I've blogged previously on the fairly predictable response by our readers to Keith Vaz's open letter in the Leicester Mercury last Saturday, but I've been back to re-read the letter because there was a part of it that was bugging me.
While I don't agree with much of what he threw at the Mercury - he says we have been unfair and claims to have answered our questions. I, along with the majority of our readers, disagree. Although we know what he spent money on, he has not explained why he thought it right to spend it other than to say it was within the rules. For me, one of the most telling lines in the letter was: 'All MPs get the same budget. It is for them to decide how they spend it.' Is it a budget?
Anyway, that's an ongoing debate which I don't want to get bogged down in today. The issue hasn't gone away - readers are still writing to me about it and I expect we'll see it reflected in next week's election results.
The point I want to pick up on in this post is the one that Mr Vaz makes about our lack of coverage of the work he does as an MP. He says this:
"In the last nine days I travelled to Amsterdam to visit Europol, chaired a European conference on human trafficking, published a 400-page report on the subject, chaired a series of meetings with Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha veterans, spent three days lobbying ministers to agree to the Gurkhas being given rights of settlement, interviewed the Metropolitan Police commissioner and spoken eight times in Parliament."And that, of course, is on top of any work he did as a constituency MP.
He has a point. We didn't cover any of that.
It is easy to dismiss it as 'not local', as Mr Vaz acting in his capacity as a national politician, of more interest to the national press than his local paper. But that's not entirely fair. Mr Vaz is very active compared with most MPs - in the past year he appears to have spoken in 75 debates, asked more than 246 written questions and he sits on two select committees, including the Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs.
I can find Mr Vaz talking about, or asking quesitons about, Leicester in the House of Commons almost 30 times so far in 2009. In May alone, I can find these:
- A quesiton about the number of children suspended in Leicester schools following racist incidents (if I read the answer correctly, far fewer than in the rest of England)
- Urging the Government to pay attention to professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, Alec Jeffreys, when considering changing the rules on the retention of DNA samples by the police
- A question about the number of independent and internal investigations into the NHS in Leicester - no answer was given.
- A question about the number of care homes in Leicester operated by local authorities and private enterprises, and the number of people over 60 years old in them
- A question asking for the number of people in Leicester diagnosed with schizophrenia and being held in secure hospitals
- A question on the number of racist incidents recorded in Leicester schools. The Government replied that the data was not collected, but promised to consult on whether schools should be forced to record the data
- A question on how much public money funds third sector organisations (charities, vluntary sector, not for profit organisations) in Leicester and Leicestershire
- A question on the number of third party organisations in Leicester - the Government doesn't know
As a standalone question, it is difficult to see what Mr Vaz was getting at with many of the above, but you have to assume there was a purpose behind the questions and I think he has a point when he says we haven't given him enough coverage.
Don't get me wrong - I don't think that we have treated Mr Vaz unfairly in our coverage on his allowance claims. Apart from anything else, we have twice handed over pages to him to have his say, unedited by us. On each occasion, our readers have reacted with anger at what he has said - it is easy for him to blame the messenger, but, on this occasion, I am afraid people really didn't like the message.
But, having said all of that, I don't think we are giving over enough space to the work of our MPs - and I suspect Mr Vaz will be amongst the most active. I'm going to talk to our newsdesk and our lobby correspondent to explore the possibility of doing a weekly column which rounds up what the MPs are up to.
What do you think, would it be interesting?
And given our article yesterday about the fact that nobody can even name our Euro MPs, perhaps we should be looking at them too!