My recent spat with Lib-Dem Bill Newton Dunn over voting rates (covered in BBC Political Correspondent John Hess’ blog) has attracted some comment on Twitter, and I’m particularly concerned by the mistaken assumptions and, frankly, the ignorance of the comments with regard to the work which an MEP actually does. At least @LorraineJohnson was courteous about it: “Curious to know how you do spend your time if its not in the voting chamber?”. I replied “Too long for a Tweet — see my April Newsletter”. She came back “Will you tweet a link?”. Lorraine — this is for you.
@PSPLeeWoods, on the other hand, went straight for (what he thought was) the jugular. “Let’s be honest, a real job requires 100% attendance! You’re overpaid and both lazy. No excuses”. Actually, Lee, I’m paid less as an MEP than when I had a proper job — I took a salary cut when I was elected — and I don’t think I’ve ever worked quite so hard in a fifty-year career. But don’t play the violins for me. I enjoy it.
Of course voting is important, which is why I prioritise it, with a participation rate well above average. That said, it is only one aspect of a complex and multi-facetted job. Other things are important too, and MEPs (like MPs) often have appointments three-deep and can only attend one at a time.
In the case of euro-sceptics, we can rarely overturn the in-built majority of Europhiles in the parliament, so arguably voting should have less priority in our work, and indeed a number of my colleagues believe they can do more for the interests of their constituents by campaigning and educating the public in their regions than by voting in Strasbourg.
I pointed out to Lee that although Nick Clegg attacked Nigel Farage’s voting rate, his own is only half of Farage’s. Lee replied: “Does that make it okay to have a poor attendance? because Clegg has a poorer attendance record? Unbelievable”. No Lee. My point was simply that party leaders have other calls on their time, and that applies to Farage as it does to Clegg. Or Cameron, whose rate is 17%. But he comes back again: “Voting is a big part of it and an 88% attendance level is poor, REAL workers have to give 100% or face the sack”. OK Lee. And ignore the other parts of the job?
I was amused to note that despite Newton Dunn’s wholly specious criticism of my voting rate (which is way above average), I have made more than three times as many speeches in plenary as he has (37 against 11). And I’ve tabled 102 parliamentary questions against his 71. Neither statistic is a better measure of overall work rate than voting participation, but maybe he ought to bear them in mind. This comment elicited a new voice in the debate, Matteo Adduci, who said “You also drafted 0 reports & 0 opinions in 5 years. What a performance!”.
OK Matteo. But as eurosceptics are in a structural minority, you can guarantee that any report I might write would be gutted and filleted in committee by the pro-Brussels majority to the point I’d be ashamed to have my name on it — so why start? We have a better chance to achieve change by voting on amendments than by drafting reports for the majority to bowdlerise.
If you’ve followed me this far, you may be asking “OK, so what do you do?”.
Following committees, speaking and voting, and following some pieces of legislation. I’m on the Industry/Energy Committee and on Unemployment, but I freely admit that as UKIP Energy spokesman I focus on Energy, and rarely attend Unemployment. As energy spokesman, I also cooperate with the Whips on voting lists for relevant reports.
Meeting constituents and industry and constituency groups: This last week, for example, I met a representative of the Thalidomide Trust concerned at the lack of compensation for victims, and a representative of the BMA, to talk about the impact of some aspects of EU regulation on the medical profession and on healthcare in Britain. These are issues which are of obvious concern to constituents.
Attending briefings and conferences: This week I attended one of our periodic Coal Round Tables, which bring MEPs and the Industry together. I also attended a briefing on the Commission’s new energy proposals for 2030 (and spoke to the Commission in my capacity as UKIP Energy Spokesman) I attended a Financial Services lunch debate chaired by Vicky Ford MEP. And I attended and addressed the EU-Ukraine Business Council, following the Crimea referendum, and set out our view of the issue. I frequently attend meetings and briefings organised by the European Energy Forum, where I have learned a huge amount about the industry, and had the opportunity to work with other MEPs from other groups interested in Energy. (Bill Newton Dunn says “UKIP MEPs never work with others to achieve their objectives”. But the trouble with Bill is that be believes his own propaganda).
Relations with third countries: I received an up-date on the situation in Bangla Desh from the Ambassador of that country. I also regularly attend meetings of the Korea Interparliamentary Delegation (having worked in Korea for several years in the early ‘90s).
Media: I do frequent media events. This week I gave an extended video interview to two media studies students from Southampton, who needed it for their project. I participated in the BBC Sunday Politics debate pre-record, which led to the spat with Bill Newton Dunn (who casually arrived 50 minutes late, keeping three MEPs, several staffers, a video team and the studio waiting). This morning, back in the UK, I visited BBC Radio Lincs and did an extended interview on a number of topics.
Communications generally: MEPs are frequently criticised for failing to inform voters about what they do. But we have a Press Office, issuing releases that frequently achieve coverage. We write letters to the press. We provide articles and op-ed pieces as required. I have a web-site, www.rogerhelmer.com, and this blog. I use Twitter intensively @RogerHelmerMEP, currently with 5000+ followers. I do a monthly electronic newsletter (send me an e-mail and I’ll put you on the list) and I talk to interested citizens and voters when invited to do so. Last night I did a public meeting in Derby (straight from the airport) and at 8:45 this morning I was at Christ’s HospitalSchool in Lincoln to speak to (and take questions from) sixty or so young people.
Correspondence: We get around a thousand e-mails a week, plus paper mail. Fortunately my staff can deal with a lot of this, but there’s an irreducible minimum I need to do myself.
Administration/management: Again, my staff handle most of this, but nonetheless I’m responsible for it. And the bureaucracy in the parliament is certainly time-consuming, if not mind-numbing.
Oh — and of course we also vote! I find I get rather better pre-vote briefings in UKIP than I recall getting as a Conservative. All this of course is in addition to oversight of a UK office and UK staff, and my responsibilities for party matters in the East Midlands.
You may well think that the European parliament in general, and MEPs in particular, are useless and not worth the money. And I might agree with you. I’d vote the parliament out of existence tomorrow if I could, and my job with it. But I won’t have either Bill Newton Dunn or Lee Woods telling me I don’t work hard enough. Judge for yourself.