relaying messages so for example when the job retention scheme went live, I made sure over the weekend I kept reminding businesses they need to apply. But it means it gets filtered around quite quickly.”
Some MPs had been pushing back against councils restrictions on funerals, while others had been more occupied with sourcing personal protective equipment for hospitals and other health and care staff.
Mr McCartney said Kirklees council had changed their policy of allowing no mourners at services.
“I and other MPs asked for a rethink, and thankfully they have rethought,” he said.
Mr Shelbrooke said he was in the process of submitting a question to the Communities Secretary on the Government guidance surrounding funerals, as he said he thought LEeds City Council’s approach was “wrong”.
He said: “I think that they’ve gone way beyond Government advice, you don’t have to ban people going in and I think they’re just looking at it as a numbers game, I think they’ve totally lost the perspective of people mourning and needing to say goodbye.
“They’re created a situation where somebody may get taken ill and they have to leave the house, and then that’s the last time they ever saw somebody and they can’t even go to the funeral. People need the ability to have some grief pathway.”
While Huddersfield MP Labour’s Barry Sheerman said: “I’ve had my team trying to ensure that every care home tells us if there’s a problem.”
He said the supply chains had gone “into meltdown”.
“I’m trying to get hold of Matt Hancock,” he said, to put the Department of Health in touch with contacts in his constituency who could help.
Mr Whittaker, who earlier in the week called for Yorkshire MPs to come together to organise protective equipment from local manufacturers, said: “I’ve been quite involved with the local resilience force chairman the chief executive of the hospital about PPE.”
However what particular matter they were tackling, all agreed the situation was unprecedented.
Don Valley Conservative MP Nick Fletcher said: “Everybody has got their own story and it’s affecting every person in a different way.”
Mr Fletcher, who owns Analogue Electrics in Doncaster, said he was able to use his contacts to find out how different sectors were impacted.
He said: “You need that context first, to figure out how the industry is working and what it’s struggling with and take it from there.”
Mr McCartney said: “None of us have ever been through anything like this before.
“When someone says this will cover 95 per cent of people I immediately think will the five per cent soon be in touch? And if you’re talking about a million people five per cent of, say, a million workers is a lot of people. And that’s the challenge.
“But it’s also things like speaking to the boss of the local children’s hospice a couple of weeks ago, hearing about their challenges, I was able to feed that through to the Cabinet Office minister the next day, other MPs were doing the same and that helped put some pressure on the Chancellor to come up with the £750m package for charities.”
Mr Shelbrooke said: “We’ve been sending huge amounts of correspondence into the relevant departments, we’ve not been getting replies but then you see the tweaks being made so obviously it’s all going in and being analysed.
“One example was including estate agents in rateable values, so they were seen as service rather than retail, so we had to get those changes made.
Mr Shelbrooke added: “What’s interesting is the spurious emails that we normally get tonnes of have completely dried up.
“The sort of 38 Degrees [a not-for-profit political-activism organisation website where people can send automated emails on issues to their MPs] stuff and the lobbyists, it was busy at first but that’s dried up almost to nothing now, so I think people have bigger things to worry about.”
But Mr Shelbrooke said the crisis showed why the process of debating changes to the law often seemed drawn out to the public.
“What you’ve got is a good example of when people say ‘oh what do MPs actually do?’. Well normally when you have a piece of legislation going through it goes through roughly a nine-month process and of course we really scrutinise it on the floor, at committee stage especially, we wrinkle out problems, we have probing amendments which the opposition bring forward, the Government brings its own amendments and then when you get the legislation coming out it’s smooth.
“What’s happened here with having to react so quickly to put things in place, there’s been lots of grey areas and issues we’ve had to get advice on and sort of close loopholes and make it easier for people, so it’s been quite a good example of the work that Parliament usually does.
Mr Jarvis, who is also Mayor of Sheffield City Region, said although the priority now was the health impacts of the crisis, his attention would also turn to the economic recovery.
He said: “There’s a huge amount of concern about the economy, the economic recovery is absolutely crucial.”
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